Measurement on the Farm

Standardized measurements an essential part of farm operation

| June 2011

  • An early zigzag-style folding rule
    An early zigzag-style folding rule made by Keuffel & Esser Co., New York.
  • A large steel carpenter’s square
    A large steel carpenter’s square with legs 12 inches and 24 inches long. It was used to measure length and mark 90-degree-angle cuts.
  • Defiance plumb and level by Stanley
    A #1296 24-inch Defiance plumb and level by Stanley. The Defiance line, created specifically for the farm and home market, was produced from the 1930s through 1953.
  • The original Farrand flexible ridged tape measure
    The original Farrand flexible ridged tape measure went into production in about 1926.
  • A Stanley #17 brass rule used for smithing in the 1890s
    A Stanley #17 brass rule used for smithing in the 1890s. Measuring devices used near the blacksmith’s forge were typically made of metal.
  • Seven-foot tape promoting Coburn feeds, used to measure height of ponies and horses and calculate weights
    Seven-foot tape promoting Coburn feeds, used to measure height of ponies and horses (in hands) and calculate weights. The tape, which has a 1961 copyright date, measures up to 20 hands and 1,321 pounds.
  • Gas gauge
    Gas gauge rule used to measure the contents of a gas tank on a car or tractor.
  • In the late 1950s-’60s, many companies used plastic or cloth advertising promotion tapes
    In the late 1950s-’60s, many companies used plastic or cloth advertising promotion tapes. Directions for its use were printed on the tape. Here, a Purina weight estimation tape for calves, heifers and cows.
  • A 4-rod-long surveyor’s chain
    A 4-rod-long surveyor’s chain with brass markers, strung to carry.
  • Folding carpenter’s rules of the type in general use from the 1850s through the early 1900s
    Folding carpenter’s rules of the type in general use from the 1850s through the early 1900s. Left to right: #36 Stanley 6-inch, #69 Stanley 1-foot, #68 Stanley 2-foot, #66-1/2 Stanley 3-foot and #94 Stanley 4-foot. All are folded for carrying. Note the difference in joints: The first is square, the next two are round and the last two are two different styles of each.
  • Wantage rod used to measure volume in containers of liquid
    Wantage rod used to measure volume in containers of liquid.
  • Two tape measures out of the mid-1930s
    Two tape measures out of the mid-1930s: a Stanley #1268 round tape measure and a Master #306 D-case tape measure. Both are six feet in length.
  • The end of a 3-foot grain measure yardstick
    The end of a 3-foot grain measure yardstick.
  • This 9-foot tape is used to measure and calculate the yield
    This 9-foot tape is used to measure and calculate the yield, in bushels, of a stand of corn. Produced for New Holland, it carries a 1959 copyright.
  • A small square capable of marking both 90- and 45-degree angles
    A small square capable of marking both 90- and 45-degree angles.
  • A 4-foot yardstick from Farmers Grain Fuel and Supply Co., Macomb, Ill.
    A 4-foot yardstick from Farmers Grain Fuel and Supply Co., Macomb, Ill.
  • Two views of a 55-gallon oil barrel measure from the 1950s
    Two views of a 55-gallon oil barrel measure from the 1950s.
  • Keuffel & Esser rule
    A July 24, 1900 patent date is visible on the right side of this Keuffel & Esser rule.
  • Stanley #106 6-foot zigzag-style rule
    A Stanley #106 6-foot zigzag-style rule in white.
  • Stanley #70 2-foot rule
    A Stanley #70 2-foot rule from 1853-54, an early standard.

  • An early zigzag-style folding rule
  • A large steel carpenter’s square
  • Defiance plumb and level by Stanley
  • The original Farrand flexible ridged tape measure
  • A Stanley #17 brass rule used for smithing in the 1890s
  • Seven-foot tape promoting Coburn feeds, used to measure height of ponies and horses and calculate weights
  • Gas gauge
  • In the late 1950s-’60s, many companies used plastic or cloth advertising promotion tapes
  • A 4-rod-long surveyor’s chain
  • Folding carpenter’s rules of the type in general use from the 1850s through the early 1900s
  • Wantage rod used to measure volume in containers of liquid
  • Two tape measures out of the mid-1930s
  • The end of a 3-foot grain measure yardstick
  • This 9-foot tape is used to measure and calculate the yield
  • A small square capable of marking both 90- and 45-degree angles
  • A 4-foot yardstick from Farmers Grain Fuel and Supply Co., Macomb, Ill.
  • Two views of a 55-gallon oil barrel measure from the 1950s
  • Keuffel & Esser rule
  • Stanley #106 6-foot zigzag-style rule
  • Stanley #70 2-foot rule

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.