When is a bushel not a bushel? Well, in colonial times it would depend on if you were in Connecticut or New Jersey. We take for granted that a full gallon of milk purchased in one store will contain the same amount as a gallon purchased in another store. But standardization in weights and measures (as well as land measurements and time) hasn’t been around as long as you might think. And in fact, a particular measure may still depend upon where you are located.
The weights and measures in use around the time of the American Revolution were the British standards. Copies of these standards had been brought to the US at different times and were not always uniform, causing variation from colony to colony and between the early states. To make matters worse, the system was not well established in Britain either.
Take that bushel. The Winchester bushel was 2,150.42 cubic inches - this was the capacity of a bushel in the earliest English records. But it was abolished as an English measure during the reign of Queen Anne in 1824 and was superseded by a bushel of 8 imperial gallons. In 1832, however, the US adopted the old 2,150.42 cubic inch bushel, about 3% smaller than the updated British standard.
This is one standard that has never been agreed upon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the U.S. a bushel is “a measure of capacity equal to 64 US pints (equivalent to 35.2 liters), used for dry goods.” It is also defined as a “British … measure of capacity equal to 8 imperial gallons (equivalent to 36.4 liters), used for dry goods and liquids.”
An interesting thirty-six page document outlining the history of weights and measures in the United States is available on Google Books: Judson, Lewis V. H. Weights and Measures Standards of the United States: A Brief History. Washington: Dept. of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1976.
So when you’re looking at early probate or estate records, sales receipts or agricultural reports, keep in mind that a bushel may not have been a bushel!