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 In fact, historical documents show that a 22-year-old Englishman named Charles White was transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1838 for stealing a ribbon tape measure that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

Vintage Machinery

Vintage Machinery

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, also includes a large database of manufacture… [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    

Vintage Plated Metal Figural Sewing Tape Measure Hare RabbitVintage John Deere Zippo Tape Measure Hobbs Implement Company Edenton, N.c.Pharmaceutical Drug Rep Ink Pens, Calculators, Letter Openers, Tape MeasureCirca 1900 Celluloid Tape Measure Hoxie, Kansas Bank Color Image Of Young GirlRare Lux Tape Measure Clock - Vintage! 1960s Zippo Tape Measure Military Presentation Piece Navy Admiral , New In BoxZippo Rule Shell Oil & Gas Clam Shell Logo Tape Measure From EstateBlack Americana Celluloid Alligator Black Boy Head Sewing Tape Measure Vtg 1967 Porky Pig Warner Bros T & N Railroad Zippo Tape Measure Train Estate Vintage Streamline Master Rule # 406 Tape Measure Made In Usa # 232 Vtg Zippo Rule Tape Measures Graziani Sons Excavating Grading New Castle PaZippo Tape Measure With Advertising For Yellow PagesVtg Ceramic Cat Kitten Pin Cushion Tape Measure Scissor Holder Arnart Japan NiceVintage Celluloid Tape Measure Worden's Milk And Ice Cream1950s Minneapolis-moline Dealer Tape Measure...kansasVintage Pin Cushion "sewing Machine" W Retractable Tape MeasureVintage Zippo Rule Tape Measure Cadillac CraftsmanMint Pair Vintage Zippo Rule Tape Measures Flowline FittingsVtg Barlow Advertising Tape Measure Ford Tractors Equipment As A Rule , Ideas Pa2 Vintage Zippo Rule Tape Measures Flowline FittingsLot Of 3 Slim Zippos And Zippo Tape Measure $.99 No Reserve Ge Zippo Unused Antique Celluloid Strawberry Sewing Measure Tape6 Vintage Zippo Rule Tape Measures Wabco Ruhlin Strohecker Tmx Davis Flowline1949 Celluloid Adv Tape Measure W/ Lock Hardware Mutual Insurance Of Mn2 Vintage Cigarette Lighters - 1 Bullet Shape & 1 Tape Measure ShapeSouvenir Mailer / Tape Measure Pin Cushion Beaded Moccasin Shoe Hollywood CaVintage Simpson Hatchery Harvey North Dakota Celluloid Adv Measuring Tape Neat! Antique Vintage Us Capitol White House Wash Dc Sewing 60" Tape MeasureVintage Mrs. Baird's Bread Tape Measure Since 1908 Stays Fresh Longer MintVintage Amoco Tire Tape Measure KeychainVintage Keuffel & Esser Co Architects Tape Measure Nice Metal Case Pat. 7-22-24 Old Vintage Ford Motor Company Tape Measure Glass Division Ex. Cond, L@@k !!Vtg Celluloid Cloth Retracting Tape Measure - 3'Coca-cola Pocket Measuring Tape By Barlow -measures Up To 72" Made In The U.s.a.Vintage Tape Measure, Hot Springs Arkansas, Army Navy HospitalVintage Plastic Painted House Tape Measure Sewing Notion UniqueVintage Metal Tape Measure 50 Year Anniversary Rapidayton 6 Ft Gold Case 1958Dean Pink Doll Sewing Measuring Tape,retractable,made In England StampedZippo Rule Tape Measure Adv Kunzler Meats MibBrussels "5' Tape Measure"-vintage 1958 Belgium Expo Reception Comittee Item-8 Vintage Tape Measures Lufkin Stanley Bakelite Germany Craftsman Oxwall ToolsMini Reich & Tang Funds Level Measuring Tape Fob Keyring Key Ring Chain KeychainRca Logo 6' Tape Measure With Stanley Life Guard TapeDayton (washington) Chemicals Shell Tape Measure - Barlow BrandLufkin Super Hi-way Survey Surveyor's 200ft Steel Measuring Tape Wreel Needs TlcVintage Lady's Man Tape Measure 6' - W/box - Wonderful Cond - Works Great! Vintage Wise Potato Chips Advertising Lot Peppy The Owl Keychain Tape MeasureNice Zippo Advertising Measuring Tape, 1994Vintage Davis & Furber Machine Co. Zippo Tape MeasureGreat Lot Sewing Supplies, Buttons Thread, Needles, Seam Ripper, Measuring Tape