The tape measure or measuring tape—a flexible ruler made of cloth, plastic, fiberglass, or metal—was developed long before the first modern tape-measure device was patented in the U.S. in 1868. In fact, historical documents show that a 22-year-old Englishman named Charles White was transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1838 for stealing a ribbon tape measure that spooled into a plain metal container and had a wooden ring at its end.

In England, in 1842, James Chesterman, working for a Sheffield steel factory, successfully repurposed the flat wire he had developed for crinoline skirts into a long steel tape measure with etched length markings. As hooped skirts got slimmer and used less wire around 1865, Chesterman began to sell his invention to engineers and surveyors, who had been measuring land with heavy and awkward chains. These “Steal Band Measuring Chains” were sold in the U.S. in the late 1800s, too.

In 1868, Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Connecticut, received a patent for what we now think of as the modern spring tape measure. Not long after, in 1871, the company Justus Roe & Sons, based in Long Island, started producing inexpensive steel tape measures, made with metal studs along lengths of wire. The patented “Roe's Electric Reel" was a best-seller, even though there was nothing electric about it. Then, in 1895, Roe started offering etched steel-ribbon tape measures to keep up with its competitors.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century, though, that this retractable tape measure overtook the wooden folding carpenter’s ruler. By 1960, Justus Roe company was producing tape measures for other companies like Stanley, for whom they made 1,500 measures a day.

The appeal of a tape measure as a tool is that it can measure a significant length, and yet be carried in one’s pocket. It can also measure curves and can wrap around corners and edges, so it is particular useful in sewing. Measuring tapes used in sewing tend to be made of cloth, plastic, or fiber, while those intended for construction or carpentry are usually made of a curved metal strip that remains straight when extended but can coil into a small box.

Some carpenter’s tape measures are marked with small black diamonds every 1.92 inches—these “black truss” marks are used in roofing. Other marks occur every 16 inches, which is generally the distance between studs in a house.

During the late 19th century, two newspaper publishers and entrepreneurs in Coshocton, Ohio, came up with the brilliant idea to use their printing presses to put advertisements on every object imaginable, including book bags, horse blankets, yard sticks, shoe horns, pencils, and horse whips. While both companies were best know for their beautiful tin, lithographed advertising signs, Jasper Freemon Meek of the Tuscarora Advertising Company and H.D Beach of the Standard Advertising Company changed product marketing forever when they put ads on measuring tapes...

By the turn of the 20th century, sewing tape measures were offered in celluloid containers, whose exteriors were printed with a wide variety of advertisements. These were used well into 1920s, when plastics like Bakelite and Catalin were introduced, and are hugely popular with collectors today.

The sewing tape measure container has long been a format for beautiful design, including figural shapes like animals, violins, and carriages. Each measure has a unique winding device. Some antique tape measure containers are made with precious metals or mother of pearl and and feature delicately designed filigree meant to appeal to Victorian ladies of the early 1800s. A few even have built-in clocks.

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