On page five of the November 9, 1976 edition of The Crofton Courier (Crofton is a small-ish town in the American state of Maryland, about 30 miles from Washington D.C.), a full page feature about metric conversion was printed.
A brief history of conversion in the U.S.
This slightly-larger-than-a-clipping piece was saved by my grandmother, packed amongst the pages of a food topic binder I saved from her things after she passed away last March. Alongside it is The Metric Book, a small Q&A guide about the supposed impending American conversion from imperial to metric. Its reasons for the change were based on predominantly on financial loss and modernisation.
In 1971, as a result of a three-year study undertaken because of growing concern over America’s declining position in world trade, the Secretary of Commerce recommended to Congress that the United States adopt a coordinated national program to change to primary use of the metric system.
In 1975 the Metric Conversion Act was passed by President Ford and the United States Metric Board (USMB) was established to oversee the details. The public weren’t keen and in 1982 the USMB was disbanded by Reagan, but in 1988 Congress passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act and decreed metric as “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.”
The American public still doesn’t appear to be interested. I think metric has definitely advantages in the kitchen, but I’m not posting this to make a judgement on whether one way is right over the other. I’m writing this to share my own fascination with this sudden realisation that the US tried to convert (and has converted in the case of many governmental organisations), and the implications of such a change.
A brief failure of metrication in Britain
Those ramifications faintly surfaced here over the last few decades, so I’ll get off my high horse now because despite measuring my flour by grams here in England, there’s still a common understanding of the pound as a measure of mass. We drive miles and drink a pint at the pub. Those over 30 still talk in feet and inches, measure their weight in stone (14 pounds = 1 stone), and you still hear folks calculate distance in yards. I’ve no doubt metric measures will take a stronger hold in generations to come, but for now it’s a bit of a hodgepodge with some units stated in imperial and others in metric.
All of this was meant to end under EU agreements to switch wholly to metric in the UK, with an allowance of dual labeling until a given date. That specified date continued to be pushed forward and absolute bullshit ensued. The final date for elimination of supplemented imperial units alongside metric measures was set for 2009, but eventually I think someone must have realised we’d rather focus on packing food in our faces than whether our beer is half a pint or a litre. Incidentally, for those who take issue with your lager being sold in anything other than pint measures, have a look at a bottle or can- yup, all metric volumes. Confusing.
Legally, at least for now, it’s going to stand that imperial measures have to be supplemented with metric conversions. That’s fine, and logical too in my opinion. After all, whether Brits want to accept it or not, we are part of Europe. I still can’t imagine a forced conversion though, although I believe any country who can convert from shillings to pounds could manage the difference between an inch and a centimetre.
A happy medium?
I go back and forth between imperial and metric in the kitchen because I follow a lot of American authors’ recipes as well as those elsewhere around the globe. I have a mental chart of how many millilitres are in a cup, a tablespoon, so I can logically grasp the relationship between weights and how a recipe turns out. I’m now of the opinion that a kitchen is incomplete without an accurate scale, an appliance I’d have never considered necessary when I lived in the states, but I still have two sets of cups and mentally I still think of temperatures in Fahrenheit.
I couldn’t ever operate exclusively under either system, and I don’t think it would be rational to try. That’s where The Metric Book comes in handy. It might be a little off the mark in terms of what history had in store for America’s system of weights and measures, but it’ll help me be able to work out the actual temperature when the weather lady says it’ll be a warm and sunny day with temperatures up to 17 (because that is not, I repeat, not, warm).
Other pocket books by this publisher at the time included award winning titles like Everything with Ground Meat and Cellulite.