Antique Balance Scales: Weighing the Different Types

Updated March 8, 2022
Close-Up Of Antique Weight Scale On Table

Antique balance scales are now considered works of art by collectors. However, before the invention of digital scales and other electronics, mechanical scales were used for thousands of years to measure almost everything and were even necessary to determine the value of most forms of money.

Types of Antique Balance Scales

Balance scales - also known as mass scales and balance weights - were historically used as a way to make precise measurements of goods like herbs, pharmaceuticals, and food. There were several designs of scales that were used for the purpose of measuring and equal arm balance scales were commonly used for a variety of different purposes. Despite the main function remaining the same, the type of scale was often modified depending on what it was used for.

Money Scales

Close-Up Of Coins On Weight Scale

Since the time of the Roman Empire, weighing coins of gold and silver was completed using some type of mechanical scale. There were many types of scales that were used to measure the weight of coins, including equal arm balance scales, steelyard scales (a type of unequal arm balance lever scale), pocket scales, and rocker balance scales.

Equal arm balance scales that were used for weighing money were designed to be accurate and small enough to transport from one place to another. The scales had their own fitted wood or metal containers. By the late 1700s, scales were being designed with improved accuracy and sensitivity. This was accomplished by making the scales lighter, smaller, and built with better hinges. The pocket scale was invented in 1770, which consisted of a small equal arm balance scale that was inside a small box. The scale was good for measuring small coins. Rocker balance scales were invented in the early 19th century, and the weight of the coin had to be exact in order for these scales to be balanced. This scale could also be used to measure the diameter and thickness of a coin.

Postal Scales

Antique postal scales are an uncommon, though a huge collector's favorite, type of historic scale. Many types of scales were used as postal scales, including spring scales, pendulum scales and equal arm balance scales with pans that hung below the arms and pans that were placed above the arms. The scales were used to measure the weight of letters and other small packages to determine the amount of postage needed.

Analytical Scales

Science had advanced far enough by the 18th century to warrant the need for extremely accurate and sensitive scales. Doctors, pharmacists and chemists used analytical scales, which had very small central beams and small delicate pans made from glass or brass. These scales were usually built into a box, with every precaution being taken to ease the friction on the hinges, helping to increase the scales' accuracy. A level and screws were used to adjust and fine tune the scales when needed. These scales were so sensitive that they needed to be kept in a glass case because dust and moisture can actually affect their accuracy.

How Equal Arm Balance Scales Work

Close-Up Of Weight Scale

Equal arm balance scales have been used for thousands of years, as they're the simplest type of scale available. The simple design begins with a beam that is balanced at its exact center on a hinged set at right angles to the beam. This point is called the fulcrum. Equal weighing pans are suspended on each end of the beam. The pans are also an equal distance from the fulcrum, which is where the beam's center of gravity's located.

Thus, to weigh something, an object is placed in one pan and different amounts of weights are added to the other pan until the beam is balanced again, meaning it is completely horizontal. The weights are then added together to determine the total weight of the object. There are a few factors that will affect how sensitive or accurate a balance scale is. The amount of friction on the hinges can make a difference and so can the total mass of the scale itself. The length of the beam can also affect the scale's accuracy.

Antique Balance Scale Values

Despite having been used for thousands of years, balance scales from more than two to three hundred years ago are nearly impossible to find unless you're looking in specific collectors' circles. Similarly, the scales that you're most likely to find tend to be from the mid-20th century, as they were relatively low cost to make and were bought by more than just specialty retailers. That being said, the antique scales that you can find typically sell for around $500-$3,000, so long as they're in working order and have all of their pieces. Things like missing pans, balance weights, or rusting can quickly depreciate these scales' values.

Additionally, antique scales increase and decrease in value based on the materials that they're made out of. Scales made out of precious metals like silver and gold are always going to be worth more than those made out of brass or copper, thanks to the metal's base value. Thus, you can have two contemporaneous scales of similar designs sell for vastly different prices.

Here are a few balance scales that've recently sold at auction:

Collecting Antique Scales

If you're interested in collecting antique balance scales or any other type of antique scale, you should start by visiting the International Society of Antique Scale Collectors. Here, you can learn about the evolution and history of antique scales, and you can also network with other collectors. You can also join this group, which has an annual convention and regional meetings. You'll also be notified of upcoming scale auctions and private sales.

It's Time to Weigh in on Your Favorite Antique Scale

Certain antiques bring a sort of academic and respectable energy to the space that they inhabit, and antique balances scales are one of these collectibles. With their metal hanging pans creating an almost meta-like statement about harmony and precision, antique balance scales don't have to just serve a working purpose in your home; rather, you can absolutely keep them on display just because of how beautiful they look on your shelves.

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Antique Balance Scales: Weighing the Different Types