A Little Bit on Weights and Measures

Ok, so this is a longer post than I planned, but hopefully it holds your attention. I expect a lot of people will think it can’t possibly be fun to study weights and measurements, but I promise you, it really is! There is a lot of interesting trivia, and its not just that the US doesn’t use the metric system like the rest of the world. In this post, I am going to link to a lot of different sources, but hopefully I can convince you that this subject is worth reading about!

Weights and measures are actually more important than we think. Its not just that we use them everywhere, they also help society run smoothly. The first writing that has been found was used to keep track of weights and measures, so that people knew how much was paid and owed for goods, services, and taxes. It has been assumed that writing was developed to keep track of these things in settled groups of people, the first ‘civilizations’, at least as we judge them today. So it is hard to overstate how important weights and measures are to a society. In just the last few years, scientists have officially begun to shift away from a physical thing to represent the prototypes of weights and distances, to a mathematical calculation based on universal constants. If this sounds a bit crazy, just consider why they need this. In a physical object, such as an official object to identify a kilogram, there is some loss or gain of mass over time (in terms of atoms- these are some small numbers, folks!), no matter how carefully it is stored. With the need for the absolutely precise measurements needed by today’s standards, basing units of measurement on something that never changes is essential! This change was just approved in 2019, after years of work to establish the calculations. If you want to read up on this, here is a link to a story on Vox about the process.

Early writing from Mesopotamia

This brings up a particular point about the metric system, and the United States still using imperial weights and measures. The ‘Imperial’ system is based on our use of the British-style weights and measures, with all of its inconsistencies between types. (What inconsistencies? Just consider how many ways you can divide an inch – by thirds, fourths, eighths, sixteenths. Then look at the pound, as compared to volumes, etc. That is a lot of different types of conversions!)While it is true that the basic system is hundreds of years old, there were almost uncounted ‘imperial’ systems in use until the mid 19th century, and they all differed not just by country, but also by the product being measured, and even by the city of original shipment. Basically, there were a lot of differences! In the 1790s, the new French Republic wanted to use the same system across its territory. The result was the metric system. So the metric system is older than you might think. It is also what our imperial system is based on today, after a treaty in 1875. You can read about the history of this creation in Pys.org.

Oh, you thought we didn’t use the metric system? Well, actually, yes we do. All our weights and measures are based on those metric prototypes that are being recalculated now. So really, even though you might think you are working with inches, feet, ounces and pounds, actually, your numbers are all percentages of centimeters, meters, grams and kilograms. A pound is 0.453592 of a kilogram; there is no other definition of it in science, no ultimate prototype pound. And if you wondered why everyone else has come around to this system, its because it actually is a lot easier to calculate with than the imperial system. And I know, everyone wants to say ‘No, our system is easier!’ But really, we already had this argument, and the other side won, it just took a long time to convince everyone.

In 1792, the new constitutional government of the United States had to make a decision about creating a new national currency. Under the previous Articles of Confederation, each state ran its own monetary policy, and rates of exchange across the new country were based on the British pounds, shillings, and pence (even though the most common coin used was Spanish; trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg on complications to monetary policy!). When the federal government had the chance to start fresh, the decision was made to push everyone to switch to a new system based on a decimal system. What does a decimal system mean? It means we use base 10 for calculating money divisions, so 100 pennies is 1 dollar, and so on. What does this sound like? You guessed it, meters and kilograms! 100 centimeters is 1 meter, 1000 grams is 1 kilogram. All in base 10, because it makes calculating and conversions much easier. (Can you guess why base 10 and base 12 are so commonly used? It’s right in the palm of your hand; well, actually your fingers. Ten fingers makes base 10 natural. Now look at the fingers-not thumb, you count with that- of one hand, and the number of segments in each finger – 3 X 4 =12.) If you want some in-depth mathematics, The Story of Math is a great documentary on the development of numbers, counting, and why it is so important. It can get pretty complicated, but it’s still a really good series. (You can find it on Amazon Prime, but the link I have here is to the Films on Demand catalog, which is available to most people through public and academic libraries.)


