It caught my eye because the units of measurement for the same product weren’t the same. The can was in US customary units, while the bottle was in metric units.
It’s a political story that has dominated the landscape since Colonial times and was at multiple times in our history a huge political fight.
Back at the turn of the 19th century, what measurement system we used had a large part in how America saw its place in the world. When the French and English were fighting in the 1790s, America had to choose a side.
According to University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm, many Americans were against the French and “the idea of adopting their system of measurement was viewed as heretical and a dangerous invitation to sow the seeds of revolution within the United States.”
So America never did join the French Revolution, nor the revolution of fully adopting metric.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t come close.
The push by Ford was part of a larger effort in the country to adopt metric. It’s a big part of the reason bottles of soda are in liters.
There was just one big problem with the law. Everything was voluntary, so the Metric Board that was going to oversee the whole switch to metric didn’t have a lot of teeth.
Of course, politicians know how to read polls. So just a few years later, President Ronald Reagan defunded the Metric Board that Ford had established.
Chafee was mocked for his stance, and his campaign went nowhere.
For the hardy few, it’s pretty clear where the battle lines are drawn right now. Metric is the system of internationalism, and those who wish to fight it are against the country going metric.
But Mihm told me that “most Americans just don’t really care that much. The only thing that seems to bind us together is that we don’t like change, really.”
But then why do we have any metric units at all in this country? Going back to the grocery store, the unit for a package of potato chips that goes with the aforementioned soda? Well, the nutritional information is almost in metric (e.g., how many grams of fat).
What’s going on there is a whole other story that you’ll have to tune in to the podcast to hear. Quick clue: It’s about the economy.
But I should note that, maybe, it’s OK that we have two systems.
I’ll leave you with these words from Mihm, as they speak to how our measurement systems are a reflection of us as a country:
“If I were to describe what makes America America, it’s oftentimes our cludgy workarounds that actually sometimes are less disruptive and allow us to function and tolerate the many different ways of doing things within a single country. And that’s not a minor achievement, actually, on some level, if you think about it. And it’s embedded in our political system, with 50 state governments operating simultaneously with a single national government. And perhaps on some level, it’s embedded in well in our very ugly but functional system of measurement.”