Saturday, 26 March 2005

Collecting on the grandest of scales

Scales group
Español | Deutsche | Français | Italiano | Português

by Christopher Proudlove©

If I had a quid for every pound of currants, sultanas, sugar, butter, lard, even dog biscuits I've weighed out for customers in my old dad's grocer's shop, I'd be an extremely wealthy man.

That was in the days when foodstuffs were delivered in bulk to the High Street (or the village store in my case) and the proprietor (or his lackey) spent back-breaking hours weighing it all up for the week's customers. No pre-packed, vacuum-sealed, atmosphere-controlled produce in his day, thanks very much.

So, it was with added interest that I learned this week of an exhibition of rare, unusual and highly collectable weighing scales. They will be on show at the spring Antiques for Everyone fair, which takes place at the NEC, Birmingham next week.

The display will be presented by the European arm of The International Society of Antique Scale Collectors (ISASC), founded in 1976, which has members across the world, many of whom have loaned pieces from their collections for the event.

The exhibition will be curated by Michael Robinson, chairman of the society and one of its leading proponents. It will present a cross-section of balances, weights and scales dating from the 18th to 20th century with examples by such well known makers such as Avery, Salters, Kenrick & Sons, R.W.Winfield and Ratcliff Bros.

Mr Robinson told me that weights and measures are one of man's greatest and most important inventions, ranking alongside the wheel in the evolution of civilisation. Without them commerce would not have progressed beyond the barter system.

Since the development of electronics and computerisation in the mid 20th century, earlier mechanical scales have become widely sought after collectors' items. Many mechanical scales are hand-crafted and today regarded as works of art.

The use of scales dates back more than 5,000 years. Early civilisations including the Egyptians developed simple balances and, later, it was the Romans who introduced scales to Britain and Europe.

Interestingly enough it was the genius Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 - 1519) who designed the first recorded self-indicating scale.

He produced two designs, one with a triangular chart, and the other semi-circular, but both worked on the same principle.

The object to be weighed is placed in a suspended pan. The chart acts as a pendulum and finds a new position of balance. The weight is shown on the chart by a plum bob crossing its face.

Like many of Leonardo's conceptions, including the autogyro, his scale was ahead of its time and was not manufactured until 300 years after his death.

By the 17th century, the so-called equal-arm balance was in competition with a variety of instant-read-out scales using springs or pendulums, which led to the development of postal scales and household scales. Beautifully engineered examples have survived and are highly treasured today.

The invention of platform scales in the early 18th century and the inclination balance of the late 19th century greatly advanced weighing methods, from postal scales to roadside weighbridges.

Universal Postal Act

My personal favourites are postal scales, which came into use at the birth of the present postal system in 1840 with the passing of the Uniform Postal Act.

The regulation of the Royal Mail, whereby weight would determine the cost of postage, provided yet a great commercial opportunity for scalemakers to exploit, and large numbers of scales were produced.

The most charming were ornately decorated in Victorian Gothic or Art Nouveau styles, with beautiful cases made from wood, alabaster, onyx, porcelain pottery, brass and silver.

Many of the machines made before 1915, when a four-ounce letter could be posted for one old penny, carried details of current postage rates. After 1915 postal rates altered much more rapidly, and so the practice was abandoned.

Among the many examples on display at the NEC there will be scales for measuring postage; coins; grain; those used by apothecaries; for weighing silver, gold and gems; the once ubiquitous grocer's scales and even those for people, including jockey scales with examples by most leading manufacturers.

Mr Robinson and representatives from the ISASC will also be presenting a series of daily seminar talks in the fair theatre about scales and their historical development.

Weighing it all up
A somewhat overlooked element in the history of weighing is the law relating to weights and measures.

In England these have been incorporated in the statutes of the country since King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

He decreed: "that one measure of wine shall be through our realm, and one measure of ale and one measure of corn .... and it shall be of weights, as it is of measures".

The earliest form of law on uniformity was passed in the reign of King Edgar in about 965 AD.

However, because of the lack of adequate enforcement in many parts of the country, this ideal was not fully achieved until the end of the 19th century.

Officials in Britain began marking weights to attest their accuracy and prevent dishonest dealings as early as 1579.

The Worshipful Company of Founders stamped and tested bronze and brass weights, and in 1611 the Worshipful Company of Plumbers were granted rights under a Charter to stamp and test iron and lead weights.

Provincial authorities in towns and cities across the country placed verification marks on their weights, often based on the local coat of arms.

In medieval times wool carried a tax of one penny on every 28 pounds weight and the tax assessor, or tronator as he was called, travelled his district carrying weights slung across his horse's back.

The weights bore the Royal coat of arms, and were to test the wool merchants' scales and ensure that they were not cheating the sovereign.

Antiques for Everyone is the largest vetted and datelined event of its kind in Britain. With 600 dealers showing more than 100,000 items and price tags from less than £10 to more than £100,000, the value of exhibits on sale exceeds £30 million. The fair takes over Hall 5, at the NEC National Exhibition Centre, and runs from next Thursday (March 31) to Sunday April 3. Opening hours are 11am-6pm with a late night on the Thursday until 8pm. Admission is £10 and includes free car parking.

Pictures show: Top: Balancing act: a group of highly collectable antique scales from the exhibition

Below, left to right:
A larger and more elaborate set of postal scales by Mordan, these used for weighing parcels up to 10 lbs

Mordan postal scales, the pan engraved with the current letter rates. A full complement of brass weights always adds value

Beautiful and elaborate scales with pans inset with Wedgwood plaques and a base decorated with inlaid brass and mother of pearl

Mordan parcel scaleMordan letter scaleWedgwood



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home