The Grains of History

As the name implies Grain Weights were literally that – at first barley grains were used but by the Middle Ages wheat grains had become the standard.

The grain weights which Apothecaries, Chemists, Druggists, Pharmacists, Pharmaceutical Chemists, used until the middle of the 20th Century were generally not as exotic in form as the Drachms and Scruples and the reason is fairly simple. Most of them were made simply of thin sheet brass and stamped with the value on them. The earliest that I have had much to do with were simple roughly square pieces with “annulets” stamped on them – an annulet was the sort of mark that you would get if you used a nail punch, like a small outline of the letter ‘o’.


These ‘annulet’ Grain Weights were still the type listed in the Avery Catalogue of 1894 but by the beginning of the 20th Century they had been replaced generally by those with a numeral and “GR” or “GRAINS” stamped on them. These were the only type of grain weights that I ever saw used in Pharmacy – certainly from the late 1940’s on.


Avery’s 1894 Catalogue also listed grain weights made of platinum or aluminium wire but these could not be used in Pharmacy (certainly not in New South Wales) because they were too small to be stamped with the Government verification marks.

From W & T Avery Catalogue of 1894From W & T Avery Catalogue of 1894

GoH_04 From “Australian Medicine Chest” – early 1900’s

In 1953, I was running a very old Pharmacy in Orange, New South Wales, and among the very old fixtures and fittings and other bits and pieces, I found a 5 grain weight in the form of a figure 5 cut out of aluminium sheet. I mentioned this in a previous article in Pharmacy History Australia (‘The Scruples of a Chemist’ July 1998) and was delighted to receive from an old pharmacist, a letter and photographs of six full or part sets ‘which he had found in an old box’. The set below is taken from one of his photographs.


I was fascinated to see this unusual set of grain weights appear on e-bay in about February 2003 and was not surprised to see it sold for about 300 UK pounds (£300). Though I had not seen any of the weights before, I thought I had seen a picture of them and eventually found them illustrated on page 40 of Avery’s 1894 Catalogue.
The fact that in 1894 these weights were 3 times the price of the familiar sheet brass grain weights probably accounts for their scarcity.


GoH_07From W & T Avery Catalogue of 1894

Another interesting set, which was auctioned, recently is that illustrated below. I do not know its origin but do not think it was made in the UK. David Coates has this example.