Yardsticks: An American Phenomenon

First thoughts on a future book



I didn’t intend to collect yardsticks. Through a number of unpredictable circumstances, in 1995 I became a full-time labyrinth maker. First I had to learn geometry. Then, I had to make my own tools. As a life-long craftsman, I have always admired beautiful tools. When I visit tool museums, I go ga ga at the combination of function and art. There’s a tool museum in Troyes, France, that just about knocked my socks off -- room after room filled with gorgeous antique tools, ranging from rustic to elegant.

Among the tools that I made were long straight edges, from 12 to 18 feet in length. Somehow, I began to collect Stanley folding rules. From there, it just took off, to all kinds of measuring instruments. In my many travels, I take breaks from driving by visiting antique malls. There, I began to pick up yardsticks. Soon, I was on eBay, buying them in quantity, until I had amassed more than 2,000. That’s no record. I met one man who not only had 5,000 sticks, he had them all categorized and recorded on a spreadsheet as to what was printed on them, where he bought them, etc. Now that’s someone with too much leisure time on his hands. I tried to buy his duplicates, but all he sent me was junk, so I returned them.

I once talked with someone from Iowa who had inherited a large yardstick collection. I considered buying the whole thing, but nothing came of it. There are some folks who have sold yardsticks on eBay for many years. Either they had a large collection or they have good sources to continue to buy them.


I believe yardsticks are a truly American phenomenon. I know of no other country where yardsticks or meter sticks were manufactured by the millions and given away free by the bank, the paint store, the lumberyard, insurance agents, political candidates, and more. They were like miniature billboards, filled with advertising, which people took into their homes and kept for many years. Over a period of several centuries, the mode of manufacture changed. As actual measuring tools, they were replaced by folding rules, and then tape measures, and eventually electronic devices. I don’t think advertising yardsticks were ever intended to be serious or accurate tools. These days, yardsticks are used as raw material in many ways, most of them unrelated to measuring, from works of art, to furniture, wainscoting, shadow boxes, and much more.

Never have I found a book solely on the history and value of yardsticks. These humble ornaments, so plentiful and ubiquitous, seem to have slipped by unnoticed by scholars of tools or Americana. Digging up information has been tedious, even in the electronic age. When searching on Google, an alternative meaning for “yardstick” is prevalent. It is used for the broader meaning of something used as a standard of measure. So, Yardsticks in the Classroom isn’t a book about having three-foot-long sticks in class, rather it is standard against which other things are compared, in this case a “reference that helps translate knowledge of child development into schooling that helps children succeed.” I thought the author’s name, Chip Wood, was a humorous wordplay, but it seems to be just coincidence. My first Google search was overwhelmed by one reference after another to the above book.

The book, Carfree Cities: Yardsticks for Cities is again about establishing a paradigm and not about measuring the length of the streets. Somewhat interesting is the opening chapter (photo not included here - as I don't have permission yet) with this caption:

"We begin with techniques of measurement. Here at the naval shipyard in Venice, the meter and the passo Veneto have been cast in bronze and bolted to the wall for ready reference."

Then, the author goes on to talk about cities. Nothing more about measuring devices. His Venice reference reminds me of the meter monuments in France. Prior to the establishment of the meter, there were many different standards of measurement. Indeed, going back in time there are such examples as the megalithic yard, the Roman foot, the ped manualis, and many more. Remember Noah’s ark being 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 deep? What exactly is a cubit? It is the measurement from a person’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Of course that would vary from person to person, but certain values were apparently established. I always thought it was 18 inches. One source says 45.72 centimeters, which is about the same. By my calculation that would make the ark 450 feet long, but an article in Wikipedia converts 300 cubits to 515 feet long. Maybe it was a tall person with long arms. At 18 inches, a cubit would be half a yard. Two cubits equal one yard(stick).

The foot and thus the yard have their own history, of course. Historically, when one person was making one structure, it didn’t matter what unit he used, as long as it was consistent. Only later, when there were construction crews and multiple projects, was standardization necessary. Feet were originally the length of one’s foot. There were also palms. An inch was the width of one’s thumb. Try 12 of your thumb widths and compare that to the length of your foot. Three of these feet, a yard, was the distance from the tip of the nose to one’s outstretched arm. A measurement of two yards, the reach of outstretched human arms, was called a fathom. As mentioned, a cubit was elbow to finger tip. Half a cubit is a span, the width of your outstretched hand from tip of thumb to tip of little finger. Try it out. See if your cubit is equal to two of your spans. It should be pretty close. A hand width equals half a span.

The French invented the meter, which was supposed to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North pole to the Equator, along a line that passed through Paris. (Remember reference to this line in Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code?) It turns out, they miscalculated by a little bit, but nevertheless, the meter was born and, eventually became law, despite the confusion it caused. There still exist, in Paris, just a few of the original official meter monuments, which were cast in bronze and placed around town. Years ago I took a photo of one, and me standing by it. I wish I could find it for this book. Maybe I’ll look again, the next time I'm in Paris.

So where did our yard measure come from? England, of course. It was King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) who declared, “three feets make one yard.” Rather than taking a measurement from the body or the earth, the yard came to be based on the length of a pendulum that took one second to complete its swing. In 1824 in England, as elsewhere, examples were made of the official yard length that had been established in 1760. After many years of indecision, the United States adopted the yard measure, taken from an official bar sent from England in 1832. From that time until the present, there has been pressure to adopt the metric system. Purists, however, feel that there is a more engaging history for the imperial measurements. These days, I’m sure there is some high tech way to authenticate the most precise measurement -- sort of a linear version of the atomic clock.

