After looking at our complex system of money and coins in  Spending a Penny, I have to look next at the old units that have largely disappeared. The decimalization of money was a complete change at a single point in time (Sunday 15 February 1971) whereas the later move to metric measures has been slow and hesitant, almost unnoticed by the public. For children at school, metric units are now standard. Back in the fifties we had the more complex Imperial system.
Diaries and the inside covers of exercise books used to show all the tables – including rods, poles, perches, bushels, pecks and others, all too obscure for a mention here.
For cooking ingredients and recipes, we used pounds and ounces, with sixteen ounces to a pound. (Of course we did a lot more cooking then without pre-packed ready meals.) A pound weight, written ‘lb’ was always different from a pound sterling money, written with the £ sign. Ounces were written as ‘oz’. We weighed things on our kitchen scales.
In the picture above the larger weights (black) were for 2lb, 1lb, 8oz and 4oz; smaller one were for 2oz, 1oz, ½oz and ¼oz. It was effectively a binary system as 8oz was ½lb and 4 oz was ¼lb.
Packaged goods were also sold by weight and that’s how we pictured weight. Two pounds was a bag of sugar, one pound was a jar of jam or marmalade (now 454 grammes!), half a pound was a slab of butter and a quarter of a pound was a packet of tea.
(Labelling was more imprecise in those days. There were not so many regulations about showing weight or contents. A loaf of bread was a loaf, it was never weighed. I think large loaves were always 1lb 12oz, so small loaves would have been 14oz.)
For larger weights then we had 14 pounds to one stone. These have stubbornly remained when weighing people but, to my knowledge, were never used for anything else. They manage without stones in the USA. Here we would say someone weighs 12 stone 5, or 18 stone 6. (12 stone 5 is 12×14+5 = 173lb, but no-one in Britain would understand 173lb) We use stones in dieting to lose weight as well. You would always say “I’ve lost two and a half stone,” never 35 pounds. None of this has changed since the fifties.
(Midwives now have to weigh new-born babies in kg, but these figures are ignored. The first thing they do is to convert into pounds and ounces for the mother and everyone else. When you announce a birth, you always have to say how much the baby weighed. Our new Princess has just been announced, with a weight of 8lb 3oz.)
For heavier weights the old tables used to say that 2 stones are a quarter and 4 quarters are one hundredweight (cwt). We never used quarters as weights. We did use hundredweights (112 pounds) for coal. It was delivered in hundredweight bags carried on the backs of the coalmen. (‘Coalmen’ may not be politically correct now but they were always men!)
Then 20cwt make one ton. We bought coal by the ton. You could count the bags to make sure that there were twenty emptied into your coal bunker. By a very nice coincidence the metric tonne (1000kg) is very close to an old ton.
The tables always showed four gills to a pint, two pints to a quart, four quarts to a gallon and a few higher units. But we only really used pints and gallons. Milk was delivered in pint bottles. Draught beer at pubs came in a pint glass or (for the really wimpy) half-pint. Petrol came by the gallon.
Other liquids in bottles just came by the bottle, not generally labelled as a specific volume. Bottles of wine were about the same size as now, between one and two pints. Bottles of beer were called ‘bottles of beer,’ in a volume somewhat less than a pint. A bottle of beer in a pub would not come in a pint glass but it was not a half-pint glass either. Cider often came in two-pint bottles. There was, of course, no such thing as a bottle of water. Water came out of taps.
(With no regulation, no-one had any idea what volume was used for ‘shorts’ in pubs – spirits such as whisky, rum and brandy. You just bought a whisky or a double whisky. When standards were introduced in 1963, pubs could sell as ¼, 1/5 or 1/6 of a gill. Now it’s metric – 25 or 35 mm.)
Unlike the USA, where all ingredients in recipes are by volume, in Britain we normally use weights. We use liquid measures for liquids. For anything below a pint we had a half-pint, quarter of a pint and then fluid ounces (fl oz) with 20 to a pint. As now, we also had tablespoons, dessert spoons and teaspoons.
[Not sure of this but I think the word ‘quarter’ for ¼ is unused in the US. They use ‘fourth’ for ¼, which would not be understood in the UK.]
While almost everything in the UK is now measured metrically, by kg or litres, draught beer by the pint in pubs remains a special circumstance. Petrol only changed from gallons to litres when it went over £1 per gallon and the machines had to be changed. It soon went over £5 a gallon!
(In another attempt to keep to what we know, fuel consumption is still always quoted as miles per gallon, even though petrol comes in litres.)
We used feet and inches, with twelve inches to a foot. (An inch is about 2½ cm and a foot is almost exactly 30 cm.) At school we had a 12-inch ruler marked in half inches, quarter inches, 1/8 and 1/16 inches – so we didn’t need decimals or mm. Rulers were, of course, made of wood. Things were sized in inches using these binary fractions – shirts were neck size 14”, 14½” etc., hats were 6”, 6 1/8. 6¼ etc.
