Measurement on the Farm

Standardized measurements an essential part of farm operation

An early zigzag-style folding rule

An early zigzag-style folding rule made by Keuffel & Esser Co., New York.

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From the time of the hunter-gather culture to an agriculture-based society, there has always been a need to measure. Everything on the farm required measurement. Before land could be sold, it was measured. Before the crop was sold, it was measured. Anything being built required measurement. Animals were weighed, another measurement. The question is, how was all that measurement accomplished? What tools were used to take all those measurements? 

In the beginning, there were no standardized measurements as most if not all measurements were taken using different body parts. The foot, 12 inches; the span, from index finger to little finger, 9 inches; the thumb, 1 inch; nose to outstretched arm, 1 yard. In time those units were standardized as each kingdom used the length of the ruler’s body parts as the standard of the realm. In the late 1700s, more than 500 different units were used to measure length, weight and volume. The metric system changed most of that. Today we use either the U.S. Customary or metric system with a few odd measures thrown in.

Carving up a country

Measuring land in the U.S. was a monumental task. As land was opened up from the Atlantic Ocean westward it was surveyed or measured using a surveyor’s chain. The surveyor’s chain is four rods (also called poles) long. Each rod represents 16-1/2 feet, thus the standard length chain measured 66 feet.

Land is measured in sections of one square mile, each made up of 640 acres. A common division of the section is eight 80-acre tracts. Eighty acres is the equivalent of 160 rods by 80 rods or 1/4-mile (1,320 feet) by 1/2-mile (2,640 feet).

The early farmer had to build a cabin and barn or stable. Structures were built using a 10-foot pole, thus the old saying, “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.” Shorter measurements were still taken in body parts, such as feet and thumbs.

Standardized measurements

By the 1850s, the first real advancement in measurement in hundreds of years began to unfold. The Industrial Revolution was underway in the U.S. Machine-made rulers were being stamped, usually by hand, to universal standards.

The standard ruler was a 24-inch folding device that could be carried in the pocket. These rulers were also available in varied widths and lengths ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet.

The zigzag-style folding rule was invented in 1900. When folded, it was short enough to fit in the pocket. Although some measured 4 inches when folded, most were 6 inches. Available in 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, 6- and 8-foot working lengths, the zigzag rule made it much easier to measure length. These rulers came in white or yellow color.

Advent of the tape measure

The last major change in length measurement came in about 1930 with the invention of the flexible ridged tape measure. Patented in 1922 by Hiram Farrand, the flexible ridge tape first reached the market in about 1926 and soon became the standard measurement tool for length. Stanley Tool Co. purchased Farrand’s company in 1931 and began to mass-market tape measures.

Initially measuring 6 and 8 feet, these tapes were extended in the 1950s to measure 10 and 12 feet. By the 1970s, 16- and 20-foot flexible ridged tape measures were available.

A number of companies began to market tape measures in those early days, including Mayhew, Lufkin, Master Rule and Baldwin. After World War II, Carlson & Sullivan and Evans also entered the flexible ridged tape measure market.

Flat tapes were also used to measure length. Made of woven cloth or metal, these came into common use in the early 1880s. They were used to measure longer lengths of 15, 20, 25, 50 and 100 feet. Flat tapes were wound on a reel; when not in use they were wound into the case with a crank handle.

Construction measures

Several other measuring tools were commonly used in construction. Squares measured and marked angles. These commonly came in 90-degree and 45-degree angles. Larger carpenter’s squares and framing squares were also used to measure angles and length. These had longer legs of 12 inches and 24 inches.

The average farmer in the early 1900s probably would not have had the knowledge to take full advantage of the framing square. The device could be used to calculate end-cut angles for rafters and joists. Entire books were written to explain the use of the framing square.

The last measuring tool essential to farm construction was the plumb and level. The level measured whether an object – whether it was a fence or doorjamb – was level (parallel to the earth). The plumb (the level bubble toward the end of the level) was held next to a vertical piece such as a fence post, and measured to determine whether it was straight up and down (perpendicular to the earth). In construction, being level and plumb added to both appearance and stability.

Gas sticks and yardsticks

In the early 1900s, farmers used a gas gauge to measure the volume of gas in a vehicle’s gas tank. Because tanks came in different sizes, gas sticks also varied. To determine whether there was gas in a tank, any stick would work, even an unscaled stick. But if you wanted to know how much gas was in the tank, the stick had to match the tank. Many were finished in a dark color, making it easier to read a wet line on the gauge.

Another interesting farm measure was the promotional yardstick given away by farm supply stores, implement dealers and virtually every company doing business with farmers. Besides being a standard 3- or 4-foot measure, the sticks often had specific uses. Yardsticks were stashed in out-of-the-way corners of about every barn and outbuilding.

Another type of yardstick was used to measure the approximate number of bushels of grain in a pickup truck or wagon bed. As beds had varying capacities, scales for each wagon or truck bed were printed on the rule. To take a reading, the yardstick was jabbed into a level bed of grain. Yardsticks were also designed to measure fuel in barrels in the same manner as the gas gauge sticks of the early 1900s.

Wantage rods were used on dairy farms. The rod was a stick scaled to measure the contents of cans containing liquids. It was used very much like a gas gauge or fuel oil stick. Most wantage rods had a metal end, often brass, to prevent any change in length due to use. If used in a can it was inserted in the top. On barrels it was inserted into a top or side bung opening.

Scales were used on the farm to measure weight, which was used to determine, in many cases, the volume contained. Scales capable of measuring from a few ounces to many thousands of pounds were developed quite early. They were of two types: spring scales, which used a known resistance of a spring to uncoil or compress to measure weight, and balance scales, which used a fulcrum and heavy weights added to a long arm to balance and measure much heavier weights on a short arm. Scales were used by the farmer to determine volume and thus bushels, and by the farmer’s wife in food preparation. FC 

President of the Mid West Tool Collectors Assn., George Wanamaker has been collecting measuring, carpenter, farm and kitchen tools for 35 years. He is the author of Stanley Tape Measures: The First Forty Years and articles on Siegley and Stanley planes and the Master Rule Mfg. Co. Contact him at