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 In fact, historical documents show that a 22-year-old Englishman named Charles White was transported to the penal colony of Australia in 1838 for stealing a ribbon tape measure that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

Vintage 1950s Massey Harris Oliver Tape Measure Dighton Kansas Ks TractorsRare Vintage Advertising Tin Brass Sewing Kit Measuring Tape With Brass ThimbleBoy Scout Of America Zippo Metal Tape Measure National Camping School StaffVintage John Rabone & Sons No 400 50ft Leather Cased Measuring TapeAllis Chalmers 5' Tape Measure From Modoc Implement SalesVintage 1961 Zippo Tape Measure With Cadillac LogoVintage Cat Caterpillar Safety Award - York Pa 1975 Zippo Rule Tape Measure Mib!Vintage Nos John Deere 12' Tape Measure Rule In Original Rack PackVintage. Zippo Rule Advertising International Harvester Tape MeasureGood Lot 7 Vintage Tape Measures..deans London..made In England..measuring TapeVintage Celluloid "montgomery & Co. Furniture" Retractable Tape MeasurerVintage Minneapolis Moline Tape Measure & Bullet Pencil HolderRare Lufkin Donut Tape Measure No. 986 Hard To Find Vintage Tape MeasureGroup Of Old Carpenter Measuring Folding Rules And Reel Cloth TapesC&o Railroad 'chessie' Pocket Tape Measure Circa-1960sNew Nos Vintage Sears Craftsman 16ft Locking Tape Measure 9 39215Zippo House Of Representatives United States Tape MeasureVintage Lot (3) Ingram Gasoline/oil Company Mechanical Pencils & Tape Measure 3 Power Locking Tapes Stanley 25" Craftsman 20' + 20' Carpentry Measuring ToolRetractable Advertising Tape Measure - The Pierre National Bank, SdVintage Amoco Mini Tape Measure Advertising Key Chain Vintage Craftsman Power - Return Tape Measure 39103 12 Ft. - Great ConditionVintage Tape Measure. The Lufkin Rule Co 25 Ft. Saginaw, Mich. UsaZippo Rule Tape Measure Carron & Company Metal FabricatorsAntique Souvenir Sewing Tape Measure From Rathaus Vienna Austria Circa 19001 Pc 150cm Pvc Soft Ruler Tape Sewing Tailor Dieting Measuring 60 Inch FoldableVictorian Lady Tape Measure Vintage Works Perfectly 1930s Bone China Sewing 3" HStarrett 100’ Steel Tape Measure C530 Excellent Condition Usa Measuring ToolVintage Celluloid Tape Measure Souvenir Berthoud Pass Co. Ski Lift 11,315 Ft. !!K & E Drafting Tip Top Wyteface Steel Tape Measure 72" In Original Box Free Ship Stanley Fatmax Xtreme Tape Measure 25 Ft 33-890 New Clampacked Vintage Peterbilt Tape Measure "new"Gulf Oil Company "oil Field Chemicals" 8 Foot Tape Measure Made Usa Vintage Walsco Tape Measure Advertising Pop Kola Golden Rule Leather CaseVintage Advertising Simmons Machinery Greenville Sc Tape Measure Zippo MinitapeTape Measure Hoover Steam Vac NoveltyVintage Barlow Advertising Tape Measure, Stevens Fabrics-borden PlantVintage Evans 25 Foot Tape MeasureVintage W.l. Walker Oil Gauging Tape Lufkin Measure With Graded Plumb BobGulf Oil Co Measuring Tape; 6 Ft LufkinVinatge Wales Poodle Sewing Cushion & Tape Measure Vintage Usa Barlow Measuring Tape Figurine Truck PatternVintage Irwin Comet 25' Steel Carpenters Tape Measure 16" Centers Free Shipping:Zippo Tape Measure Archway Cookies Home Style Metal Quality Advertising Tool Vintage Monitor Tape Measure By Master No. 206Smith-blair Rule Tape Measure Advertising In Original Box 37 Feet2 Skoal Advertising Tape Measure And Fishing Scale Vintage Zebco Model 208 De-liar Fish Fishing Scale & Tape Rule Measure1pcs New 1.5m Sewing Tailor Retractable Spring Tape Measure Practical Estate Lot Vintage Sewing Notions Elastic Snaps Ribbon Measuring Tape1950's Ceramic Poodle Dog Pin Cushion Sewing /measuring TapeAdams Tool & Engineering,lansing Mich. Advertising Tape Measure,barlow Tool,oldCute Small Vtg Peach Cloth 4ft Tape Measure Made In U.s.a. 1 1/2" DiameterVtg Leather Case Eugene Dietzgen 50' Ft Metal Tape Measure Chicago Ny ToolsVintage Advertising Tape Measure, Driver-harris Harrison, New JerseyVintage Thimbles In Original Packaging Plus Nos Mason Shoe Cloth Tape MeasureVintage Tape Measure ~ Robinetterie/crane Paris France~yard/metre Inches/metre Vintage Chase Mfg. Co. Brass 50 Foot Cloth Tape MeasureAntique Pink Deer Measuring Tape - Made In Japan - Unique Piece Realistic/figural Golden-brown "tape Measure" Button