Yardsticks as promotional gifts

Using yardsticks for promotional reasons continues today. Of course there are also pens and calculators and flashlights and a zillion other possibilities. Here is the direct wording that I found from a company in China, which calls them “yardstick rulers.”

“If you want to promote your business or your company, then choosing to give gifts, giveaways or promos is the best idea. You can buy the wholesale promotional gift products to give away to your employees, customers and to the visitors to promote or to popularize your company much better. If you buy these promotional products from the retail suppliers, you will be surely in loss due to their high selling prices. Instead, if you get the manufacturer’s wholesale products from the manufacturer suppliers or from the wholesaler suppliers you would save a huge amount of money. There are various wholesaler suppliers who sell the promotional products at cheap manufacturer’s price. Papa China is one of the best wholesaler suppliers which sell the manufacturer's goods at factory manufacturer’s price.

“There are more than 100,000 promotional products for sale in the offline catalogue of this wholesaler supplier and over 20,000 promotional products for sale online available at manufacturer’s price. You can find 8 varieties of yardsticks rulers available with varying colors, designs and models. You may find that these promotional yardsticks rulers are often sold at less than the manufacturer’s price. Some of the manufacturer’s deals are, 3 sections folding yardsticks ruler cost just $0.48, promotional 36 inch long folding yardstick is available for just|$0.47, promotional enamel finish yardstick is for just $0.28, promotional extra natural yardstick is for just $0.33 etc. All these promotional products are sold at manufacturer’s price. This is possible by this wholesaler supplier because they have various business ties with many reputed manufacturers and wholesaler suppliers and has gained thousands of customers all over the world. Papa China also offers personalized and customized promotional yardsticks with your company’s name or logo printed on it. This personalized and customized delivery is given by this supplier for free. You can choose this personalized and customized product ideas for gifts, giveaways or promos.”

Not to be outdone is this American manufacturer:

Yard Sticks by AAkron Line (The) (ASI #30270)
Aakron Rule was incorporated in New York State in January of 1967. Our first products included school rulers, office rulers, and yardsticks. In 1968, we entered the Promotional Products Industry. Today Aakron Rule is the largest manufacturer of wooden rulers and yardsticks in the world. Our product line has grown to include over 130 different items. We have won several Supplier Star and Merit Awards from the Promotional Products Industry.
Contact SunRise.Com in the USA and Canada at 800-222-7367 to order.

Internet research, good and bad

I found a very strange entry on eHow.com about yardsticks, written by Georgia Dennis, that informs us that “a yardstick will be at least one yard in length.” Doesn’t that lack something? A yardstick is a yard. Period. The term is not for anything that is at least a yard, which would include, for example, a mile. I guess she did get the point, as she suggests “yardsticks everywhere should conform to the basic properties . . . “ In other words, presumably, BEING 36 INCHES. (Oh, excuse me. I got excited.) She was quite indecisive as to the width of yardsticks, allowing that “common yardsticks are on the narrower side.” That’s helpful. Narrower than what? She then describes that yardsticks are broken down into smaller measurements, such as inches and feet, or fractions of a yard. She points out that advertisements often appear on yardsticks, which are handed out as favors because they are cheap to purchase. Well, I guess that about covers the subject.

Not really. There’s more. One place on the Internet gave the measurement for the tallest yard stick (written as two words, as some people do) in history: 72 ft. 7 in. long. Huh? Isn’t the internet wonderful? Dictionary.com gives the origin of the word as “1810-20, Americanism.” I don’t think the British would agree. Thesaurus.com gives these words that are synonymous with yardstick: “barometer, basis, benchmark, criterion, example, guide, guideline, indicator, mark, measure, meter, model, norm, rule, sample, scale, standard, tape measure, test.” Sorry, I don’t think “meter” is synonymous with “yardstick.” They are quite different. This reminds me of the popular misconception as to when the millennium arrived. It was, of course, after midnight on December 31, 2000, NOT 1999. When I would mention that to people, they would say, “Well, that’s a matter of opinion.”Really? What is your opinion about 2 X 2? Is 4 just an opinion? Here’s a test. After reading this sentence, start counting to 1000. . . . . . OK, stop. Did you start with zero? Probably you started with 1 and ended with zero (1-0-0-0), which means the year with zero (i.e. 2000) is the last year in the millennium. But, let’s get back to yardsticks.

Let’s applaud the Collins English Language Dictionary -- Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, copyrighted in 2009 by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, for this definition of yardstick. Actually, the first definition is as a standard of comparison. The second definition is: “A graduated stick, one yard long, used for measurement.” Isn’t that a bit more acceptable than “at least a yard”?


Well, that’s as far as I have gotten to date. I plan to go on about the content of yardstick texts (“We go the extra distance . . ." and that sort of thing), give some idea of how many have actually been manufactured, how they were made in the past, and today, plus many more fascinating facts. I’m sure this will be a best seller. For movie rights, I hope Tom Hanks will play the part of the yardstick -- or maybe King Edward I.


Update: As of March, 2017, the yardsticks are FOR SALE. Part of retirement downsizing.

This is what they look like. I hope to put them up on eBay as an entirety, not individually or in small groups. Interested? Contact me: robert@robertferre.com.

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