However, don’t think that the new system put in place for money in 1792 was adopted quickly! Oh, no, they didn’t want to change any more than we do today. As a result, from the 1790s through at least the 1820s, and in some areas into the 1840s, there were plenty of people still using the old money calculations. I have personally looked at store account books from the 1820s that have (what I presume is) a younger clerk using dollars and cents for a sale, and the next entry the sale was recorded in pounds and shillings. And for every shilling, you had to calculate 12.5 cents, and then do all the conversions to total the accounts at the end of the day in dollars. Even later, in the mid 1800s in New York (and I will promise to update this blog when I relocate this source) I have read a newspaper letter to the editor from a citizen who stated that if stores and companies would stop using base 12 for product packaging, maybe people would switch over to the decimal system for money completely. Poor man, he would still be disappointed in us today. When was the last time you bought 10 eggs at the grocery? (The reason for packaging by the dozen in English products? Because there were 12 shillings in a pound, and that made products easier to calculate packaging divisions for selling. Why 13 in a ‘baker’s dozen’? Because in the 16th century English bakers were under-weighting their bread, and instead of risking a hefty fine for an under-weight dozen, they just threw in an extra one.) So you see, it is really hard to get people to change once they get used to something, especially a system they use every day.

If this has gotten you curious about the history of weights and measures, or you want to see some of those many different Imperial weights and measures that were used before metric, one of the better sources I have found is from a professor of mathematics at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Russ Rowlett is retired, but his Dictionary for Units of Measurement is still up, and provides a great, easy to understand list of weights and measures from antiquity to today, as well as conversions where possible. If you are like me, it’s fun just to read. But I have also used it for research when needing to understand primary source material from the 18th century. If you are interested in currency history, try the American Numismatic Society or the U.S. Currency Education Program. And finally, if you really want to see how long a group known for accounting, money, and business can hold on to a system long after it is out of use, just take a look at the New York Stock Exchange. If you ever wondered why the ticker at the NYSE used fractional divisions of stock (instead of decimal divisions) until the beginning of this century, it dates back to the old weirdness I mentioned about the states using British accounting and Spanish coins. Spain divided its peso, or milled dollar (which America based our dollar size on) into 8 reales. Spain minted a lot more gold and silver coinage than anyone else during the 1600s and 1700s, so everyone used their coins, including us. New York state didn’t like the quarter division of the American dollar that was decided on in the 1790s, so they stuck with the 1/8 Spanish division into the late 19th century. The NYSE didn’t change it’s use of fractions until 2001! (What is 1/8 of a dollar? – 12.5 cents. And the Spanish reale was called a ‘bit’, so 2 bits was equal to a quarter. See how much fun this is?)

Portable Soup

Recently, I made up a yearly batch of mushroom soup. I know that sounds a bit strange, but I am not a big fan of canned mushroom soup. I love mushrooms, but don’t think that is really what you get in those cans. A good mushroom soup is full of mushroom bits, and can be used for just about anything, from a regular soup on a cold day to the sauce for beef or chicken cooked in a crockpot. When I make mushroom soup, I buy about 4 pounds of various mushrooms (you can often find mushrooms for $1 or $2 off a pack in the grocery, when they need to be sold quickly; I lucked out this time and was able to buy all of the ones I used like this). Wash and chop them up, dice up about 2+ cups of onions, 2-3 cloves of garlic, use homemade veggie broth to thin, blitz them with a stick blender, and you are good to go! I make this big batch, then freeze it in pint bags for use over the next year. I made about 12 pints in February (here is the gallery link for pictures.) If you are wondering about the homemade veggie broth, I make that too, because I think all canned and boxed broth tastes metallic (yes, I am picky about my food, my mom grows a lot of vegetables, and I love to cook, it works out). I use a vegetable broth concentrate recipe I found on the Test Kitchen website that works great, no cooking required. You just use a food processor to finely puree the raw veggies, put it in wide mouthed jars, and freeze. Use only as much as you need with boiling water. (Link here.)

