That's Curious: From Petticoats to Construction Sites

January 20th, 2011

Would you believe that carpenter’s tape measures—the manly kind, with a metal strip that coils into a box, but stays straight when extended—actually derived from crinoline hoop-skirt petticoats?

And no, I’m not talking about the ribbons marked with measurements used in sewing (although those were probably an inspiration). The steel strip itself inside the first surveyor’s tape measure was first used to make the metal hoops in Victorian skirts.

James Chesterman, who worked for a Sheffield steel manufacturer, came up with the idea for marking this material and using it as a ruling device in 1842. However, he didn’t market this tool until 1865. Check out our new tape measure page to find out why.

Another fun fact about tape measures: Around the turn of the century, the sewing variety, then held in round, celluloid containers, was a popular device for novelty advertisements (see examples below).

These items are huge with collectors now, but when you think about all the logo-stamped letter openers and ballpoint pens and stress balls that have been junking up our homes for decades, you can thank two Coshocton, Ohio, newspapermen for this phenomenon. In the late 1800s, they went crazy with their printing presses, putting logos all over—on book bags, horse blankets, yard sticks, shoe horns, pencils, and horse whips.

Of course, these publishers were also responsible for some of the most stunning tin-lithographed advertisement signs from the early 20th century, so maybe we’ll let it slide.

(Images: A 1957 satirical cartoon at top left is labeled “New Contrivance for Lady’s Maids, adapted to the Present Style of Fashions,” from; at top right is a vintage Rabone steel depth-gauge measuring tool.)

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