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A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

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