Volume Measurement in the Financial Papers

By Sarah Tran
Undergraduate Student, University of Virginia

While George Washington is known for his leadership as the General of the Continental Army and as the first President of the United States, he was first and foremost a farmer. The records of transactions in the financial papers serve as evidence of his success in agriculture. The pages use a variety of measurements to describe particular goods. Most of the time, the description clarifies how much of the goods were bought or sold, but the measuring units in these descriptions are foreign to contemporary usages.

The units found in the Financial Papers include: barrel, bushel, firkin, gallon, hogshead, peck, pipe, and tierce. The records list these measurements frequently—1,959 times to be exact—to quantify the items in transactions; therefore, it is important to understand the volume to which these units refer. Doing so will establish a sharper representation of the economy and market in which Washington’s plantation was involved.

The visualization introduces the units in two contexts: dry goods and liquid goods. Hogshead, barrel, bushel, peck, and gallon are for dry goods measurement, while hogshead, pipe, barrel, tierce, firkin, peck, and gallon are for measurement of liquid goods. To complicate matters further, the standards for these units sometimes change when measuring different goods. For example, 1 liquid gallon is the equivalent to 1.375 dry gallons. The differences between dry and liquid goods are due to their differences in density. Nevertheless, while such differences do occur, they tend to be minor, so these standards of measurement are frequently presumed to be the same.

In the financial documents, the dry-goods units measure the amount of salt, sugar, corn, grain, wheat, limes, fish, and other produces. The liquid-goods units represent the amount of fluid commodities like beer, wine, and vinegar, and oil. These are the commodities that Washington’s plantation traded with merchants and local artisans.

In the example above, the document indicates a transaction of 450 bushels of salt at 2 shillings per bushel, resulting in the monetary exchange of 45 pounds. While the large payment suggests this is a hefty order of salt from John Fitzgerald, an understanding of 450 bushels of salt in modern standards of measurement is still unclear. The visualization provides the answer.

The visualization compares the units with one another, equating them to their most common modern unit, which is in this case a gallon. With the example mentioned above, 450 bushels of salt would be converted to 3,600 gallons of salt, based on the dry-good measurements of 3.28 bushels for every 26.25 gallons of product used in the visualization. From there it is easy to simplify the transaction further, finding that 3,600 gallons of salt equals 113.4 tons (a truly incomprehensible amount of salt!).

This example demonstrates one of many uses of the volume measurement visualization. The video aims to compare the different measurements and serve as a tool for quantitative analysis. With it, researchers could examine the trend of price rates of commodities over time, the standard purchase amount, the correlation of between amount of goods and quality of goods, etc. The visualization is a foundation for quantitative research, an aspect crucial to economic investigation yet to be explored thoroughly about George Washington.