All of this is to say that while I was making this soup I remembered researching 18th century cooking when I worked at the museum, and reading the recipe for Portable Soup. Generally, most people today think that convenient mixtures for quick cooking are completely modern, but there were a lot of tricks to make cooking faster, especially when you didn’t have the convenience of a freezer (I love a big chest freezer!). Canning that uses the type of lids that home canners use today didn’t start until the technique for Vulcanizing rubber was invented around the mid 19th century. Canning in a tin can was invented a bit earlier, in the last decade of the 18th century. Actually, if you ever want to look into that history, it dates back to a competition created by Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to have an easier way to feed his army on the move, but didn’t want to pay the research costs for development (sound familiar?). So he challenged anyone who wanted to try for a prize of 12,000 Francs to create a better way to preserve food. While glass containers with corks were used at first, tin cans were used after the 1810s, probably because they were less breakable for their chief market, the military (though you had to use a chisel and mallet to open the cans). However, before this, and indeed after due to the expense of early 19th century canned foods, most people used a variety of methods to preserve foods at home. For travel, dried was best, and if you wanted a good flavored soup that was easy to fix during travel, portable soup was one of your best choices.

Portable soup is the 18th century version of bullion, and could be called soup glue. Hungry yet? Actually, the process is time consuming, but not all that different than what has to be done today to get the same result. Basically, you cook down the meat and various flavorings until all the collagen in the meat has turned to gelatin, strain the liquid, then continue cooking to evaporate as much water as possible and dry the resulting ‘glue’. Break up the dried gelatin into smaller pieces and store in a cool, dry tin with paper in between layers, and this portable soup could be used as the quick base for any soup. Travelers, soldiers, anyone who carried the dried bullion could boil water and add whatever else they had available. Soldiers could use broken up hardtack to cook like dumplings in the broth, or rice, dried roasted corn, or beans could be cooked in the soup base. If there was dried meat available, it could be rehydrated and added to the soup as well. Much more tasty than just using water, and pre-salted too! Portable soup didn’t have to be for travel, it could also be a time saver in the home kitchen, and could be very useful during summer, when it would be much better to limit the amount of time you had to cook over a fire. In case you are curious about a recipe, I am going to include one from 1841, and some of the instructions from an English cookbook from 1796. The 1796 cookbook, written by Hannah Glasse, was one of the most popular English language cookbooks sold during the 18th century. That recipe is very long, and much more detailed than the one from the American cookbook.

Portable Soup–Take beef or veal soup, and let it get perfectly cold, then skim off every particle of the grease. Set it on the fire, and let it boil till of a thick glutinous consistence. Care should be taken that it does not burn. Season it highly with salt, pepper, cloves and mace – add a little wine or brandy, and then turn it on to earthen platters. It should not be more than a quarter of an inch in thickness. Let it remain until cold, then cut it into pieces three inches square, set them in the sun to dry, turning them frequently. When perfectly dry, put them in an earthen or tin vessel, having a layer of white paper between each layer. These, if the directions are strictly attended to, will keep good a long time. Whenever you wish to make a soup of them, nothing more is necessary, than to put a quart of water to one of the cakes, and heat it very hot. The American Housewife, by an Experienced Lady, 1841.

To Make Portable Soup–Take two legs of beef, of about fifty pounds weight, take off all the skin and fat as well as you can, then take all the meat and sinews clean from the bones, which meat put into a large pot, and put to it eight or nine gallons of soft water; first make it boil, then put in twelve anchovies, an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves an ounce of whole pepper black and white together, six large onions peeled and cut in two, a little bundle of thyme, sweet marjoram, and winter savory, the dry hard crust of a two-penny loaf, stir all together and cover it close, lay a weight on the cover to keep it close down, and let it boil softly for eight or nine hours, then uncover it and stir it together; cover it close again and let it boil till it is a very rich good jelly . . . [and then strain it and let cool, skim off the fat and settlings, simmer it again for several hours, let cool, spread out thin to dry for 8 or 9 hours, and you’re done; not exactly a fast process!] The Art of Cooking Made Plain & Easy, 1796.

