Hammer, level, screwdriver, pliers and tape measure: Hand tools remain as essential on the farm today as they have been for decades. As much as farming has changed in the last 150 years, the use of these tools has not.
Tape measures have been used to measure land for fields, pens and lots; lay out structures kinds; measure construction materials, depth of post holes and length and diameter of bolts and rods. They’ve even been used to measure the girth of livestock to determine live weight.
Despite widespread use, the tape measure is a relatively new tool. It was unheard of before the 1830s. The first written mention of a cased tape measure was in 1838, in England when one Charles White was sentenced to the penal colony in Australia for the theft of a measuring tape wound in a metal case.
Ancient Romans measured with a marked strip of leather. But when we think of a tape measure today, we think of a metal or cloth ribbon marked in increments — inches and feet or metric centimeters and meters — wound up in its own storage case. To measure, the tape is pulled out of the case. A spring or a hand crank rolls the tape back into the case, ready for the next use. What we know as a tape measure today — case, metal or cloth tape, and spring or crank return — was invented between 1830 and 1880.
Two types of tape measures were produced: long measures and pocket measures. Long tape measures were divided into two types. Tape measures of 25, 50, 75 or 100 feet in length were referred to as engineer’s tape measures, used in building bridges, dams and buildings. Tape measures of 16-1/2, 33 and 66 feet in length were known as surveyor’s tape measures and were used in land measurement. The rod, 16-1/2 feet in length, was used in measuring land. Thus, 16-1/2 feet, or increments of that number, set the length of the surveyor’s tape.
The inventor of the first successful cased, long tape measure in the U.S. was William H. Paine, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, surveyor. In 1860, he was granted the first two patents for tape measures. The first (patent no. 29,096) covered the case; the second (patent no. 29,504) covered the measuring tape. These tapes were manufactured by George M. Eddy Co., Brooklyn, New York, and were made in both surveyor and engineer lengths.
Paine’s case was round, made of brass and steel, and had a crank to return the tape to the case. The 1/4-inch tape was initially made of the same spring steel band that supported ladies’ hooped skirts of the time. Most interesting, however, was the fact that there were no measurements on the tape. The crank handle was marked with the length of the tape and was the only measurement that could be taken accurately. A case marked, “75 feet,” had a brass marker riveted to the tape at exactly 75 feet from the lead end. This tape measure had little practical use on the farm, but just as with the binder, which was invented in the late 1850s, things were soon to change.
The pocket tape measure was first patented in 1868 (patent no. 79,965) by Alvin J. Fellows, New Haven, Connecticut. This tape measure had a spring return button in the outside edge of the case. In 1869, Lewis P. Bradley patented an improvement (patent no. 95,573), which moved the spring return button to the center of one side of the case. Nearly 150 years later, Bradley’s design remains in use.
Both of these pocket tape measures had a plastic case and a cloth blade marked down to the 1/8-inch. They were round and about the size of a pocket watch.
The mid- to late-1870s brought big changes to the tape measure. The long tape measure gained a patented 1/2-inch wide flat metal tape marked with feet, inches and fractions. W. Chesterman of England was awarded a patent for the design (patent no. 182,356) in 1876.
At about the same time, George M. Eddy Co. started to market a pocket tape with a metal case and a very similar flat metal tape. The metal case and marked blade increased the measure’s durability. The closed case helped prevent dirt and, to a lesser extent, moisture from getting in and ruining the tape, its markings and mechanical parts. Because of that increased utility, tape measures began to make their way into farmers’ hands, serving many purposes.
Owing to the cost of metal tapes, more long ones were made of cloth (cotton, linen, or metal reinforced linen) than metal. This trend persisted until at least the 1920s. Unfortunately, many examples of these early cloth tape measures are missing the pull ring and some of the cloth tape itself. They would still be usable, but a mental adjustment for the missing part would be necessary.
The metal tape became the standard in pocket tape measures more quickly than in long tape measures. By about 1900, far fewer cloth-blade pocket tape measures were being produced.
In the 1890s, tape measures were being made and sold in the U.S. by George M. Eddy Co., Lufkin Rule Co., Keuffel & Esser (K&E), Waterbury Brass Co. (W.B. Co.), J.J. Roe, J.H.W. Co., Haff Mfg. Co., James Harper Co., W.P. Co., and Chesterman Rule of Sheffield, England, the last being imported to the U.S.
Among several rarely seen variations in long tapes measures is “The Harper,” patented in 1887 (patent no. 375,420) by James M. Harper, Peoria, Illinois. The tape’s crank, which was used to return the cloth blade to the case, was attached to a movable side. As the crank was turned, the entire side of the case and the drum inside rotated, pulling the blade back into the case for storage.
Another interesting long tape measure was patented by J. Oscar Smith, Moberly, Missouri, in 1900 (patent nos. 641,050 and 642,747). The brass case was a little over 3/4-inch thick with a 50-foot cloth blade. A unique feature of this tape measure was a compartment that held a small note pad. (In 1900, the pads were priced at three for 25 cents). The built-in notepad would have been a handy feature for a farmer.
Today, pocket tape measures are commonly used for advertising and promotional purposes. That practice was underway by the late 1890s, when advertising claims were stamped on one or both sides of the case. An aluminum-case measure with a cloth blade is a classic example. It promoted cultivators produced by P. Mast Co., Springfield, Ohio, on one side, and a Buckeye grain drill on the other. A “Never Stretch Tape Line,” made by Measure Mfg. Co., Kingston, New York, promoted the Jaynesville Barb Wire Co. Yet another measure, one with a brass and celluloid case and a 25-foot cloth tape, advertised Ohio Implement Co.
In 1922 the tape measure went through an important evolution. Hiram Farrand, New Berlin, Vermont, patented a new type of tape. It was curved from side to side, causing it to stand out straight from the case, instead of drooping like flat tapes did, but could still be returned to the case for storage. It was called a concave-convex or flexible-ridged tape measure, and the tape was often referred to as a blade. Early models with 1/2-inch blades shot straight out about 3 feet from the case. As blade became wider and were made of heavier metal, they’d stick out farther.
The new type of tape measure was first marketed in 1926. By 1932, it had become the measure of preference. Farrand Rule tape measures (which had an open case) were the first. Farrand Rule was purchased by Stanley Tool Co. in 1931. Mayhew made the first closed-case, concave-convex tape measure in late 1929.
By the end of World War II, case design was changing rapidly from round to a D shape. A round case could not be used for accurate measure between two objects, like the inside distance of a doorframe. The D case gave accurate interior and exterior measurements.
In 1963, Stanley Tool introduced the Power Lock tape measure, which had a unique case design and a lock that could be set to hold a blade of any length of out of the case. This feature remains the standard today.
The blade, too, has gone through a series of improvements. Early blades were nickel-plated with black markings. In the late 1930s, Keuffel & Esser Rule Mfg. Co. patented a blade with black markings on a white background. Then, in 1960, Stanley Tool Co. patented a blade with a yellow plastic coating and black makings. Each of these improvements made the blade easier to read.
Blades also got longer. The first convex-concave blades were produced in 4-, 6- and 8-foot lengths. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, 10-foot lengths became available. By the mid-1950s, blades stretched to 12 feet; in the 1960s, 15-foot lengths became common. Today, a 25-foot concave-convex blade (with 1-inch width) is in production. This blade is advertised as being capable of standing straight out from the case a distance of 6 feet.
Tape measures have a long association with the farm, farmer and farm products. The tape measure has truly become a staple in nearly every barn, workshop, home and business, as well as many pockets, and that is a true measure of its success.
George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him at email@example.com.