The Metric System in National Law and Local Practice in 19th-Century Brazil

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 203 (Colorado Convention Center)
Anne G. Hanley, Northern Illinois University
In January 1875, Luiz Joaquim de Oliveira was dispatched by the Brazilian Minister of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works to investigate the adoption of metric weights and measures in the port cities of southern Brazil.  Brazilian officials had studied the question of defining a national standard for weights and measures since the 1830s to promote economic exchange, eventually resolving in 1862 to adopt the relatively new metric system.  Brazilians were given one decade to make the transition.  In spite of the lengthy time, however, the enforcement of the metric system after 1872 sparked widespread upheaval throughout the northeastern provinces in what were known as the “Quebra Quilos” or break-the-scales revolts.  Originally assigned to northern cities where unrest had broken out, Oliveira’s orders changed to travel to the southernmost provinces, where the transition had been peaceful, to report on the state of adoption.  

This paper, part of a new project on the impact of standardization on domestic economic integration, uses Oliveira’s reports to examine how policies with national scope were understood and implemented at the local level.  These reports reveal a myriad of local contingencies that negatively affected the ability to follow the law, and commented on the fluid usage of old and new measures accordingly.  Almost none of the villages or cities had fully adopted or regularly used the new system. Oliveira’s fact finding mission produced a series of proposed remedies that all rested on national-level actions to improve local-level outcomes, including fostering better understanding of the system through elementary education, properly training local officials in care and usage of the standards, and manufacture of standards in materials that did not degrade in the elements.  The reports reveal the complex nature of translating national policies into local practices in the efforts to unify and modernize the domestic economy.