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.

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.