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A Brief History of Weights and Measures

By Mark Lovisa

Have you ever wondered why oil is measured by the barrel or land by the acre? Many units of measure have come and gone throughout history, and more continue to develop to this day as new, unique commodities are created. The ultimate direction of development today seems to be global standardization to accommodate global trade across global markets. As we’ve witnessed throughout history though, the real driver behind these changes is a mutual feeling of fairness and equity in transactions.

Humans have been buying, selling, and trading valuables throughout our entire existence. The rise of agriculture, however, allowed civilizations to literally put down roots, stay in one place, and build stores of goods like grains, wine, olive oil, and salt. Over time, technological improvements in agriculture in stationary societies increased the overall diversity of goods in existence and, along with climate, caused commodity specialization.

Various societies specialized in different goods unique to their location and technical ability and began to create reputations for these unique goods. Civilizations began to depend on each other for the trade of different specialized goods and even sought each other out for certain commodities. Historically dyes, spices, and different types of grains drove this trade, much of which we can still see today. All this trade amongst separate and competing groups required a method of valuing different types of goods to produce fair and equitable transactions.

With no global currency and, in some places, no currency at all, trade values grew out of perceived fairness and natural scarcity. How much would a barrel of wine be worth in grain or salt or tools? Evidence of the use of weights and measures dates as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, as well as in the Bible. In fact, the ancient Israelites refer to false balances, scales, and just weights multiple times throughout scripture. Fair trade was central to their existence.

Although we can see that ancient societies made great efforts to utilize accurate and fair weights and measures practices, by the Middle Ages, the world only had a mish-mash of imprecise, unreproducible standards based on anything from an animal’s average workability to the measurements of various royal body parts. In 1215 the English produced the Magna Carta, which would grow to define liberty in Western Civilization, but it also gave the world its first, large-scale standardization of weights and measures. As the British built a global empire over the next several centuries, the principles of that standardized weights and measures system were exported around the world.

Weights and Measures were formally introduced in Louisiana in 1912 according to the Federal and state laws relating to weights and measures (third edition). Here is an excerpt from Sections 1-3 in 1912 regarding ice wagons:

Sec. 1 (1912). Ice wagons to be equipped with weighing devices. That dealers in ice who employ wagons, trucks, cars etc., in delivering ice to consumers shall equip such wagons, trucks, cars etc., with scales or a mechanism for accurately weighing the ice when actually delivered to the consumer, and that such weighing device shall be so located as to be open to public view.

Sec. 2. Unlawful to overcharge. That it shall be unlawful for any dealer in ice to charge and collect for a greater amount of ice than the amount actually delivered to the consumer.

Sec. 3. Penalty. That any person, firm, association or corporation found guilty of violating any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall pay a fine not exceeding fifty dollars or be imprisoned not over thirty days, or both in the discretion of the court. Stats., 1920, Vol. 1, p. 805.

An early ice wagon near DeRidder, Louisiana.

Today we enjoy a diverse but generally accurate and very precise system of weights and measures in the United States. Our measurement standards, established by the Constitution, are adopted by federal law and through various international treaties. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) houses the physical standards on which all state-operated metrology labs base their own in-house standards. State labs then use those standards to calibrate service agency and state inspector field standards, which are then used in the field to test and set the calibration of all commercial devices.

Even though we don’t use the Metric System in everyday life here in the US, we do take part in defining those standards. The kilogram was redefined in 2019 based on Planck’s constant, and the meter was recently redefined based on the speed of light in a vacuum. These new definitions allow the standards to remain unchanged, precise, and always reproducible.

Consumers in Louisiana can rest easy knowing that the LDAF Division of Weights and Measures is on the cutting edge and ensuring equity in the marketplace every day.

Weights and Measures Historical resources

1. Brief History of Weights and Measures, 1957 thesis:

2. Federal and State Laws Relating to Weights and Measures (third edition)

3. Final State of the Report on Weights and Measures, [4 July 1790]

4, NIST Weights and Measures Standards: