I have a recipe for Sugar Cookies from a great aunt. It calls for “lard the size of a large egg, 2 medium eggs, a heaping teacup of sugar, 3 coffee mugs of flour, a jelly glass of milk, and a few drops of vanilla.” Aunt Dolly made the best sugar cookies and knew exactly what her measurements meant. But I will never attempt the recipe.

When there were no measuring devices like we have now, how were things measured?

Think of your immigrant ancestors traveling by ship. In nautical terms one nautical mile is 2,025 yards; and one league is three nautical miles. All they knew was that it was a vast ocean and, until they saw land, they had no clue where they were.

Once on land, they may have traveled on foot, by wagon, and on horseback. They calculated distance by familiar landmarks — a large tree, a mountain or hill, a homestead, or a rock pile.

In early America, measuring was often done by a man’s hand. 1 digit equaled the width of a man’s middle finger; one inch equaled the width of his thumb at the root of the nail; 1 nail equaled 2 1/4 inches; 1 palm equaled 3 inches; and 1 hand was 4 inches. When buying a horse, the height was measured by hands.

Land surveying included: 1 link equaled 7.92 inches; 1 pole was 25 links; 1 chain equaled 100 links or 4 poles or 66 feet. One furlong was 10 chains, and 1 mile equaled 80 chains.

In the kitchen, tea was measured as 1 caddy equaling 1 1/3 pounds; a chest of tea measured 60 pounds of Hyson from China to 126 pounds of Indian tea. A bag or robin of sugar was 112 to 196 pounds. Twelve heads of garlic or onions made a rope.

Fish and meat had their own standards of measurement. Two fish was a hand and four were a wrap; 133 wraps, a long hundred. Buying a stone of meat meant you received 8 pounds; a barrel was 25 pounds of beef or 28 pounds of pork.

Each type of grain had a measurement term. One bushel of barley was 50 or 56 pounds; oats 39 pounds; wheat 56 to 60 pounds.

A bundle of straw weighed 24 pounds, and a boiling, 28 pounds. A load of old hay (considered “old” after Sept. 29) was 18 hundredweight, which is 100 pounds in North America and 112 pounds in United Kingdom.

Our ancestors had measurement terms for nearly every commodity. If you are writing a family history and want to portray the culture of the time, “Weights, Money and Other Measures Used By Our Ancestors,” by Colin R. Chapman, is a great resource for accuracy.

“Genealogy is not only names and dates; it is also the history of the time and place of our ancestors.”

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Green Valley Genealogical Society. Contact her at rebeccamccreary764@gmail.com or visit the society’s website at azgvgs.org where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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