Imperial, pre-decimal measurements of weight and volume

weights - imperial measures

For markets to work, there needs to be a common standard for how weight, volume and length are measured. Prior to 1965, shops used a set of standards introduced in law in 1824 defining pounds for weight, pints for volume and feet or yards for length. Subdivisions were given their own names. In even earlier times, there was little or no standardisation with different areas of the country using their own definitions. This page introduces the old weights and measures, showing how unwieldy they were.


By the webmaster, based on childhood observations and additional research

In 1965 the government redefined the system of units to be used, replacing pounds with kilograms, pints with litres and feet with metres. This had - and still has - the advantage of tying in with many countries throughout the world and making calculations easier. This page is about the previous Imperial system.

Strange imperial units in past times

In the past there were some quite strange definitions for some units. The 'inch', for example, was at one time defined as the length of 3 barley seeds placed end to end. Also, and more practically, it was defined as the width of a man's thumb.

In the times covered by this website, the imperial units were defined by the Weights and Measures act of 1824, which gave the basic unit of length as the yard. This was defined as the distance between two marks on a bronze bar stored in the House of Commons. Unfortunatly the House of Commons burnt down a few years later in 1834 and so a good copy of the original bronze bar became the new standard.

Other units of length in use before decimalisation include: the thou, inch, hand, foot, yard, chain, furlong, mile and league.

How shops weighed and measured their goods in the early 1900s

At the time of my mother's childhood recollections of the early 1900s, relatively few goods came ready-packaged from manufacturers. Shopkeepers normally weighed or measured out their goods themselves.

How shopkeepers sold their goods

Goods were sold by weight, volume, length, or per item, depending on what they were.

Foodstuffs were generally sold by weight in pounds (written as lbs) where 1 lb = 0.453592 kg.

Larger units were used for heavy items like coal (which was delivered to the door), and smaller units were used for lightweight items like the powders dispensed by chemists.

To speed up sales the shopkeepers weighed out frequently-requested goods into bags while the shop was closed, using balance scales which worked by balancing the goods against known weights or on spring scales which worked by compressing a spring which moved a dial. There were a number of different types of scales based on balancing goods against weights, and also different types and ranges of weights, all shown on the scales page.

Commonly used weights in the early 1900s:

16 drams = 1 ounce (oz)
16 ounces (oz) = 1 pound (lb)
14 pounds = 1 stone (not abbreviated)
112 pounds = 1 hundredweight (cwt)
20 hundredweights = 1 ton
2240 pounds = 1 ton

This system of weights was known as the Imperial system.

There were always, of course, customers who needed goods weighed out to order while they waited. Consequently waiting around and queuing to be served was a normal part of shopping. No-one seemed to mind. The women - as it was invariably women who did the shopping - knew nothing else, and it gave them the opportunity to indulge in social chit-chat without feeling guilty that they ought to be at home doing housework.

Pricing goods of non-standard weight

There was a clever system which let shopkeepers appear to price goods instantly in their heads.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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