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…