Fairbanks ‘scaled’ its business for the Industrial Revolution

A vintage Fairbanks Springless scale realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017 at SS Auction, Inc. Image courtesy of SS Auction, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

A vintage Fairbanks Springless scale realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017 at SS Auction, Inc. Image courtesy of SS Auction, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Whether you are besotted with country store items and have a replica old-fashioned shop set up in the basement of your home or you just like antique inventions, a Fairbanks scale is sure to turn your head. Fairbanks scales were made as the industrial revolution kicked into high gear and were popular enough to sell in many countries. Begun more than a century ago in Vermont, the company has grown and changed names, but still exists and operates out of Overland Park, Kansas.

St. Johnbury, Vermont, sitting along the Passumpsic River, is about an hour shy of the Canada border in what is called the Northeast Kingdom region. It looks like a quintessential New England small town with a population of slightly more than 7,000 people, nearly a dozen churches, a family-run grocery store, and quaint houses. It is the most densely populated town in the Northeast Kingdom and has long been a commercial center.

A monumental Fairbanks brass balance scale sold for $1,400 in April 2021 at Nadeau’s Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

A monumental Fairbanks brass balance scale sold for $1,400 in April 2021 at Nadeau’s Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

The town was effectively put on the map in the early 1800s after the Fairbanks family relocated from Brimfield, Massachusetts. Erastus Fairbanks (who later became governor of Vermont) and his brother Thaddeus, a prolific inventor and tinkerer, started their namesake company in 1830 after having opened an iron foundry a few years earlier, which produced iron furnaces, cooking stoves and farming equipment, including a best-selling cast iron plow design. Thaddeus, who received 43 patents in his lifetime — the last at age 90 — started off with making wagons but soon shifted his focus.

The two brothers were farming hemp on the side when Thaddeus came up with a solution for weighing crops as they sat on a transport wagon. He perfected a platform scale to weigh heavy objects easily and reliably through the use of counterbalances and levers. According to the Vermont Historical Society website, “The Fairbanks Scale company grew out of a desire to weigh farm products without unloading the goods off a wagon.” The Fairbanks family shared their good fortune with the town of St. Johnsbury, founding the St. Johnsbury Academy and opening a heritage center as well as a natural history museum with a planetarium.

Retaining its elegant red paint with gold accents, this Fairbanks No. 2 balance scale brought $110 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017 at A-1 Auction. Image courtesy of A-1 Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Retaining its elegant red paint with gold accents, this Fairbanks No. 2 balance scale brought $110 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017 at A-1 Auction. Image courtesy of A-1 Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Fairbanks scales were so famous and revered that Teddy Roosevelt was depicted on a 1904 campaign button for his presidential race standing on a Fairbanks scale. The clever marketing ploy sought to connect him to his running mate, Indiana senator and statesman Charles Fairbanks, and the well-known and respected Fairbanks scales brand. The firm made balance and platform scales of all sizes, including springless ones for weighing patients at doctors’ offices and also scales for farms, stores and homes. A 66in Fairbanks Springless scale that had a cast iron frame realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2017 at SS Auction, Inc.

By 1882, more than 80,000 Fairbanks scales were produced in a range of about 2,000 different models. The company seemingly made a scale to fit every need. A monumental Fairbanks brass balance scale standing 4ft 4in tall, which had to have been a special-use item, sold for $1,400 in April 2021 at Nadeau’s Auction Gallery. Thaddeus Fairbanks was as skilled at business and sales as he was at inventing, and had scales designed with metric measurements for use in Europe, Asia and Russia, and manufactured scales with  native language characters for Chinese clients.

This 60in-tall floor model of a Fairbanks Morse and Company mercantile coffee grinder made $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2017 at Hughes Auctions. Image courtesy of Hughes Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

This 60in-tall floor model of a Fairbanks Morse and Company mercantile coffee grinder made $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2017 at Hughes Auctions. Image courtesy of Hughes Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Country store collectors seek scales as well as a variety of appliances and machines, such as coffee grinders. A standing store model of a Fairbanks Morse and Company mercantile coffee grinder that stands 60in tall achieved $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2017 at Hughes Auctions. While many of Fairbanks scales were made of iron, some were made with brass and painted in appealing color combinations such as red and gold, including its No. 2 balance scale, which was originally patented in 1896. A example that measured 18in by 10in by 10in brought $110 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017 at A-1 Auction.

This model of a 25hp Fairbanks Morse engine, built by a Pennsylvania machinist, earned $3,700 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC. Image courtesy of Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC

This model of a 25hp Fairbanks Morse engine, built by a Pennsylvania machinist, earned $3,700 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC. Image courtesy of Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC

While original Fairbanks scales and inventions have an eager and ardent following, other machinists and tinkerers sometimes created notable and interesting models based on Fairbanks designs. Chief among them is a model of a 25hp Fairbanks Morse engine built by the former Pennsylvania machine shop 7 Mountains, which earned $3,700 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Chupp Auctions & Real Estate, LLC.

Fairbanks scales and their other inventions appeal to fans of the country store era and collectors of advertising and early industrial material, too. The allure of these metal machines lies in the elegant simplicity of their designs, which turn a purpose-built machine into a work of art.