History museum claims Amherst’s cabinet of weights and measures

  • Marianne Curling, who is the consulting curator for Amherst History Museum, displays a set of weights in the museum's collection, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at the museum. They were made by Troemner in 1958. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A nameplate on the base of a scale that is a part of a 1848 weights and measures cabinet recently acquired by Amherst History Museum reads,"Made for the town of Amherst by Howard & Davis, Boston, Mass." —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marianne Curling, who is the consulting curator for Amherst History Museum, displays a set of weights in the museum's collection, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at the museum. They were made by Troemner in 1958. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marianne Curling, who is the consulting curator for Amherst History Museum, stands beside the museum's recently acquired weights and measures cabinet from 1848, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at the museum. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A scale that is a part of a 1848 weights and measures cabinet recently acquired by Amherst History Museum is displayed at the museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Frey, of Northampton, who is the sealer of weights and measures for Northampton, Hadley, Granby and Amherst, stands beside a display of historic weights and measures at Amherst History Museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. By his feet are measures and weights he currently uses, such as a five-gallon prover, left, used for measuring gasoline and a 30-pound test kit used for testing delicatessen scales. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Frey, of Northampton, who is the sealer of weights and measures for Northampton, Hadley, Granby and Amherst, and Marianne Curling, the consulting curator for the Amherst History Museum, stand beside a display of historic weights and measures at the museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Frey, of Northampton, who is the sealer of weights and measures for Northampton, Hadley, Granby and Amherst, holds a set of apothecary and metric weights at Amherst History Museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marianne Curling, who is the consulting curator for Amherst History Museum, holds a container uses for measuring a gill, or four ounces, that is part of a 1848 weights and measures cabinet, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at the museum. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Frey, of Northampton, who is the sealer of weights and measures for Northampton, Hadley, Granby and Amherst, examines part of a 1848 weights and measures cabinet at Amherst History Museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Frey, of Northampton, who is the sealer of weights and measures for Northampton, Hadley, Granby and Amherst, and Marianne Curling, who is the consulting curator for Amherst History Museum, examine parts of a 1848 weights and measures cabinet at the museum, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2018 12:34:22 AM

AMHERST — A large wooden cabinet for many years stood on the first-floor public stairwell landing at Town Hall, appearing to be mostly a decorative piece of furniture with nothing external identifying its purpose.

But until about 40 years ago, and for more than a century before, the items inside the cabinet played an essential role in Amherst, with the town’s sealer of weights and measures using the scale, weights and various containers inside to make sure that customers at stores were getting the quantity of goods a shopkeeper claimed they were.

In late August, the cabinet was moved to the Amherst History Museum, where it now has a prominent place near the main entrance and joins other artifacts from the town’s past, including Emily Dickinson’s famous white dress and an 11-foot-long Amherst House sign salvaged from an 1879 fire that destroyed that downtown landmark.

“It’s really fun to have it here,” says Marianne Curling, the consulting curator for the museum.

Curling said what she sees in the cabinet is an elegance in its arrangement and presentation, while also serving a vital function for the town.

“I think the design is amazingly modern,” Curling said, adding that she loves the “gorgeous” painted grain on the exterior.

The doors of the cabinet open on two levels. The top section features a large equal-arm balance scale, surrounded by places to hold a set of 16 graduated weights, from a quarter-ounce to 50 pounds, that could be used in coordination with the scale or on their own.

On the lower level are numerous containers, with liquid measures going from one gill to one gallon and larger dry measures that go from a peck to a bushel. An iron gimbal can be attached to a slot on the cabinet’s left side, allowing these dry contents to be placed in the various containers and measured with precise leveling.

The cabinet was manufactured in 1848 by Howard and Davis, a Massachusetts company also known for making fire engines. The company earned the state’s contract to make the cabinets and bring all cities and towns into conformity with how measurements were done. A display advertisement for the company is positioned on the back right side of the cabinet.

“They were really standardizing at this moment,” Curling said.

There is also a sign attached to the inside right-hand doors with instructions for how to use all the equipment inside.

Official correspondence from the state is tacked to the left back wall of the cabinet, with the last letters dating to 1979, likely indicating the last year that the cabinet was used by the town’s sealer of weights and measures. “It was in use up to 1979, according to the paperwork,” Curling said.

Curling said it is astonishing that the cabinet was an important tool for well over a century. “I was surprised it dated back to the 1840s,” she said.

But she speculates that elements were replaced and updated over time.

The sealer of weights and measures is still a position that exists, with John Frey, an employee of the city of Northampton for the past 20 years, being contracted to do the work for Amherst, Granby and Hadley, as well.

As Frey puts it, he oversees the testing of weights anywhere from a milligram pharmacy scale to a 20,000-ton truck scale.

Most of what he uses is portable equipment that he brings out in the field, and the work mostly centers around how much items weigh.

“I don’t do much on the measures side anymore,” Frey said.

One aspect of measuring remains, though, which is the 5-gallon test prover, which he uses to test all gas pumps in the cities and towns where he works.

The other equipment includes a 30-pound test kit for deli scales or anything in the range between 10 and 50 pounds, and a pharmacy kit that has metric weights and an avoirdupois balance. Frey also has 50-pound weights that can be used to test scales up to 1,000 pounds.

A modern part of the job is evaluating pricing scanners and having to verify the pricing accuracy at supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers, which he does by picking out 200 random products and making sure the computer price matches the shelf price.

“It’s an equal mix of gas stations, small deli scales and pricing accuracy,” Frey said of his job.

Having the weights and measures cabinet from 170 years ago is not unusual for area communities. Williamsburg has its cabinet displayed at the Meekins Library, while Leverett has its cabinet stored at the Leverett Family Museum.

The receipt of the cabinet for the museum also came with a traveling set, similar to what Frey now uses, made by Henry Troemner Inc., of Philadelphia, which Curling notes dates to sometime after 1955, based on the look of the case.

There is also a portable scale that is more than a century old, based on a 1912 catalog from W & L.E. Gurley of Troy, New York. This scale can be folded up into a small container.

In 1919, an even older set of weights and measures, dating to the early 1800s, was donated to the Amherst History Museum.

Curling said she is planning to do work to get a display in place, including cleaning the cabinet and adding supplemental lighting so that it will be presented for visitors.

It’s an important piece for the museum, she said, as it can illustrate how something supported by the state of Massachusetts would benefit not only residents, but also visitors, giving them knowledge and assurance that shopkeepers were on the up and up, and that there was consistency in measurements when traveling from state to state.

“This meant you could be sure that you were paying appropriately for your purchases,” Curling said. “This is an everyday way government was helping people.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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