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 In fact, historical documents show that a 22-year-old Englishman named Charles White was transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1838 for stealing a ribbon tape measure that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

Vtg Antique Tape Measure Clock Rare Elgin Mid Century Modern Alarm Space AgeVintage Florn West German Lux Style Rotary Tape Measure Wind Up Shelf Clock Vintage 1960s Enjoy Coca Cola Zippo Rule Tape Measure Unused In Original BoxVintage Zippo Rule, Rupp Mfg. Dart Kart Go Kart, Gokart, Tape Measure, LighterVintage 1935 Lux Tape Measure Revolving Desk Mantle Clock €Vintage 1960s Coca Cola Barlow Rule Tape Measure W/raised Golden BottleVintage Brass Victorian Metal Cat Tape Measure 35" Tape With Winder Tail N991 PbVintage Drink Coca Cola Lighter Flip Top 1950's With A Later Coke Tape MeasureVintage Zippo Advertising Tape Rule Measure C A Stanbury Mobil Oil Pegasus LogoSuper Antique Cold Painted Brass Cat Figure Sewing Tape Measure HolderVintage Barlow 72" Harvestore Farming Advertising Mini Pocket Size Tape Measure Vintage 1960s Enjoy Coca Cola Zippo Rule Tape Measure W/ Enamel Button On Front9 Old Tools Sargent Winchester Wrench Plumb Bob Pliers Tape Measure Screwdriver1917 Angelus Marshmallow 2 Sided Celluloid Advertising Tape Measure Cracker JackJohn Deere Tape Measure - Vintage AdvertisingZippo Rule Promotional Tape Measure , General Tire Advertisement Lot (5) Vintage Advertising Tape Measure Zippo Bell Systems Western Electric EtcRare Zippo Rule-tape Measure- Sportsmen Rule-hunting And FishingVintage Jayhawk Measuring Tape - From The '60's - Rare, Hard To FindAntique Embroidered Scottie Dog - German Red Tape Measure - Novelty/figurineVintage Zippo Advertsing Lighter And Tape Measure In Original Boxes * 1966 *Lot (3) Vintage Advertising Tape Measures Bell Helmets Zippo Rea Express AachenVtg Novelty Tape Measures On Red Feed Flour Sack Quilt Cotton FabricStanley No. 346 "push-pull" Tape Measure / Rule In Original Old Orange Box1950s Vintage Rare Metal Measuring Tape W Case For Horses, Hands, Inches, Metric7 Old Zippo Lighters Tape Measure Advertising 5 Mark Vintage Mens Junk Drawer Belt Buckles~ Tape Measures~souvenior Matches~stuff!!!!Vintage New Zippo Rule Tape Measure In Box - Enco -humble Oil And Refining CompVintage Copeland Lumber Black Cat Tape MeasureZippo Tape Measurer: Public Works Publications: Small 1 1/2" X 1 1/2"Antique Measuring TapeVintage Barlow Collectable Coca-cola Tape Measure - Made In AmericaLarge Lot Of 10 Vintage Advertising Tape Measures Metal Nr2 Machinist Lufkin And Roe's Measuring TapesJohn Deere Sales And Service Patch & Tape MeasurePepsi Cola Tape MeasureVintage Zippo Metal Tape Measure - Bell-gates Lumber Corp. Jeffersonville, VtVintage Belknap Blue Grass 100ft Tape MeasureVintage Bushwick Tape Measure, Stanley, Brooklyn, Ny - 1940s-1950s2 Vintage Western Electric (bell Telephone) Tape Measures, Original Boxes Vintage Wood Extension Folding Tape Measure Ruler Lot Of 4Vtg Keuffel & Esser 75ft / Luftkin Universal 100ft - Woven Tape Measure Lot Of 2Vintage Advertisement Tape Measure LotVintage Duluth Missabe And Iron Range Railway Zippo Tape MeasurerOld Lufkin 36" Pocket Tape Measure Compliments Safety Electric Products Co. L.a.Vintage Zippo 'norton" Ruler/tape MeasureVintage Advertising Retractable Celluloid Tape MeasureZippo Advertising Tape Measure Boston PilotsVintage Lufkin Round White Steel Tape Measure 100' Wind Up CrankLast One!! Zippo Tape Measure. Aviation/mcdonnell-douglas/rare-unique GiftVintage Zippo Lighter Co Tape Measure Ruler Tool Eimco Heavy Equipment BulldozerVintage Standard Fyr-fyter Advertising Zippo Tape Measure Rule Fire FighterVintage Lufkin 100' Tape Measure With Leather Case & Hand Crank Rewind Zippo Rule Tape Measure Bower TilingVintage Zippo Advertising Tape Measure Iola Ready-mix Inc. Iola Kansas ConcreteVintage Queen Elizabeth Pocket Tape Measure 40 Inches By DeanVtg. White Clad Lufkin Rule Co. 100 Ft. Steel Tape Measure Hw 226Vintage Collectible Remington Lufkin Replacement Tape Measure Lot MVintage Lufkin Sterling 100ft Woven Tape Measure Cloth RuleVintage Hand Crank Lufkin Tape Measure 50'