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A weighty subject for the holidays

December 16, 2008 | 12:59 pm

Millions of people will probably entertain themselves this holiday season by watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Internet. One thing they likely won’t do is haul the bathroom scale from the bathroom to the dining room and make everyone weigh themselves right after dinner.

ScaleCrazy, right? Well, back in the day (the 19th century, to be precise) it was considered quite the amusing parlor game, according to Deborah Levine, an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. She studied the fascination with weight and scales as part of her doctoral dissertation, "Managing American Bodies: Diet, nutrition and obesity in the United States from 1840 to 1920 (She’s currently writing a book about the subject.).

During the early part of the Victorian era, Levine says, babies or sick people were usually the only ones weighed. "If you were an adult you wouldn’t have known what your weight was. It wasn’t common information until the railroads started shipping freight, and people started to weigh themselves at train stations on the public scales."

The popularity of that, she adds, eventually inspired scale companies around 1880 to build smaller, more accurate versions meant for weighing people. Those machines began showing up at fairs and hotels, and wealthier families bought them for home use, where being weighed was one source of entertainment, especially before and after eating a large meal. Levine adds that scales also fit in with a growing fascination with anthropometry, or measuring different parts of the body with various tools to better comprehend the variation in human beings.

In a diary entry Levine found from 1890, a young woman writes: "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 woman noted that on average, each guest gained an average of two pounds.

Hilarity must have often ensued in these situations, as the diary entry continues: "This is not the true weight of Papa because he had a lot of things in his pocket to fool us!"

But by about 1910, Levine says, a shift occurred: "As the 20th century wore on, weight and the ability to stay with a prescribed diet became connected with a person’s moral character. The scale got moved from the salon into that other new invention of the American home, the bathroom, alongside other things necessary for good hygiene."

This dovetailed with the release of actuarial tables by insurance companies. Now knowing height and weight was essential, as being overweight was associated with having a shorter lifespan. She notes that our fascination with scales has endured, and technology has tried to keep pace, coming out with more accurate and detailed readouts. One of the latest incarnations is interesting in its approach; the Quantum scale never shows a person’s weight, only the amount that’s been lost or gained. Says the news release, "By only showing a loss or gain from the time you start a diet, the Quantum scale removes the negative observation."

Something tells us the Victorians wouldn’t have seen the fun in that.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: The Hartford Courant