This week’s Ask a Curator object doesn’t have a definitive answer, but it’s a great example of the process behind cataloging an object.
When we came across this artifact, we had a little help. It had already been conserved and attached to it was a note identifying it as a brass weight. But that was where the information stopped.
In researching this weight, I discovered that the “S” and “P” stand for Shilling and Pence. This weight was the equivalent of 2 shillings and 6 pence, or a half-crown. I also learned that the “VR” stands for Victoria Regina, suggesting it was from the reign of Victoria. But what was this weight used for? When during Victoria’s 64 year reign did it date to? And how did it make its way to Virginia?
A Few Vital Clues
I came across two clues that proved vital to my research. One was the Weights and Measures Act of 1878. Under this act, all weights and scales were regulated by the crown. Inspectors were sent out to verify that weights were standardized. Once the inspector approved of a weight/scale, he stamped it. While the sources were not clear on what was stamped onto these approved items, it seems possible that the VR stamp could have been instituted as part of this Act to show that a weight had been verified by the crown..
The other important clue was an image of an almost identical weight. The only difference was the physical weight, which was .2 grams more than the weight I had. This second weight was identified as “Strictly a bullion weight used in the West Indies where the value of silver was tariffed higher than in the rest of the world.”
What I ascertained from these clue is that the weight I have would have been used for bullion and could have been used anywhere other than the West Indies. It was probably used post 1878.
What was an English bullion weight doing in Victorian Virginia?
Following the American Civil War, the south was left impoverished, Virginia included. With the loss of their main source of labor, slaves, and the decrease in population due to the war, the people in Virginia would have been forced to trade to get the goods needed to survive. Trade would have been vital for helping to renew the economy. Crops are not that useful if you have no one to trade them with.
One of the clauses in the Weights and Measures Act of 1878 stated that it was illegal to “have in his possession for use for trade” any unstamped weights. An English merchant, whether in England, one of the British colonies, or America would be likely to have stamped weights, and, if this merchant made it to Virginia, it is equally as likely that he could have lost his weight. Of course, this is only one possibility for how the weight traveled to Virginia. Do you have any other ideas? We’d love to hear your theories.
Turner, Gerard L’Estrange. Nineteenth Century Scientific Instruments. Berkeley, CA and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
Whiteley, George Crispe. The Law Relating to Weights, Measures, and Weighing Machines. London: Knight and Co., 1879.