What Defined a Bushel of Wheat in 1821?

Some of the novel’s research involved tracking down standard measures used during 1820 – 21 in order to run calculations for the logistical problems the character Mr. Winter is obliged to solve, regarding his agricultural experiments.   Most of my calculations are done using imperial measures, but one in particular sent me on wild goose chases throughout the internet, secondary to its relative ambiguity in definition during the era – the bushel.  I ended up using an economic historian’s work as my primary source, and I’ll paste a few passages from his paper on the topic below.

A woman gleaning mowed grain.
A woman gleaning mowed grain.

From Measurement Systems as Market Foundations: The Role of Mensuration in Generating Economic Knowledge, a paper by Aashish Velkar, Economic History Dept., London School of Economics, Houghton St., London WC2 A 2 AE, for the Measurements and Knowledge, Manufacturing Markets Workshop, Florence, 2009; [Pg. 4,5, 9]:

‘In the nineteenth-century, the British wheat markets faced two major measurement issues. How to measure the quality of wheat, particularly as the market price could vary significantly according to the quality of the grain? And, how much did a bushel of wheat weigh, i.e. what was the weight equivalent of a bushel of wheat, which was nominally a volumetric measure?  These were important, and related, issues that occupied the attention of grain merchants, large buyers of grain (e.g. millers) and the British state throughout the nineteenth century.

That a bushel uniformly did not mean the same measure of quantity across domestic markets in Britain was a well recognized fact by the nineteenth century. Depending upon the commodity being measured, the bushel could be used either as a volumetric unit or a weight unit. It was used to measure many dry goods such as coal, wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables, etc. When used for measuring fruits the bushel was equivalent to 33 quarts or 4 pecks. In contrast, the bushel used to measure wheat, rye, barley, oats, flour or salt was based on a unit of weight and was linked to the pound.4 The bushel unit also varied between geographical locations. The bushel used to measure potatoes in Cheshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire was equivalent to 90 lbs, whereas in Leicestershire it was equivalent to 80 lbs, in Surrey it was 60 lbs and in Middlesex it was 56 lbs. Wheat was measured in Cheshire and Liverpool using a bushel of 70 lbs, but in Stockton it was equivalent to 60 lbs. In Cheshire and Liverpool, barley was measured using a bushel of 60 lbs whereas in Devonshire it was measured using a bushel of 50 lbs. In Penrith, potatoes and barley were measured using a bushel of 20 gallons, whereas in Staffordshire and Shropshire barley was measured using a bushel of 9.5 gallons. Barley was sometimes measured in Liverpool using a bushel of 34.5 quarts or 9 gallons (Winchester measure), whereas wheat was measured in Oxfordshire using a bushel of 9 gallons and 3 pints.

Nevertheless, there was a method to this seeming madness. Wheat was sold using a combination of volume and weight measures in many British wheat markets5. In such cases, the bushel measure was guaranteed to weigh a specified amount, say 60 lbs. If the actual weight was more or less than the guaranteed weight per volume, the contract price was adjusted proportionately. A contract for wheat from Boston c1830 guaranteed delivery weight to be 18 stone per quarter (i.e. 8 bushels) and specified price and terms as 54s 6d ‘pay or be paid’ i.e. the farmer was to make a ‘proportionate allowance’ to the merchant in case the net weight on delivery was under 18 stone 4 lbs, and conversely the farmer was to receive an allowance from the merchant in case the net weight on delivery was found to exceed 18 stone 4 lbs.6 In another contract from Sheffield, weight per load (equivalent to 3 bushels) was guaranteed by the seller to vary from 12 stone 19 lbs to 13 stone 10 lbs according to the quality of wheat. Also, wheat brought into this market from Gainsborough and Lynn was sold by the quarter weighing 504 lbs, whereas wheat from Hull was to be delivered at 480 lbs per quarter.7 There are similar examples from other market towns such as Lincoln, Stamford, York, Leeds, Wakefield, Hull, Whitby, Malton, Durham, Stockton, Darlington, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Whitehaven, etc.’

‘During the nineteenth-century, there were numerous, unsuccessful, attempts to standardize the measurement used in sale of wheat. The question of how much should a bushel of wheat weigh, and whether it should weigh the same across all markets where wheat was sold, continued to dodge those with an interest in the trade throughout the nineteenth century.

The state dealt with the multiplicity of customary measures in a non-interventionist manner. Returns by inspectors were required to be expressed in terms of Imperial bushels, even if the trade made grain contracts using local measures. For this, uniform weight equivalents of the bushel were necessary and all inspectors had to use the same conversion ratio: for converting from locally used measurement unites into the legally specified Imperial bushel, and to use the same weight equivalents for the bushel across all markets for which the corn returns were made. Early nineteenth-century legislation specified weight equivalents of grain for both the Imperial as well as the Winchester bushel, whereas in later legislation the weight equivalents are specified only for the Imperial bushel. As far as the corn returns were concerned, in c1820 the density of wheat was assumed to be 59 pounds per imperial bushel, that of barley was 51 pounds, oat 37, and rye 57 pounds per imperial bushel.’

Spiral Water Wheel Pump

In chapter six of the novel, the character, Mr. Winter describes solving a logistical problem concerning watering two, 1/2 acre fields weekly, with a primitive nitrogen solution that must be mixed on the fly (as he has no storage capacity to hold a volume of solution that is the equivalent of a few inches of rain per month, for the size of these fields).   He decides to pump water from the River Compton below the field, up to two small pools he’s constructed for each, which hold enough volume that 1/7th of each field may be watered each day.  His nitrogen salt is added to these pools when they are full, and a set of young farm hands dip tin watering cans into the pools and run up and down the fields with these until the day’s area is covered.

Yet in 1821, in his particular area of the country, a small mechanical pump running on steam was probably not practical, both because of economic reasons, and because such would destroy the peacefulness of the countryside which Mr. Winter (and his fellow residents) so cherished.  His solution was therefore a spiral water pump similar to the pictures shown below.  The technology is derived from ancient times, but Mr. Winter, being an engineer who specializes in the improvement of machines, comes up with something quite similar:







[From the March 1984 issue of the Blair Research Bulletin of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health.]

[Note this was originally published in February of 2015]