Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. QOTD: The tally stick


See, our tally stick is whittled nearly end to end;
delicate as scrimshaw, it would not bear you up.
Regrets have polished it, hand over hand.
Yet, let us take it up, and as our fingers
like children leading on a trail cry back
our unforgotten wonders, sign after sign,
we will talk softly as of ordinary matters,
and in one another’s blameless eyes go blind.

from The tally stick by Jarold Ramsey

Tally Sticks


Tally sticks store information. Humans have used them since at least paleolithic times. Messages, contracts, financial information, family histories, and other important data were recorded. Notches or marks on a piece of green wood were used, with different notches of different lengths corresponding to different amounts of money. This is a description from the late 12th century of how the marks work:

The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower; then a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.

At some point, people began using split tally sticks in order to verify information, such as payment of taxes. After the payment was recorded, the stick was split. The two pieces would then match perfectly each other only. Tally sticks were so reliable and widely used that they were accepted as legal proof in the Napoleonic Code of 1804. The British Exchequer used this system of split tallies for hundreds of years, from the 1100s until it was abolished in 1826.

In 1834, the clerk of the Exchequer determined that the hundreds of years of sticks were worthless. In the words of Charles Dickens, 

The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who live in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; we are now in the second million of the cost thereof; the national pig is not nearly over the stile yet; and the old woman, Britannia, hasn’t got home to-night.

I can’t say I agree with Dickens that the sticks were never useful, but I certainly agree with him that “obstinate adherence” to that which is now longer useful has within it a “pernicious and destructive” spirit which can be ruinous. The whole event is one of those tragic ironies of history. 

(As an aside, I will say I like Dickens use of the old chain folktale of the old woman and the pig to illustrate his point. Charming and silly.)

I enjoy the YouTube channel of Jason Kingsley, OBE, also CEO of game development company Rebellion, who loves the medieval period and participates in reenactments with war horses and armor and the like. His recent video about tally sticks got me interested in the topic.








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  1. Arahant Member

    Heh, and then there is this starting about 9:00:

    • #1
    • May 3, 2020, at 8:01 AM PDT
  2. Arahant Member

    This is the Quote of the Day, the easiest way to start a conversation on Ricochet. If you’d like to join in the fun, sign up here:

    • #2
    • May 3, 2020, at 8:05 AM PDT
  3. Old Bathos Moderator

    Maybe after the Great Collapse we could go back to tally sticks to control TP hoarding—an 18-roll pkg of TP could be a thumb-sized cut, down to one of a swollen barley corn for a single roll.

    • #3
    • May 3, 2020, at 8:17 AM PDT
  4. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    As soon as I saw this post, I was thrown back to 1964. We were moving to Pittsburgh, where Dad had been offered a position as an instructor in Duquesne University’s Institute of African Affairs, and because we didn’t know if this was going to be permanent or not, we were hoping to rent a house for a year. We looked at several possibilities, and then we found a house in Bethel Park, belonging to a wonderful middle-aged couple, Jacques (a Swiss chemist) and Alice (a wonderful hippy-type artist) who were proposing to tour Mexico for a year and looking to rent their house while they did. A more mismatched couple couldn’t possibly be imagined. But, dear friends and lovely people.

    It was a lovely house, described as “Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse for the first story”, and “Swiss Chalet for the second”, which they’d built themselves in 1941. It had a wonderful garden, and slightly more than an acre of property, including a pond which we’d skate on in the winter.

    During the “tour” of the house, I noticed a lot of pencil notations on one of the door frames. Yes, it was a tally stick of the heights of the family and neighborhood children over the decades. One of those children was Barbara Feldon (“Barbara Hall” at the time), of Get Smart, Agent 99 fame. She lived, and grew up, next-door-but-one to Jacques and Alice. (Yikes. Glory be. Barbara Feldon is 87. Bless.)

    A year later, when it became clear that Dad would stay at Duquesne, we bought the house next-door-but-one that Barbara Feldon grew up in. And we lived there for thirteen years.

    A great place to grow up. I’m glad we lucked into it.


    • #4
    • May 3, 2020, at 10:07 AM PDT
  5. Al French of Damascus Moderator

    Our family measured the growth of the children on a door frame from about 1951 when I was six. When the grandchildren came, they, too, were measured there, until they became adults. The house finally had to be sold nearly 50 years after that tradition had begun. Saying goodbye to that doorframe was part of the sweet sadness of the transition.

    • #5
    • May 3, 2020, at 11:43 AM PDT
  6. TBA Coolidge

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Maybe after the Great Collapse we could go back to tally sticks to control TP hoarding—an 18-roll pkg of TP could be a thumb-sized cut, down to one of a swollen barley corn for a single roll.

    Cutting off thumbs seems a little overboard – I was thinking beatings. 

    • #6
    • May 3, 2020, at 7:12 PM PDT
  7. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clan Toad has lived here at Toad Hall for 19 years. Here is our pantry:

    • #7
    • May 4, 2020, at 3:41 AM PDT
  8. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Humans are so clever. I bet some of them figured out how to game the system.

    • #8
    • May 4, 2020, at 6:49 AM PDT
    • 1 like