Why does this woman look so happy to be weighing herself in public? Those of us accustomed to taking our weight within the privacy of our own homes would probably avoid a public weighing scale like this one, sponsored by the Philadelphia’s City Commissioners Office during the 1959 Municipal Services Fair.
But, as historian David Lowenthal reminds us, the past is a foreign country. For people in the first half of the 20th century, public weighing scales were not only commonplace, they were a major draw–and a lucrative business venture!
Weighing scales were a novelty in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Like moving picture machines, personal weighing scales were a major technological innovation–a development so exciting, and so profitable, that manufacturers quickly marketed them as a kind of coin-operated vending machine. Drop in a penny, and you got to see your weight.
The earliest such machine arrived in the U.S. from Germany in 1885. Four years later, the National Scale Company manufactured the first coin-operated scale in the U.S., a device that weighed in at 200 pounds. By the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of these scales dotted street corners, department store vestibules, movie theaters, public restrooms, and other locations throughout the United States. These machines proved a lucrative investment, even in the depths of the Depression. Costing as little as $50 a unit, these coin-drop scales could provide owners with dividends in the thousands. As Kerry Segrave records in his book Vending Machines: An American Social History, “With 40,000 weighing machines distributed across America, [one scale operating company] said they took in 450 million pennies, or $4.5 million, in a year. That averaged out to $112 a year per machine, $9 to $10 a month, 31 cents a day.”
Beginning in the 1940s, improvements in mechanical scale technology enabled companies to produce smaller, more affordable personal weighing scales for private home use. The increasing affluence, upward mobility, and suburbanization of the postwar years increased average Americans’ access to these machines, and the popularity of the penny scale began to decline. Operators and manufacturers, in last-ditch efforts to revive the popularity of these vending machines, tried new gimmicks, including a two-cent machine that provided a print-out of the user’s weight (rather than just a reading). Nevertheless, their popularity continued to decline.
With the domestication of the personal weighing scale came the idea that one’s weight should be taken in the most private of all private places: the bathroom.
Even though bathroom scales gradually became the norm across the U.S., early iterations were far from perfect. Accuracy was a major issue–and one that companies used to market their products. A 1954 ad for the Detecto bathroom scale proudly proclaimed that this machine was “the most TRUTHFUL bath scale ever!” Because of their larger size, public scales–vending and non-vending alike–contained more precise mechanisms, and could advertise a more accurate reading. Thus, even as late as 1959, patrons could be wooed to a public scale like the one at the Municipal Services Fair simply because of its more exact results.
Rohde, Jane. “History of Bathroom Scales.” ArticleAlley.com.
Segrave, Kerry. Vending Machines: An American Social History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2002. (The quoted material comes from page 24.)