Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Stone and other Imperial measures

When I was little - very little - we had to learn our addition and multiplication tables. I can still recite them now so deeply are they embedded. But we also had to recite our pounds, shillings and pence table; our volume table (2 pints = 1 quart; 4 quarts = 1 gallon etc) our length table (12 inches equals 1 foot; 3 feet equals 1 yard; there are 16 feet 6 inches to the rod, pole or perch; 4 rods to a chain; 10 chains to a furlong; 8 furlongs or 1760 yards to a mile ...) and our weights table. This latter went :-
16 ounces = 1 pound
14 pounds = 1 stone
2 stone = 1 quarter
4 quarters= 1 hundredweight
20 hundredweight or 2240 pounds = 1 ton

I knew that in America, like here in the UK, Imperial measures were used to weigh the human body (though that has now disappeared here in hospitals and among the younger generation who all use metric weights). What I hadn't realised until I got comments about it the other day was that in the US the stone isn't used. (The plural of stone is not stones but stone so I weigh 9 stone, not 9 stones). I also hadn't realised that in the USA a hundredweight is a 100 pounds and a ton is 2000 pounds.

Many of us in the UK still use Imperial measures for cookery so we measure things like flour by weight in ounces whereas, of course, in the US cookery measures are by volume (in cups, etc.) . Anyone under 30 in the UK is likely now to use metric as a result of which you will see the prices in both pounds / ounces and kilos / grams in a butchers or at a cheese counter, etc.

The ' Ounce' comes from the Latin uncia or twelfth part. The ounce is a sixteenth part of a pound avoirdupois, but it used to be a twelfth part of a pound troy. The apothecaries ounce and troy ounce are now different weights. All very confusing. The abbreviation "oz" comes from 15th century Italian, an abbreviation of "onza".

The pound is always written as "lb" to prevent confusion with a pound in money "£". The pound weight is a very old measurement and can be traced back to the Roman libra, which explains its abbreviation. It has been used in England since the time of Ethelred the Unready (968-1016) when a pound (money) was originally a pound (weight) of silver, and the symbol for pound (money) £ is a stylised form of L.

Historically the number of pounds in a stone varied by what you were weighing and by where you were. Each city had its own standard weight and merchants weights would be checked against them to ensure they weren't cheating their customers. The stone was standardised across the UK in 1824.

I also hadn't realised until I started looking into all this that our liquid measures are different. They sound the same but the quantities are not because the relationships of the units are not the same. The Imperial system has 5 fluid ounces to a gill, while the USA system has 4 fluid ounces to a gill. This means that the gill and all multiples of it (e.g. cup, pint, quart, gallon) are all larger in the Imperial system than in the USA system.

I've rambled on long enough now so I'll leave firkins and things for another day... You have been warned!


  1. I reckon this is all meant to keep up in a confused state.... don't mean you, but by the powers that be who devise all this.
    Maybe it was a previous set of politicians who decided the best way to take our eye off the ball, was to change all the weights and measures systems! Wouldn't put anything past them!!!
    Being of your age group, I still think in lbs/oz and inches etc.
    Love Granny

  2. Amazing how much research goes into writing about something clearly. Nice post. Informative and helpful to those of us outside of the Commonwealth. ;-)


  3. Fascinating! Thank you, S.S. for sharing in such detail. I really do appreciate the lesson! I had never heard of measuring in gills...


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