Odd, Unusual, and Strange Math Problems

15-year-old Helena wrote a hundred years ago today:

Tuesday, January 31, 1911.  If anything of real importance happened today I would write it down, but as nothing has it will not be here to read. This is the last day of the first month. What do you think of it? Vice versa.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

No mention of arithmetic problems in today’s diary entry. Maybe it went better today than yesterday.

I’m still fascinated by the problems in the 1911 high school arithmetic textbook that I found. The book contains some really strange problems–including some that deal with topics that probably would be considered unacceptable today.  

1. If 44 cannons, firing 30 rounds an hour for 3 hours a day consume 300 barrels of powder in 5 days, how long will 400 barrels last 66 cannons, firing 40 rounds an hour for 5 hours a day?

2. Bought by avoirdupois weight, 20 pounds of opium at 40 cents an ounce, and sold the same by Troy weight at 50 cents an ounce; did I gain or lose, and how much?

3. A wine merchant imported 1000 dekaliters of wine, at a cost of 75 cents a liter, delivered. At what price per gallon must he sell the same to clear $2000 on the shipment?

4. A certain number of men, twice as many women, and three times as many boys, earn $123.80 in 5 days; each man earned $1.20, each woman 66 1/3 cents, and each boy 53 1/3 cents per day. How many were there of each?

Kimball’s Commercial Arithmetic: Prepared for Use in Normal, Commercial and High Schools and the Higher Grades of the Common School (1911)

Remember that a hundred years ago patent medicines containing opium were legal, child labor laws were just being enacted, and it was way before woman had equal rights.

If you want to do the opium problem here are a couple of definitions:

Avoidupois weight (The usual system used in the U.S.):  16 ounces = 1 pound

Troy weight:  12 ounces = 1 pound

9 thoughts on “Odd, Unusual, and Strange Math Problems

    1. Opium was very controversial a hundred years ago–and there was a strong movement towards outlawing it. A lot of state and federal laws limiting it were passed between 1909 and 1914.

  1. I like the problems a lot. I had to think for some time to figure them out. Not like now, that they are so easy. I solve them in 5 seconds at the most.

    1. Here’s another interesting math problem in the 1911 book that provides some hints about common knowledge and practices a hundred years ago:

      “A man agreed to cut wood for a farmer for 85 cents a cord. The farmer charged him $2.75 a week for meals, to be deducted from the wood money. In 11 weeks he cut 6 piles, each 32 ft. long, 12 ft. wide, and 9 ft. high. How much money should the chopper receive?”

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