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 In fact, historical documents show that a 22-year-old Englishman named Charles White was transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1838 for stealing a ribbon tape measure that spooled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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Alloy Artifacts

Alloy Artifacts

A tool collectors’ dream, this site is a deep repository of photos and info on 20th century hand tools and the co… [read review or visit site]

Old Woodworking Machines

Old Woodworking Machines

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, now also includes a large database of manufac… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Drainspotting

Drainspotting

Josh and Cam Larios have created this site enabling people to upload and 'tag' photos of historic or artistic manho… [read review or visit site]

A Millers Falls Home Page

A Millers Falls Home Page

Randy Roeder has carved out a niche for himself with his fine website devoted to the history of the Millers Falls C… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Clam Shell Figural Sewing Tape Measure 2 & 1/2"Georgian Silver Filigree Tape Measure & Scent Bottle.thimble Combination.sewing.Early 20thc The Cream Rose Dairy Products Celluloid Advertising Tape MeasureAntique Vintage Victorian Rare Sewing Pin Cushion Felt Flowers Old Tape Measure Vintage Gas Station Advertising Tape Measure Tidewater Oil Company Flying A RareJohn Deere Horicon, Wi Key Chain Pocket Tape Measure Tools Tape Measure 30 Foot Craftsman 37393 30' Locking Heavy Duty Thirty FeetVintage White Matte Zippo Rule Tape Measure NibVintage Mopar Performance Retractable Metal Tape Measure / Finish Flag ~ Rare ??Rare Vintage Tape Measure Of Gen. Sir Horace Lockwood Smith - Dorrien C 1900/30sC.1919 Antique Celluloid Tape Measure - Lisbon, Ohio Bank - Near Mint ConditionNice Early 1900s Advertising Novelty Sewing Tape Measure By Parisian Novelty CoVintage Advertising Deutz Tractor 1960s Zippo Tape Measure AllisOld Coca Cola Soda Pop Sprite Boy Coke Tape Measure--mint Free Usa PostageAntique 1930's Unusual Lux Mystery Clock "the Tape Measure Clock" WorkingVtg 1920s Angelus Marshmallows Cracker Jack, Advertiisng Celluloid Tape MeasureNew Nos Vintage Sears Craftsman 50ft Tape Measure 9 3907 Deco StyleVintage 1930's Mystery Rotary Tape Measure Clock 5"Antique Craftsman Tape Measure 25' Self Locking 39393 Heavy Duty 1" Blade TipRare Vintage Dean Retractable Tape Measure With Cromer Lighthouse Picture 40"/1m6 Old Tools Starrett Wizard Tape Measure Thermometer Pipe Wrench Stanley 12 Foot Tape Measure New Old StockYs84 Polished Practical Tape Measure Keychain Key Chain Ring Keyring Key FobRed Adair Wild Well Control Oil Well Fire Houston Texas Advertising Tape MeasureNew Nos Vintage Lufkin 100ft Tape Measure Ni-clad Royal Steel TapeMetal Measure Tape Says "cadillac Craftsman 1961" Made By ZippoZippo Rule, Zippo Ruler, Lighter Case, Metal, Tape Measure2 1937 Spiegel Catalog Tape Measures Very NiceLufkin Chrome Clad 8' Measuring TapeVintage Advertising Buick Tape Measure Barlow MinitapeMen's Junk Drawer Lot Opinel Knife Lead Soldiers Jewelry Tape Measures + MoreLot Of 26 Vintage Tape Measures Sewing Crafts Scrap Booking Cloth Paper AdvertisBarlow Enamel Retractable Tape Measure Marked With Bell And Freedom- ExcellentVintage48" Automatic Recoil Type Cloth Tape Measure In Original BoxStanley Myt8 Thin Pocket Rule, Life Guard Yellow Tape Measure, Nmint, 8 FooterAntique French Clothing Measuring Tape, Loose, CentimetersZippo 6 Foot Measuring Tape Advertising Kemper KitchensVintage 10' Lufkin "made In U.s.a." Metal Tape Measure Lufkin Hw223 50 Ft. Steel Tape Measure Saginaw Mich Usa Vintage Nice!!Skoal Fishing Tape Measure And Scale. New, Sealed. No Reserve.Large Lot Of Pharmacy Advertising Paraphernalia-rulers, Tape Measure, Etc.Celluloid Advertising Tape Measure Big Rock Candy Mountain, Utah Sewing ItemPair Of Zippo Tape MeasuresVintage Metal Tape Measure 72" Irwin 12 Foot Tape Measure New Old StockVintage Lufkin Wizard Junior 8' Chrome Clad Tape Measure Saginaw MichiganVintage Zippo Tape Measure Charles Donley And Associates Pittsburgh 72in (usa)Vintage Big O Tire Tape MeasureZippo Tape Measure-davies Can Co.Antique Brass And Enamel Tape MeasureStanley Mabo Nivometre N131 Tape MeasurerVintage Dean Tape Measure England 60" Sewing ToolPortable Sewing Kit Thread Spool Needle Scissor Measure Tape For Diy Home ToolsVintage Blue Grass 50ft Steel Measuring Tape Belknap Hdw,& Mfg, Louisville, KyVintage Lot Of (5) Tape Measures** Vintage Red Leather Roe Precision Chrome 100 Foot Measuring Tape **Vintage Lufkin 100' Steel Measuring Tape Surveying ToolsVintage Oxwall Art Deco Looking Red Plastic Vintage Tape Measure New In BoxVintage Evans Power Tape Measure Ruler 12 Ft Feet Kp12w King SizeNorthport Lumber Corp.vintage Measuring Tape - Master Rule Mfg.middletown Ny 71"