We use it to weigh ourselves, we used to use it for trade and the Americans took a pass on it. This is the story of the stone, where it comes from and the history behind it.
The stone was once commonly used in trade and commerce across Europe, and continues to be widely used today for people’s weight in Ireland and Britain, and to a much lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand. Across Europe, the unit was generally called some variation of the word Stein or Steen.
The word stone, literally comes from the usage of large stones as a standard for weighing various commodities. Originally, the size of the stone often varied from place – based on the size of a stone someone chose to be the standard for the town/area.
There are many museum exhibitions of stones used in Roman times that are of various multiples of Roman librae (pounds), from around 10 to 50 lb. In Britain and Ireland, the size of the stone unit has varied greatly throughout history. It has varied from location to location, for different usages and even for different times of the year. For example, in England, a statute in 1303 defined a London stone to be 12½ lb, a stone for use in lead to be 12 lb, a stone for use with wax, sugar, pepper, cumin, almonds & alum to be 8 lb, and 5 lb per stone for seams of glass. In 1350, a royal statute set the stone of wool to be 14 lb. Various sized stones remained for other commodities. In 1835, the ‘imperial’ stone was set at 14 lb (the ‘wool stone’), but other sizes were still permitted.
There were also some variations in other countries.
Prior to the Act of Union in 1706, Scotland had their own (similar) system of weights and measures. These were officially superseded in 1706 by the English measures, but continued to be used. In 1835, use of the old Scotch measures was made punishable by fine. In the old Scotch units, the ‘Lanark’ stone (so called because it was a standard maintained in a town called Lanark) was set at 16 lb, with 16 ounces in a pound, and 16 ‘drops’ in an ounce.
A survey of Ireland in 1812 details various definitions of stones, depending on location and usage. For example, in Down there was a local standard of 14 lb per stone for potatoes, 15 lb per stone for oatmeal, and 16 lb per stone for flax. Other areas just used the standard 14 lb for all stones, which all areas would have eventually used – especially after 1835. Another oddity was in Clare, where a stone of potatoes was set at 16 lb in the summer and 18 lb in the winter! This was probably to allow for there being more clay on the potatoes during the winter, although surely reducing the price would have had the same effect…
A pocketbook from 1851 details various sized stone weights across countries like Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. These Stein/steen/kamień varied in size from 8 local pounds (e.g. Pfund in Germany) to 40. Some countries adopted metric versions of their stone weights after they adopted the metric system.
As mentioned above, the stone has fallen out of usage in the USA over the years. However, it’s worth mentioning that in 1790, president Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimalised system of coinage, weights and measures. His proposal included having 100 cents to the dollar and various decimalised weights and measures, including a stone of 10 lb (each pound being 10 oz and so on). His proposal for decimalised coinage was adopted, making the USA the first country in the world to use decimal currency, but the weights and measures were not. Things may have been quite different if it had been…
Sources of information
- An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political, Volume 2 (1812)
- Our Weights and Measures (1897)
- Encyclopædia Britannica – Stone Unit of Weight
- Wikipedia – Stone (unit)
- Wikipedia – Weights and Measures Acts (UK)
- Comprehensive pocketbook of money, weights and measures for all counties and trading centres (1851)
- Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States (1790)