In 1922, the Commissioner of Health for Chicago had a scale installed in the lobby of City Hall. Any and all passersby were invited to come in, step on, and find out what they weighed. City residents soon flocked to the building and lined up all day long to check their weight. The scale was the hottest ticket in town.
Thirty years earlier, most Americans had no idea what they weighed — nor did their physicians. Doctors and hospitals had had scales since the 1870s; they just weren’t a part of standard health evaluations. Certainly, there were sociocultural attitudes and biases about body size and shape, but weight was a subjective concept. It wasn’t until the turn of the century when a confluence of events gave rise to both a massive interest in quantifying weight and the tools to do so — one tool in particular: the bathroom scale.
In the beginning, scales were a novelty. As historian Hillel Schwartz, PhD, writes in Never Satisfied (his oft-cited and expansive text on American diet culture), the first penny scale was imported from Germany in 1885. It was a mechanical marvel: put in a penny, find out your weight. Seeing an opportunity, American manufacturers began producing their own, and by the 1890s, penny scales were popping up in movie theaters, groceries, train stations, drug stores — anywhere you might find vending machines. In essence, that’s what they were at this point: huge and decorative, they came with clanging bells or internal phonographs that would play a tune while weighing you. These early scales were less like medical devices and more like fairground amusements.
Within a few years, they’d evolved into slot machines: drop in a penny, guess your weight, and if you were exactly right you’d get your money back. But most of these machines were rigged one way or another. If you guessed wrong (which you almost certainly would), all you got was a ticket with your weight printed on it, along with your fortune. As all gamblers know, the house always wins — and that was no exception here. Penny scales were enormous moneymakers for both the growing scale-distribution companies and the shopkeepers or operators who maintained them. “Penny Scales Make Millions,” the New York Times declared in 1927, reporting that 40,000 penny scales had profited $5 million the previous year. Americans had stepped onto the scales 500 million times, the paper stated. But those were just the public ones.
The first so-called bathroom scale went on sale in 1913 (again, imported from Germany), and somehow managed to sell, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans didn’t even have flush toilets. The advent of WWI brought an end to German imports, but not the scale fad. The first American-made bathroom scale came out in 1917, quickly followed by a handful of others as enterprising engineers and investors seized on the ever-rising demand for this product. The Detecto Scale Company formed in 1921, and by 1925 claimed their scale alone was used by over 1 million people.
Americans had both brand-new concepts of health and longevity, and very old biases about weight and morality. The scale seemed somehow capable of measuring them all at once.
It wasn’t that penny scales were any less popular, but that self-weighing in general was more popular than ever. In 1928 the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a Mrs. F.C. Roberts, the wife of a penny-scale distributor, who’d recently gone to a car dealership and paid for her new Nash with 30,000 pennies, delivered in sacks. While Mrs. Roberts’ pile of change might have made for good headlines (and a photo, no less), her wealth was not surprising. After all, as the Times noted, “the American public spends over $80,000,000 annually” to weigh themselves both in private and public.
“You have to ask, why did people want to do that?” says Peter Stearns, PhD, professor and provost emeritus at George Mason University, who authored Fat History. “Something else was going on.” A lot was going on, all at once: industrialization, rapid advancements in public health and science, modern media, modern war — just to name a few. Americans had both brand-new concepts of health and longevity, and very old biases about weight and morality. The scale — this ingenious, fortune-telling, technological wonder — seemed somehow capable of measuring them all at once.
White America has always denigrated corpulence as a sign of immorality and sin. Historians, including Stearns, have long argued that modern Western dieting and beauty standards are direct descendants of puritanical Protestantism: fasting, self-discipline, and self-denial of earthly pleasures. More recently, sociologist Sabrina Strings, PhD, delved deeper into this connection, citing the confluence of Protestantism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In her 2019 book, Fearing the Black Body, Strings notes that the overtly racist concept of African gluttony, sloth, and ignorance, invented by European colonists and race scientists, met its perfect match in early American Protestantism. Thus, slimness was established as a mark of righteousness and superiority, while fatness symbolized unintelligence, immorality, and “blackness.”
But neither of them had anything to do with health. It wasn’t until this curious turning point in the early 20th century that the general public and the medical community — in that order — began to treat weight as a health factor, and eventually a health panic. Unlike other paradigm shifts in public health (the campaign against cigarette smoking, the use of seat belts), this one did not originate with any major scientific research. “There was no medical conversion preceding the shift in public perception,” says Stearns. People were watching and worrying about weight before their doctors were. “In the case of fat, Americans assimilated a new understanding that… simply substantiated and justified a belief that had already taken root.” But why?
For starters, “health” was a whole new thing. Massive medical breakthroughs and societal advancements meant people were living much longer, and dying from very different illnesses than they used to. Modern sanitation systems, vaccination programs, penicillin, pasteurization, epidemiology, the discovery of the vitamin, and the promotion of basic hygiene — all these great leaps forward resulted in a significant rise in life expectancy, a huge drop in infant mortality, and a great reduction of contagious illnesses. Handwashing — it really does save lives.