(It’s hard to show how things were different when, for almost everything, old people like me still think in feet and inches. I know that one foot is near enough to 30 cm if I ever have to convert to metric distances. I know that schools now teach metric units so I assume that my younger readers need some explanation of our ancient ways.)
Measuring people’s height in feet and inches is like weighing them in stones and pounds. We still do it, while using metres for almost everything else.
While we might have measured floor-space in feet, anything much larger was done in yards, where a yard is three feet. (Shops that sold carpets had difficulty when metric measurement came in. They showed prices in square metres, but they used to show the price per square yard in larger figures. People assumed that the units were quite close but the figure for square yards always made it look cheaper.)
There were supposedly intermediate units like chains (22 yards) and furlongs (an eighth of a mile, only used in horse racing) but anything less than a mile was measured in hundreds of yards – unless it was half a mile or a quarter of a mile.
Athletics race tracks had a circumference of 440 yards, a quarter of a mile. The first time an athlete ran a mile in under four minutes was a dramatic occasion in the sporting world. It was four laps exactly on a track of cinders (without modern running shoes). The modern record, in very different conditions, is under 3 minutes 45 seconds. One mile remains as the only officially recognized non-metric distance for running. Modern tracks are 400 metres in circumference.
There have been some attempts to modernize distances on road signs but conversion from miles to km would be far too expensive. It would involve changing every sign. You may note that modern motorways have slip road warnings at 2/3 mile and 1/3 mile rather the generally used halves and quarters. The 2/3 mile is a km, and 1/3 mile is half a km, but they cannot say that yet!
I won’t say much about area. There is a metric unit called a hectare but for land we stick resolutely to acres. An acre was the amount one man could manage in one day with one ox. This land has a length of one furlong and a width of one chain. A furlong, or ‘’furrow long’ is the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. The chain, invented in 1620, was a metal chain of 100 links used as a standard in surveying.
We now have the European standard for paper sizes, where the length is √2 times the width. Most common is A4 at 297 by 210 mm. (My HP printers refuse to believe this. They consistently reset it to the US standard Letter size, nominally 8.5 by 11 inches, or216 mm x 279 mm.)
I still fondly remember our old paper and our old paper size, foolscap 8½ by 11½ inches. From the Fifteenth Century, foolscap paper was made with a watermark showing a fool’s cap – like a jester or a joker in a set of playing cards. (Paper was sold in quires and reams. Now it comes packed as 500 sheets!)
Temperatures are only really used by the public for weather forecasting and in medicine. Until the late sixties we used Fahrenheit. With our half-hearted metrication we moved to Centigrade, now called Celsius, by a very slow process. For several years, television weather forecasts used both scales. I think some older people still think in Fahrenheit. Back then we used mercury thermometers to measure air temperature.
We also used them in medicine. We used to stick a fragile glass tube containing highly poisonous mercury under the tongue. (Health and Safety. Never heard of it!) Everyone knew that 98.4 F was ‘normal,’ and over 100 was feverish. Now the desired figure is 37 C as shown in the picture.
At school, we used feet per second for speed, and feet per second per second for acceleration, and needed to convert sometimes to miles per hour. (30 mph is 44 fps) With metric units things like this are now simpler. The same was true with energy. We found the value of a calorie in terms of joules by experiment. In metric units a joule is simply a definition (a newton-metre). We had to use pounds weight instead of newtons.
There were many other units for particular situations or in scientific contexts. Some are still with us. We had horsepower for power, BThU for gas meters. (Electricity used to be KWhr as it is now.)
The legal situation in the UK is fairly complex with miles and yards retained for road signs, mph for speeds. (Units like miles, pounds, pints are now defined as a precise metric equivalent!) Draught beer is still delivered in pints. Most other things are metric – even if a 1lb jar of jam is now 454 grammes!
Horses are still measured in hands (four inches). Fonts are still given in points (1/72 inch). We still measure the weight of diamonds in carats (where 1 carat is 0.2 grammes), and the purity of gold in carats. (Different unit! 24 carats = 100% gold.) Distances at sea are still nautical miles (not quite the same as miles) with speed in knots (nm per hour). Depths at sea are not now usually measured in fathoms.
While calories are no longer used in scientific measurement they remain stubbornly in use for food labelling. We now have joules but figures for calories are also given. Perhaps this is the inertia of people knowing what the old figures meant. Perhaps the lower calorie figure sounds less fattening than lots more joules!
[US readers will be totally confused. Some of their usage is still like our old system but their gallon is different and they use hundreds of feet rather than hundreds of yards. They still keep to Fahrenheit. But then Americans have yards where we have gardens! When I come to look at language, many changes will be attributed to Americanisation.]