The metal rod on the side of an old tower is a reminder for those who would cheat at business
Near the entrance to New Town Hall, there is a piece of metal embedded in the stonework. It looks like perhaps it is an attempt to strengthen the stone and keep it from cracking, but in fact it serves a different purpose. It was the official measuring rod for cloth.
The measure was specific to Bohemia and is variously called the Prague loket, etalon, ell or cubit. Loket literally means elbow, and the length is based on the arm.
In the past, different cities or regions had their own measure, just like they had their own coins of different weights and values. The Vienna cubit, for example, was equal to 1.3 Prague cubits.
The cubit came into use in 1268 under Přemysl Otakar II and was in use until the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, who standardized measurements across the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1765, using the rival Vienna measurements as the new standard.
In the 500 years that it was in use, though, there were quite a number of disputes and merchants risked going bankrupt if word got out that they used false measurements.
The loket at New Town Hall is a little high up on the wall so that nobody could tamper with it. This made it a bit inconvenient for people to reach and it soon became a city job to be in charge of checking the length of goods.
The job at first went to tall men but eventually it began to be passed down in one family. What that family’s name was has long been forgotten but the man was always known simply as Loket. At one time, the family had no tall heir, and the shorter than average son, when the job fell to him, had to use a ladder. People snickered behind his back, calling him “Little Loket” or “Lokýtek.”
This of course worked against his self-esteem and he slowly took less and less interest in his job. He started to take bribes from some of the cloth merchants to approve of their short selling, and at the same time publicly disparaged the honest merchants.
He would stand in such a way that nobody could see how he was handling the cloth, and declare honest measures false and false ones true.
One honest merchant lost so much trade that he had to take action before he went broke. He donned a disguise and took some of his own cloth to be double checked. Lokýtek asked who sold the cloth and the merchant gave his own name, but spoke with a phony accent.
Lokýtek said that the person named was a particularly dishonest merchant. He measured the cloth, using hand tricks and blocking everyone’s view, finally declaring it to be only two-thirds of the specified length.
The merchant then revealed himself and took back the cloth. He forced his way to the measuring rod and showed that the cloth was indeed cut true to measure and that Lokýtek had been lying and taking bribes. Other honest merchants joined in, and the mob nearly turned into a riot when people understood what had been going on. Lokýtek fled for his life, but it was in vain.
He did not have to wait for the court to try him. He died of shame and disgrace that very night, leaving no heirs.
His ghost is said to return every year on the anniversary of the day he was exposed, but what day that is, nobody now remembers. He allegedly runs around the street near the loket and then goes inside the tower, frantically trying to escape an imaginary mob.
There are six lokets in Bohemia, including two in Prague. The other one is at the former Town Hall of Hradčany. The Prague loket measures 59.3 centimeters.
Moravia, the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic, had its own loket, measuring 78.9 cm. The one from Vienna, which became the standard, was 77.8 cm.
The town of Mělník, just a bit north of Prague, has the Prague and Vienna lokets side-by-side at the City Hall.
New Town Hall was built in the end of the 1300s and early 1400s. Its main claim to fame is as the location of the first Prague Defenestration. Stones were thrown from the tower by Catholic city officials at a parade of Hussites, led by Jan Želivský, marching below. One stone hit Želivský, and an angry mob went into the tower and the burgomaster and 13 members of the town council were thrown out of the windows and killed. The Hussite War started shortly after.
Aside from the loket, the facade of the tower also has a small piece of chain. This was used to close the city streets off from noisy traffic at night.
On the south wall of the exterior there is the faint remains of a Latin palindrome carved in the stone: “Signa Te Signa Temere Me Tangis Et Angis / Roma Tibi Subito Motibus Ibit Amor – Wenceslavs I”
The text is related to a legend about St Martin and translates to “Cross, cross thyself, you plague and vex me without need. For by my labors you shall soon reach Rome, the object of your wishes.”
It is sometimes said to be a charm to keep demons out of the tower, as word puzzles confused them, or a warning to people who were facing execution, as the area in front of the New Town Hall was used for executions, and St Stephen’s Church located nearby had a cemetery for criminals and foreigners.
A similar text is said to be near the top of the Old Town bridge tower.
Dishonesty in measurements was taken very seriously. Where the statue of the Pieta now stands on Charles Bridge was previously the execution place for Old Town. Dishonest bakers and butchers using false weights or otherwise cheating were lowered from that part of the bridge into the river and drowned.