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Weighing things in pre-digital times:
'pairs' of scales

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Victorian or Edwardian scales for weighing letters and packages for posting, late 1800s-early 1900s

Delicate scales for weighing letters and packages for posting. From the private collection of Anne Vincent.

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 Edwardian times, if not before.

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The principle of weighing out goods

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 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 arduous 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 photos.

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 possible.

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.

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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 efficient use.

Early 1900s scales suitable for weighing out grain, as used by corn chandlers

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.

Tea merchant in the early 1900s carrying the pan of scales suitable for digging out tea from a sack

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.

Early 1900s shop scales suitable with a flat marble pan suitable for weighing out butter and cheese

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.

Early 1900s shop scales suitable with a flat china pan suitable for weighing out butter and cheese

Early 1900s scales suitably shaped for tipping out goods into a much smaller receptacle.

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, early 1900s, showing the mechanism for balancing the arms

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.

Scales and weights as used for baking in the 1940s and before

Believe it or not, my mother did all her cooking and baking with scales like these. That was in the 1940s and 50s. The scales were inherited, so would have been Victorian times

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Types of weights

General purpose brass stacking 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.

old, heavy brass weights

Heavy duty brass weights.

Weights for delicate work

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.

56 pound iron weight with integral lifting handle

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.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.