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‘Parlor trick’ for the holidays — 1880s-style

In the 19th century, few of our ancestors knew how much they weighed. Most didn’t care, in fact. But by the late 1800s, scales became popular, yet they were still considered unusual enough to display in a prominent place in the home, like the sitting room.

“Knowing your weight was a novelty, a kind of parlor trick, before scales became widely available through mass production,” said Deborah Levine, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. She studies the evolution of medicine and our understanding of nutrition.

These were not your father’s bathroom scales. Some were made of ornate woods and decorated with stones and inlays, fitting for a piece of furniture in a middle-class home, right next to the piano.

My candidate for the all-time best brand name: The Salter No. 500 Automatic Personal Weighing Machine. You would not want to hide that baby in the bathroom; it would be like putting your new Cadillac in the garage and shutting the door.

A curiosity, not a health indicator
Weighing oneself may have begun at train stations, where scales were used to weigh freight. Eventually coin-operated scales sprouted at state fairs, in general stores and other public places. “Because public weighing in railway stations was so popular, I think people generally saw their weight as an interesting piece of information, one that linked their small bodies with the massive amounts of freight crisscrossing the country, not, as would become true in later decades, as a number related to their health,” Levine said.

The mass production of cheaper, less flashy scales, combined with a new interest in health and nutrition, moved them from the parlor into the kitchen, then the bathroom.

At about the time scales dropped in price, Levine said, life insurance companies (and medical professionals) began to promote ideal weights for people. And if you weren’t at an ideal weight, the inference was that there might be something wrong with you — too fat or too skinny.

Then it becomes potentially embarrassing to hop on a scale in front of friends and family after tucking in a big Christmas dinner. Much better to weigh oneself in the privacy of the privy.

A number with significance
Another dimension became attached to body weight, Levine said.

“The numbers that a bathroom scale displays, though conceivably nothing more than an abstracted and invisible reference point, have come to signify something specific about the identity of the person on the scale,” she said. “To name just a few examples, idiomatic plays on weight are common: one can be a ’95-pound weakling,’ or a ‘200 pound muscle machine.’ Regardless of connotation, the numbers: 95, 200, and so on, have become definitive indicators of some quality of the person standing on the scale.”

Scale manufacturers’ advertising shifted from the novelty of knowing your weight to “your doctor recommends weighing yourself daily.”

Levine found the following in a diary of a young woman from 1890, written after a Thanksgiving feast:

“Three cheers for thanksgiving. Harrah! Harrah! Harrah! The Learneds and the Hursts came to Thanksgiving. What a fat turkey we did have, and such a nice lot of things to eat! I asked papa to bring up the weighing scales [from the shop,] so we might be weighed before and after dinner to see how much we would gain by eating such a large dinner.”

The diarist then listed the before-and-after dinner weights of the seven diners. Each gained two pounds, except:

“This is not the true weight of Papa because he had a lot of things in his pocket to fool us!”

Try weighing your holiday guests before and after a feed. Get back to me on how that works out.

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