Frederick Douglass-A Speech in 1857

Frederick Douglass, c. 1850

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

I have been waiting for the month of February to put this quote on my website. I don’t know if that was a good decision or not, as I think that a quote by a great orator shouldn’t wait for the one month set aside to honor African-Americans. But since I started this website in November, with the elections and holidays, I had other quotes that worked well for those times, so I thought I would wait until February for a famous quote by Frederick Douglass. I have known this quote for a number of years, and I love it for the way it conjures so many images and thoughts. Even though I knew it was from Mr. Douglass, I had not looked at the full speech until I decided a couple of months ago to highlight it on my website. Once I decided on it, I wanted to make sure I knew where the quote came from, so I looked it up. If you like the small part of Mr. Douglass’s speech in this quote, I highly recommend you read the whole speech, which can be found on this website – BlackPast.org. The speech was given to a group of abolitionists in the state of New York in 1857, just before the start of the Civil War. I have to say, while the small section of the speech that became so famous is still my favorite part, the rest of the speech shows how talented Mr. Douglass was at framing his words in ways that have the most impact. I will put a few other parts of the speech at the end of this post just to hopefully get you interested enough to read the full speech. I will also say that Mr. Douglass had a fascinating life, and if you can, read up on some of his history. He himself wrote several autobiographies throughout his life, and strongly supported women’s rights in addition to Black Americans. His history can be found at this website for his historic home in Washington, DC, which is run by the National Park Service.

The sections of Mr. Douglass’s speech quoted below are posted on BlackPast.org.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal.

Baking Molded Gingerbread

While I love decorating Gingerbread cookies with icing, I also like to make molded Gingerbread cookies, especially if I have carved good molds for them. You could even use them to decorate a Christmas tree, which is one of the first decorations recorded for Christmas trees in America. They appear in a painting of a family by Lewis Miller, who painted everyday scenes of life in the early 1800s. Miller painted a table top size Christmas tree in the background of a family during Christmas, and the molded cookies are hanging on the tree (if you look at the painting, the cookies are the squares with little dots in the center, though many will call them Springerle instead of Gingerbread; my opinion is they were likely some of both. Here is a link to the picture). In the post about carving gingerbread molds, I talked a little about how I make the molds, so this post is about using them for baking molded Gingerbread.

When using the mold to make cookies, I have had a lot of practice (I was part of a group that made all the cookies for Old Salem evening tours for a number of years)! There are a number of Gingerbread recipes that will work with the molds. The main thing is to have is a smooth dough that isn’t sticky, and won’t puff up or spread when baked. Most recipes that are good for gingerbread for icing or making gingerbread houses is perfectly good for making press molded cookies. If you want to make really 17th century German style gingerbread, use honey instead of molasses. Honey was used for gingerbread in Germany and much of central Europe up until at least the mid-19th century, and many still use it today. The English turned to molasses early, and in America most gingerbread had become molasses gingerbread by the last decade of the 1700s, even if it was made by Germans.

(The cookies on the above right were made using new molds I carved this year. Several of them are copied from original molds, while I created two of them myself, including the pump at the bottom right. These small molds are relatively easy to carve, as they are not very detailed. These cookies are about 1 1/2 inches high.)

When you roll out the dough, it needs to be very cool, though right out of the fridge might be a little too stiff. I have done the method of rolling out the dough and pressing the mold into it, and it works okay, especially if the mold is fairly simple in design. However, I don’t really use this method anymore because I had so many cookies I had to ball up and re-roll out that I got frustrated with the technique. When I was editing a translated German cookbook for Old Salem, my staff and I were looking at 18th century German recipes from two different cookbooks. In them they describe forming a square of dough, dusting the mold with flour, and then pressing the dough into the mold. You need to have a piece of dough a little thicker than you want, so that you can press it into the mold and get a good image, then turn it over and peel it off the mold onto the table or cutting board, then cut or trim the edges for the finished cookie. It is definitely more time consuming, but for intricate designs, I have found it works better. As for dusting the mold, the best thing is to get some good cheesecloth (with fine holes, not coarse ones like you find at a grocery store) cut a piece about 6-7 inches square, put some flour in it, then use a string or twist tie to close the cloth around the flour creating a pouch. This can then be used to dust the mold and the dough without getting big bits of flour that cause register problems with the designs (this was technique was described in the 18th century cookbooks). Generally, press-molded gingerbread cookies need to be at least 1/4 inch thick, so they are a bit thicker than a gingerbread man, but that is just part of using the molds to make them. You can also glaze the gingerbread, which can help bring out the design on the darker cookie dough once they are baked. The practice of using colored icing sugar to highly decorate sugar cookies is similar, but probably dates to when white sugar became cheaper to purchase, around the mid-19th century (most of my research stopped at about this time, since so much changed with cooking techniques at that point; and yes, I have researched both the history of sugar production and gingerbread making). If I can get permission from Old Salem, I will post my research paper on gingerbread sometime.


