A BRIEF HISTORY OF BASKET MAKING

A series of pages about the history of basket making, with special reference to the willow baskets made in Somerset, and in particular the Stoke St Gregory area.

4. Baby Weighing Scales

Why do we weigh babies? Because we can?
    The weighing of babies can help health workers, parents and other carers to discover if issues with a baby's growth need correcting  before they become too severe, and affect the health of babies and children. At worst, a baby-weighing programme can be a meaningless experience for all concerned. Modern scales can weigh to an accuracy of 0.0001 gram, but sometimes it is better to “Look at the Baby, not the Scale.”

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Throughout the 19th century, numerous studies on both sides of the Atlantic recommended weighing babies. In 1826 the Boston Medical Intelligencer advised “physicians to record the birth of each infant, with weight and peculiarities of structure or condition”. Advertisements for bibles with pages designed for registering vital statistics even appeared about the same time.

Although Florence Nightingale did not mention the weighing of babies in her classic work of 1861 - ‘Notes on Nursing for the Labour Classes’, it became recognised in Britain soon after. By the 1890’s baby weighing was gaining acceptance, with Dr Mary Putnam Jacobi explaining that “ abnormal irregularities of weight can indicate malnutrition and thus a good balance used for weighing a child should be found in every well-appointed nursery.” In Practical Midwifery (1892) Dr Edward Reynolds stated, “Nothing is more important in the routine care of infancy than the daily weighing of the child.”

Enter Richard Salter

    The Salter Scales firm emerged in the 1760s in the village of Bilston, when Richard, a spring maker, invented the first compressed spring scales in Britain. He called them "pocket steelyards", though they worked on a completely different principle from steelyard balances.

   Richard’s nephew George took over the company, which became known as George Salter & Co. George later established a manufacturing site in the town of West BromwichWest Bromwich Albion football club was formed from his work force. From here the company produced a wide variety of scales including kitchen scales, the UK's first bathroom scales, and of course baby scales. Incidentally, the first typewriters produced in the UK were made here. In 1950 it employed over 2000 people, still in the same area and owned by the same family. In 1972 the company was bought by Staveley Industries Plc.

Baby Weighing Scales

At Coates Basket Museum, Stoke St Gregory, there is a large collection of baby weighing scales. Some are counterbalance scales, like this example, which was donated by Sarah Evans (yes she was weighed on it as a baby along with her two sisters). 

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Others are based on the compressed spring, like this scale for an infant. The black and white photo is from a Harrod's catalogue.

Salter Scales and Norman Upham

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This Salter baby weighing scale from Coates Museum has a very local connection. Norman Upham, local basket maker, had a long standing contract with Salter to make the basketry trays for the scales.

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    At Musgrave’s Basket Works, Norman was trained by Albert Champion, a renowned local basket maker (still training others when he was 84, including Jonathan Coate). At the age of 21 Norman was awarded two prizes for his baskets at the Bath & West Show in 1935. In 1936 he married Kathleen Woodland and set up home in East Lyng. Shortly afterwards he set up his own basket making business in Curload, Stoke St Gregory. When war broke out he volunteered for the RAF but failed the medical because of his heart disease, assuming this was because of suffering from rheumatic fever when he was 14. His war time service included being an Air Raid Warden, and teaching basket making to the people manning the local searchlight stations. These roles, of course, entitled him to extra petrol rations. He also continued to make baskets, contributing to the large number of airborne panniers needed in the later years of the war.

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After the war he employed up to 8 other basket makers and in 1948 the family moved to a cottage in Griggs Hill - with a former smithy and wheelwright’s workshop attached. At one time he specialised in pet baskets, but he also had a long standing contract with Salter Scales to make the baskets for their baby weighing scales. The orders would come in for 500 trays at a time.

He retired from business in the early 1980s, but before long he was working part time at Coates basket works along the road in Meare Green. He carried on there until 2000 when he was 85. Apart from his rapport with the rest of the workforce, Norman met visitors, journalists and film crews - he always had a tale to tell. He was also able to keep up with the village gossip. He was featured in magazines and appeared in TV documentaries demonstrating his craft.