Exploring Antique Technologies
by Kary Pardy
Balance-based scales appear in the historical record around 2400-1800 BC, in what is now modern-day Pakistan. Their simplicity, however, has led scholars to believe that scales may have been used way before they ever appeared on the record. The longevity and diversity make scales one of the more accessible technology collectibles. This article will help you weigh your options when selecting one for your personal collection.
Types of Scales
From form to function, there is a scale that may work for you. Let’s first examine the oldest and most recognizable type, the equal balance scale. Balance scales require a beam that supports two hanging trays of equal weights and equidistant apart. The fulcrum hinge upon which the beam moves responds to known weights and objects being placed opposite them on the scale. Usually found in bronze, these scales are your symbolic “Justice” accessory. If antique equal balance scales interest you, look into scales by Kohlbusch (US), Philip Harris or Avery (England), and Becker (Belgium). Advances upon this type of scale included the 19th century portable suspension scale, which was particularly useful when weighing coins and could be condensed to fit into handy carrying cases.
The unequal arm balance scale incorporated only one tray as the counterweights having been built into the structure. These scales are most commonly seen as countertop scales in general stores and feature a single pan. Pans came in different sizes for different weighing purposes, much like measuring cups. From your snuff or spices to your loaves of bread, scales were integral tools that reflected the needs of their consumers and could also be beautiful. Ornate decorations in cast iron and bronze helped them become collectible display pieces, but even simple scales can be eye-catching additions to collections. Top makers of store scales to keep an eye out for are Howe and Fairbanks, and Avery.
A competitor to the balance scale, spring scales started popping up in the 18th century. They required the resistance of a spring to measure weight and had the benefit of displaying weight measurements directly on the scale face. This ease of use made them popular with store owners and postal workers alike. Spring scales work by using the response of a spring to measure the weight of an object in question. An object is placed in the pan or on the tray, which then causes a connected spring to stretch as the object’s weight presses down opposite it. The distance that the spring pulls corresponds with different weights, which will show up on the dial.
Those working in kitchens also turned to spring scales. In-home cooking, scales were mainly the property of the wealthy in the Victorian era and featured little ornamentation. They gained a lot of traction in homes by the mid-20th century and even took on some more vibrant colors to better fit into the pastels, reds, and greens of midcentury decor. Vintage makers of spring scales include Salters, Fairbanks, Chantillon, Sears, and Montgomery Ward.
Can you guess the purpose of this scale (r)? Made by spring scale leader Salter, this scale includes a wicker basket instead of a metal pan because it was made to weigh babies! Salter built the “Infant Weighing Machine, No 50B” for retailer W. H. Bailey & Son.
Hanging versions also existed for your favorite scale styles. Popular uses for hanging spring scales included weighing items like butter on a farm or for use by tradesmen, who needed the mobility. As most hanging scales from the 19th and early 20th century had similar rectangular faces, sometimes you may find these scales ornamented with advertisements, an extra excitement for scale collectors.
Why just have a scale when you could also advertise with every use? This striking brass front spring scale advertises for Purina Cow Chow (r) and was part of an effort by Purina to gain traction with retailers. The company gave these scales as a gift to farms, feed stores, and dairies in hopes that their farmer clients would be swayed by towards Purina products. Cow Chow advertising scales sell for around $150.
Should you be looking for an industrial aesthetic, consider a hanging scale or a scale in cast iron. A bronze postal scale may be better suited for a classic interior collection. Whatever you are hunting for, consider flea markets and eBay valuable tools. Mid-century scales can be purchased relatively cheaply, they were made in large numbers and are not rare now. Scales from the Victorian period will command higher prices, particularly if you hope to find one with all of its parts. These take more digging, particularly at auctions. Bronze spring scales with embellishments sell between $300 and $500 at auction and rare models can bring even more, though typically not exceeding the low thousands. Whichever level you choose, scales are pleasing collectibles, aesthetically and historically. You may want to purchase one, you know, just to balance out your collection.
For more information about antique scales, please visit the International Society of Antique Scale Collectors at isasc.org