(If you are interested in the cookbook I described called The Raised Hearth, you are welcome to buy it though The Book Patch. Even though I am listed as the author/editor, I do not have any rights to the book. The book is owned by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, and they get any profits from its sale. The book has direct translations of the 18th century recipes, so it is not a modern cookbook with recipes you can use in today’s kitchen. Someone who has experience with historical cooking and cookbooks from the time period can experiment with the recipes and cook with them, which is what we used the book for at the museum where I worked.)

Carving Gingerbread Molds

I started carving Gingerbread Molds while working at Old Salem. The history of Gingerbread was something that I had to answer a lot while I worked there. I would be the person to call whenever there were media requests about that history, so I eventually wrote a paper on the history from the Middle Ages until the modern day, just so I would be able to pull up information whenever I got a call from a TV station or magazine, or had to appear on a TV feed for Christmas. (This happened all the time during the Christmas season, the last one I did for Our State can be seen here.) The more I researched, the more I understood that molded Gingerbread was commonly made for Christmas in Europe since the Middle Ages. The Moravians continued the practice until sometime in the mid-19th century,so I decided to carve some molds for us to use when we did Christmas baking at Old Salem. We had some original molds from the early 19th century in our collection, so I started with those designs. I am not good at creating original artwork, at least not drawings, but I can copy most things. So I took pictures or drew copies of the original molds, and then transferred the design onto wood blocks and started carving. I have also carved printing blocks for making paste paper (the adult version of finger-painting), so I had some practice with carving. The main thing to remember with carving things like this is to take off small amounts at a time, because you can’t put the wood back on if you take off the wrong piece. I make knife cuts around the parts I want to remove, so that when I am carving, the wood chip will stop at the cut, which makes it less likely to remove wood you want to keep! One of the more difficult things to remember when carving a cookie mold is that you are making a reverse image, so what you want to project up you need to carve deeper. It requires a little thinking before starting to carve.

The wood I use is generally either poplar, maple, or pear if I can get it. Pear wood was the traditional for professional wood carvers in Europe to use for carving printing blocks for industrial purposes. Professional wood carvers would make designs for different industries in Germany. Printed paper makers, such as those making colored and paste paper, printed fabric makers, and book printers would all buy carved wooden molds for their shops, so the mold carvers were highly skilled and made extremely detailed carvings. Pear was the wood of choice because it is a hard wood that has a very fine grain, which allows for the fine designs. Oak has a coarse grain, and isn’t really good to use, and pine and other soft woods are also bad choices. Many people who do carving as a hobby today will say to use basswood, but I have tried it and found it too soft to get good detail (actually, I really dislike using basswood for carving, it is better for less detailed figurines). Poplar is easier to get, though maple will make beautiful molds. I have ordered pear wood from specialty wood suppliers, and I really like using it. It is also possible that other fruit woods would work, such as apple or cherry, but I have no experience with those. (In a later post, I’ll show the molded gingerbread cookies made with these designs. Also see the Gallery section for more carved molds.)

The first step is to put the image on paper, tack it to the wood block, and then use a pen or pointed stylus to impress the image into the wood. (Someone more skilled in drawing could draw the image directly onto the wood block. I like using the paper because I can adjust the image as much as I want without affecting the wood block I want to carve.)

My next step is to trace the impression with a pencil. I don’t need to put in lines that are going to be lower than the surface. Here, there are several elements on the snowy hills that will be carved, but the snow will need to be higher (which means deeper carved) so I pencil those in once I reach that level.

The carving is done using the pencil drawing as the base. I cut around the parts I want to be careful of with a knife, so that the carving tools don’t take off more wood in delicate spots. When I am finished with all carving, I will do a little sanding to finish some rough spots.

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