In 1900, infectious diseases — tuberculosis, pneumonia — were the leading causes of death, as had been the case for most of early modern history. By 1930, degenerative diseases — cancer, cardiovascular disease — had supplanted them. Certainly, heart disease had always been around, but drew little attention compared to horrors like TB and diphtheria, which descended and destroyed like an evil spell. No one had worried as much about chronic illness previously, because up until this point, sickness and longevity seemed completely out of our hands. If you encountered some “bad air” and got cholera, that was that.
Unlike other paradigm shifts in public health (the campaign against cigarette smoking, the use of seat belts), this one [concerns about weight] did not originate with any major scientific research.
Now, all of a sudden, health was a thing we had at least some control over. Maybe a lot of control? Maybe all of it? There was a general fixation at this time with the concept of a quantified, perfected human body (and human population). Pseudosciences like phrenology garnered renewed interest, and states enacted forced sterilization programs. Parents entered their infants into “Better Baby” contests, where they would be measured and examined against other babies to determine which was “best.” The eugenics theory became the eugenics movement, and soon enough, eugenics laws. The conflation of physical attributes with health, and health with human value had been validated by none less than the U.S. government. Was it any wonder that Americans were standing in lines and shelling out millions to see that number on the scale? That number could tell them not just what their bodies weighed, but what they themselves were worth. It was knowledge — or at least, it was information.
So what to do with it? Enter the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
“Life insurance companies gave Americans the tools to figure out, okay, you’re measuring yourself with these scales — now what does it mean?” says sociologist Amanda Czerniawski, PhD. The life insurance industry had begun using height and weight tables (a concept created by Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, also the inventor of the BMI) in the mid-1800s as a tool to assess mortality risk. These early tables were meant to reflect the average height and weight of American men and women — but there was no industry standard on these numbers, nor enough data to create one. Each company had its own version of “average,” and for the most part were concerned with those who fell below it. “They often rejected the young and underweights, because a little extra fat on your bones was considered a benefit,” particularly when it came to surviving infectious illness, says Czerniawski. It also meant you could afford to eat well, and likely had some money in the bank.
The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI
Body Mass Index has been used in recent decades as a referendum on individual health. But it was never meant to be.
But like everything else, that changed at the turn of the century. Weight tables were first standardized, not by a medical body, but by George R. Shepherd, the medical director of the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. Shepherd came up with his figures using data from 700,000 policyholders (all men, and presumably white), and his numbers became the first weight “standards.” Anything 20% above or below these average weights Shepherd declared risky. The weight tables were continuously tinkered with, Czerniawski adds, and there was always controversy within the industry over the thresholds of risk. “But again, they were also originally just internal tools.”
Yet public interest in weight and health, and control of both, only grew larger and more fraught. During World War I, being fat was deemed both unhealthy and unpatriotic. “Food Will Win the War,” declared the newly formed U.S. Food Administration, which launched a massive propaganda campaign promoting food conservation. American soldiers needed your sugar for energy on the front. Our allies would starve without American meat. Our amber waves of grain would save us from the looming threat of Bolshevism, “the handmaiden of hunger.” To be lean was to embody, “the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice” of a true American. But fatness was seen as a sign of treasonous indulgence. “There are probably a good many million people in the United States whose most patriotic act would be to get thin,” wrote Cornell professor Graham Lusk, “and then to stay thin.”
The insurance industry jumped on board, launching welfare campaigns about the threat of fat — for “not altogether altruistic motives,” adds Czerniawski. “Many of these health campaigns were directed at women specifically, because they were the ones in control of domestic affairs. Women shop for the household.” Meanwhile, insurance table-makers began slowly but surely lowering the weights printed on their tables, inching away from “average” weights and toward those they deemed preferable. The WWI concept of patriotic thinness was soon reaffirmed during WWII — when more and more women were not just in charge of buying the bacon, but bringing it home. More women than ever had joined the workforce, gotten college educations, and suddenly had an unprecedented level of financial independence. It was during this war that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company did something unprecedented as well: the company made the bold decision to publicly publish one of their weight tables. Specifically, a table of “ideal” weights, for women.
Half a century after first stepping on the scale, Americans now had the numbers to compare their own against. The insurance tables made a perfect companion to the bathroom scale, now a fixture in homes throughout the country. MetLife’s “ideal weights for women” was so well received that the company produced their list of ideal weights for men the following year. MetLife remained the authoritative voice on American weight (eventually swapping out “ideal weights” for “desirable” ones), until the Body Mass Index (BMI) took precedence in the 1980s.
“The weight tables were very problematic,” says Harriet Brown, professor and author of Body of Truth, a study on weight in both science and culture. “But they were much less harsh, really, than the BMI.” The tables did account for things like gender, age, and frame (though this “metric” again was designed by MetLife). Still, notes Brown, “BMI is just a math equation.” It does not measure nor account for things like muscle mass, insulin sensitivity, genetic history, or other factors contributing to health and size.
The BMI was widely adopted in 1985 — 100 years after that first penny scale arrived in the United States, with all those bells and whistles. And just like the scale itself, the BMI boils us down to a tidy number, giving us a little information if not much useful knowledge. Yet, both the BMI and the bathroom scale remain fixtures in our lives. Despite countless competitors, some of the very first scale companies, including Detecto, are still in business today, and projections estimate the market for bathroom scales will surpass $2.8 billion by next year. There’s no current data on just how many Americans have them in their homes today, “But if I had to guess,” says Brown, “I would say almost everybody.”