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Mathematical Treasures - English tally sticks

Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz

Box of tally sticks

Notched pieces of wood or bone were used by many ancient peoples to record numbers. The most common type of these “tally sticks” was made of wood. Tally sticks served as records or receipts for financial transactions such as the payment of taxes, debts and fines. From the 12th century onward tally sticks were officially employed by the Exchequer of England to collect the King’s taxes. Local sheriffs were given the task of actually collecting the taxes. The depth and series of notches on these sticks represented the value of the transaction. In recording a debt, a wooden stick was often split horizontally into two parts: the lender receiving one part, the stock; and the debtor, the other part, the foil. This box contains sticks that date from the year 1296 and were found in the Chapel of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey in 1808. England abolished the use of tally sticks in 1826. The accumulation of tally sticks in the Office of the Exchequer were burned in 1834 resulting in a fire that destroyed the Parliament Building.

The box is opened and the tally sticks removed.

Three tally sticks

Close-up of three smaller sticks from the box showing notches.

Large tally stick

Close-up of large stick revealing notches.

Largestick with name engraved

Second view of larger stick showing the name of the of King’s agent, William de Costello, Sheriff of London in 1296.

Index of Mathematical Treasures

Index of Mathematical Objects


Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz, "Mathematical Treasures - English tally sticks," Convergence (January 2011)

Mathematical Treasures from the Smith and Plimpton Collections at Columbia University