I love you, a bushel and a peck…a kenning and a quart…and a pint and a firlot?

A bushel? A peck? A dry quart? What exactly are these, and other common (and less common) units of measure? How do they compare to each other and to other common measures (such as a “wet” quart, or a liter)? Let’s find out.

One of the things I do when I’m not editing is volunteer. I’m no paragon of self-sacrifice and community commitment, but as part of a local CSA program that I’ve been involved with for more than a decade, I usually put in something in the ballpark of 50 hours work between April and October. The work is variable, as is the nature of farm chores: planting, weeding, thinning, harvesting, and so on. It can be very physical and very dirty (harvesting sweet potatoes by hand, anyone?), but I enjoy it.

When harvesting, the farmers use several different kinds of containers. Some crops (strawberries, blueberries, others when only small quantities are ripe) are picked straight into half-pint, pint, and quart containers, which are in turn loaded onto trays (actually bread trays). Others (cherry tomatoes, husk cherries, snap peas) are picked into buckets, then later transferred into smaller cartons for transport, display, and sale. Bulk crops (potatoes, for instance) might be harvested into heavy-duty plastic totes for transport and storage.

The most common container in the field, though, is a large orange basket. They’re typically
referred to as bushels. Most people are vaguely aware of a bushel as a unit of measure, but don’t actually encounter it very often. It’s almost exclusively an agricultural unit, and outside of the farm I think I’ve only ever seen it used for large quantities of apples and in commodity reports.

But what exactly is that bushel? If you’ve dealt hands-on with dry measures, you might have noticed that there’s a certain imprecision inherent in them. One bushel of corn can be quite a bit different from another, depending on the size of the ears or the time of the harvest. Just the same, one pint of cherry tomatoes or peas might have noticeably more individual pieces in it than another—but they’d both legitimately be recognized as pints. How does that work? Let’s delve.

Historically, a bushel has sometimes been a measure of weight, sometimes of volume, sometimes of both. As a standard unit it appears to date back to immediately after the Norman conquest of England (1066 CE), and was defined in terms of other measures (pounds or gallons). Note that while these units had a fixed relationship with each other, precision was not great. If you consider that a penny (twenty of which comprised an ounce) was fixed at thirty-two grains of dry wheat, then you can immediately see both
a margin for error and the probability of greater uncertainty for larger quantities.

Trying to compare units from a past era and today isn’t always easy. As another source notes, when discussing pre-Norman measures (including the sester, amber, and seam):

the values of these units, as well as their relationships to one another, varied considerably over the centuries so that no clear definitions are possible except by specifying the time and place in which the units were used.

If you’ve wondered how a market economy can function on a large scale with a less-than-precise measure, you’re right to. After all, if a bushel has variability to it, it becomes in the seller’s interest to make them as light (or empty) as possible, while the buyer will want them as heavy (or full) as possible, while still being within the technically correct range of the measure. The larger the amount being traded, the more that someone could gain (or lose) in the transaction.

A fair—or simply rational—market will function poorly with that kind of problem. Commodity markets have dealt with this by establishing standard weights for bushels, which vary by crop. In the US, for example, a bushel of oats is 32 pounds, regardless of the specific volume, while a bushel of wheat is 60 pounds. There’s an interesting image of a table from 1854 showing the potential for abuse (and profit) without this kind of strict industry-wide standard: note for example that if a trader could buy oats in New York (a 32 lb bushel) and unload them on a buyer in Connecticut (only 28 lbs per bushel) for the same price, he’d potentially make better than 16% profit with only a few strokes of
a pen (and a quick recalculation of quantity). Buyer beware! Of course, that’s exactly why tables like this existed: to inform participants in the market and help keep the playing field level and honest.

Today, all dry measures have strict formal definitions. A US bushel is 8 dry gallons; more precisely, it’s 2,150.42 cubic inches. When used for weight, a bushel is dependent on the crop being measured, and so varies considerably: a bushel of wheat weighs nearly double a bushel of oats.

At the consumer level, strict definitions frequently aren’t adhered to. But then again, most consumers don’t have to deal in these quantities very often: most of us might encounter peck or 1/2-peck bags of apples in season at the supermarket, otherwise our exposure is limited to dry quarts and pints. Most items sold this way (at least where I shop) are now in plastic clamshell containers, not the traditional green cardboard cartons. While that’s less aesthetically pleasing, it’s easier for shipment and storage and gives a more consistent (if potentially slightly smaller) amount of product.

I began this post by mentioning several other dry measures. In simple reverse order (which is easier to understand because it accumulates), 2 dry pints make a quart; 8 quarts make a peck; 4 pecks make a bushel. A bushel is 8 dry gallons, or 4 pecks, or 32 quarts, or 64 pints (all dry, not liquid). I tossed in a few obscure measurements at the top as well, including the kenning (an obsolete measure equal to half a bushel) and the firlot (an obsolete Scottish measure, also equal to half a bushel). Another Scottish unit, the boll, was made up of 4 firlots (making it equal to 2 bushels). Lest the focus of
this post seem too anglocentric, there are plenty of other obsolete and often regional measures that could be listed: the Spanish fanega and German Scheffel, for instance; in the ancient world, the Romans had many measures, one—the modius—which was in practice extremely close in volume to the modern peck (1.98 dry gallons). The closest Chinese equivalent was the dou, which might be visualized as a “light” peck (a little more than 88%).

For lack of a better consolidated location, the wikipedia entry for United States customary units lists all (American) units in one place.

While the metric (SI) system gives us great standardization and easy convertibility, it takes some of the linguistic fun out of this kind of thing. Metric dry measures are handled in liters and cubic meters. All business.

Nothing in this post deals with “wet” units: liquid measures which sometimes share names with dry measures (especially pints, quarts, and liters). There are customary equivalences between these measures, but for commerce they really shouldn’t be used interchangeably. For example, while the bushel discussed throughout this post holds 32 dry quarts, it holds more than 37 liquid quarts. You don’t want to confuse the two.

In wrapping up, let me note a little about the origins of many of these measurement words.

Bushel and peck both appear in recognizable form in writing by the late 13th century (all dates and references here come from the OED). Scholars believe that both probably came through French some time earlier (probably no later than the end of the 11th century). Quart and pint arrived slightly later (but not after the mid 14th century), most likely by the same route. All of these words (probably!) derived from Latin roots (bustellus, pecca, quarta, pincta), although my understanding of the etymologies is that there’s uncertainty when it comes to the precise path each traveled; some of these words may have followed divergent paths through other languages and dialects along the way, before arriving in Middle English.

* * * *

The allusion in the title of this post is to the 1950 song “A Bushel and a Peck,” part of the original score of “Guys and Dolls.” I was really hoping that I could link to a heavy metal cover or something similar but, alas, no one seems to have taken that leap. Instead, here’s one of the most popular recordings of it, by Doris Day.

The most amusing statement encountered while putting this post together was this line in the wikipedia entry describing the Winchester bushel:

The Winchester bushel was the volume of a cylinder 18.5 in (46.99 cm) in diameter and 8 in (20.32 cm) high, which gives an irrational number of cubic inches.

While “irrational” used here has the mathematical meaning, it’s apropos when
discussing dry measures, especially when trying to pin them down at different moments in history.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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