Before digital weighing machines were developed in the late 1900s, goods were weighed on weighing machines,
also called 'scales' or 'pairs of scales. I remember them from the 1940s, but they were certainly in existence in Victorian and
if not before.
The principle of weighing out goods
Delicate scales for weighing letters and packages for posting. From the private
collection of Anne Vincent.
The weighing worked on the simple principle of
balancing the goods on one side of an arm against standard weights on the
other side. There were, though, different styles of weights and scales for different
purposes. The photograph on
the right shows scales for relatively light-weight use, for weighing letters to
establish the correct postal rate. Probably all Post Offices before
digitalisation had something similar.
Shopkeepers needed to work out prices in their heads, but the calculations were not particularly
because it was normal practice to sell in simple fractions or simple multiples of a
pound (or whatever was the appropriate unit of weight for the goods).
It was necessary for the scales to be set to balance properly, so that the shop was not seen to
be selling under-weight.
Equally shopkeepers would not want to be giving away more than they were
charging for. So there was an arrangement on all scales whereby a small weight could be
moved slightly one way or the other along the arms of the scales to balance
up each side. Unfortunately it tends to be rather difficult to see in the
In practice, shop scales were normally too rough and ready for perfect
balance, or maybe the shopkeepers had to work too fast to bother. Either way, it was normal practice for
them to give customers the benefit of any doubt by putting just
too much on the customer's scale pan and giving the customer time to
register that this was happening. Presumably there was a skill in making the 'just'
as small as
Weighing machines based on extending or contracting springs were not used
much, if at all, in shops in the early 1900s. They were probably not thought
necessary as customers always bought standard weights at standard prices per
pound or per ounce.
However scales based on springs were
in general use in shops by the 1950s.
types of scales
for specific purposes
The following photos show more types of scales. All are designed
for specific purposes, with their pans specially shaped for
The pan of these scales is ideally shaped for digging
into a sack of loose material, like grain, and would have been used by corn
chandlers. Photographed at Tilford Rural Life Centre.
A tea merchant in the early 1900s carrying the pan of scales suitable for digging out tea from a sack.
Detail from a photograph in Farnham Museum.
The 'goods' pans of both these scales (above and below) are flat and easy
to clean, making them suitable for weighing out fats and cheese - although
in practice a fresh piece of greaseproof paper was placed on the pan for
each customer in which their purchase was later wrapped. The pan
shown above is marble and the one below is china. Photographed at
Milestones Museum in Basingstoke and the Museum of Nottingham Life.
Scales ideally shaped for tipping out goods into a much smaller receptacle.
Such scales would be suitable for greengrocers when
selling vegetables directly into customers' bags and for women when weighing out ingredients for
baking. From the private collection of Angela Leahy.
Scales using a sliding weight system as well as standard
weights. The sliding weight could be moved along its own arm fitting into
notches, as a quick way of weighing out smaller weights like ounces. From the private collection of Angela Leahy.
Types of weights
General purpose brass stacking weights.
Most of these photos of scales also show the weights that
were used with them - generally round brass or iron ones that
stacked for tidy storage.
There were also heavy duty weights that incorporated handles for lifting, and there were extremely
delicate weights which were used by
pharmacists for making up
prescriptions. The delicate weights were stored in air-tight boxes
to avoid contamination from the air. They were shaped with 'necks and heads' so that
they could easily be grasped with the tweezers that were stored with
them to prevent greasy fingers from altering their weights. The
following photographs were taken at
Milestones Museum in Basingstoke.
Heavy duty brass weights.
Weights for delicate work, like weighing out
powders in a pharmacy. These weights were kept in an air-tight box
with special tweezers for handling them.
A 56 pound iron weight, perhaps not surprisingly used as
a door stop..
Scales suitable for weighing out sweets are on the
sweet shops page.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.