The 19th century saw an improvement in the accuracy of scales and balances, with many new types being sold for use in the home.
At the beginning of the 19th century, only tradesmen would have owned a set of
balances. A hundred years later, a well appointed Edwardian home would have had at least two, one in the kitchen and another for letters. Today, scales and balances offers a fascinating and diverse subject for the collector, as they range from rudimentary souvenirs of domestic and commercial life to precision scientific instruments. Most scales can be classified under four types: beam-scales, steelyards, counterscales and spring balances.
The beamscale, with pans hanging from each end of a beam suspended from its centre, was known to the ancient
Egyptians. By the 18th century a sophisticated and accurate version had evolved which had a beam mounted on a central pillar that stood on a flat surface or was fixed to a solid base. So that the beam could move freely, it was poised on a knife-edge, or fulcrum, fitted on top of the pillar.
The principle of the unequal-armed beam, or
steelyard, was also known in antiquity. The goods to be weighed were hung from the short arm, and a heavy weight, known as a poise, was moved along the long arm until it balanced. The weight of the goods was then read off a graduated scale marked along the top of the beam. Steelyards were better adapted to weighting heavy materials than beamscales and were widely used in agricultural markets.
The counterscale, a more robust version of the beamscale, was developed in the 19th century. The pans were placed above the beam, and supported on vertical legs. The lower ends of the legs were joined by a stay which was equal in length to the beam. In larger models, used in shops and market stalls, the stay was cased in a metal base; this was usually made of black-painted cast iron, but sometimes of brass.
Spring balances do not, paradoxically, balance at all, but determine weight by measuring the compression or extension of a metal spring. The compression type usually has a weighing pan mounted above the spring, while in the extension type, the goods to be weighed hang underneath.
The first successful spring balance was developed at the end of the 18th century by the Salter brothers from the West Midlands. The spring was cased in a brass tube and attached to a hook from which goods were hung. The weight was shown by a pointer moving up and down a vertical slot against which a scale was marked.
Postal scales were introduced in 1840 along with the Penny Post. An open-framed counterscale, made of brass and mounted on a polished mahogany base soon became the standard type. However, postal spring balances with a flat pan on top became popular in the later 19th century.
Kitchen scales were not used before the end of the 18th century, but by 1861 were at the head of Mrs Beeton's list of essential equipment. Victorian cooks used either beamscales or counterscales, but at the beginning of the 20th century G Salter & Co produced a spring balance with a weighing pan on top and a pointer that moved around a dial on the front. Attractive and versatile, with no weights to get lost, these were the most popular kitchen scales in the Edwardian era.
GROCER SCALES COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Many postal scales incorporate a list of postal charges, giving a clue to dating. A reference to postcard rates points to a date after 1870, while parcel rates were charged only after 1883. The minimum rate then went up from 1d to 1 1/2d in 1914 at the beginning of World War 1.
Other British-manufactured scales can be dated from the lozenge-shaped design registration mark they carry. As a general rule of thumb, any foreign scale marked with the country of origin was made after 1890. From this date, trade scales had to be passed by the British weights and measures office, whose impressed mark can be found under the beam. From 1907 trade beamscales were marked Class B (high sensitivity, used for items such as fine silk and jewellery) or Class C, intended for tobacco and cigarettes.
Printed makers' labels were stuck inside the lids of box scales from the 17th century onwards, and an undamaged authentic label adds value. Box scales usually incorporate recesses for weights, though these are often missing. Complete sets are difficult to find; the smallest weight in the set is often absent.
All beamscales and counterscales came complete with a set of weights. Postal counterscales came with a set of graduated stacking weights, typically 8oz, 4oz, 2oz, loz and 1/2oz, set in recesses in the base. Early domestic scales and commercial counterscales had weights shaped like truncated pyramids, sometimes with a ring in the top. This type and cylindrical or bell-shaped weights are generally more collectable than disc weights. Commercial weights carry the stamp of the weights and measures office.
Brass postal and money scales are often reproduced, but can usually be spotted by their unnaturally shiny, unworn appearance; the weights pan particularly should show signs of wear. Cast-iron kitchen scales, also much reproduced, were often painted over to match the kitchens they were used in; the original black finish is usually preferred by collectors.
With beamscales, check to see there are no chips on the knife-edge or bearings, and no hairline cracks in the beam. If the pans are glass or ceramic, avoid chipped or cracked examples; unless the piece is
particularly rare or desirable, the value will be affected.