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42 Gallons per Barrel

The question I am asked most frequently when people find out I work in the oil industry, is “Why is a barrel of oil 42 gallons and not 55 gallons?” This used to surprise me, as one would think that pollution and climate change would be the hot topic. Amazingly, dirty oil and greenhouse gases rank third, right after “Why do gasoline prices change so often?”  And before continuing, let me just say that with respect to gasoline prices – no one really understands that one!

Why a steel drum is 55 gallons when the oil industry standard, the barrel, is 42 gallons is a great question. Moreover, like many standard units of measure, such as the foot, the carat and the gauge (width) of railroad tracks, there are a lot of urban legends and myths about the origins.  Let’s get to the facts and start with the history of wood containers for liquids.

The use of wood containers for storing and moving liquids is traceable to around 2690 BCE, when the Egyptians used open top, wooden buckets. The first written records of wooden casks appears to be in the 5th century BCE when Herodotus, a Greek historian, documented casks of palm wine shipped to Babylonia.

A coopersmith making a barrel for the oil industry.

A coopersmith making a barrel for the oil industry.

The term cooper, referring to a craftsperson that makes wooden barrels, dates to approximately 167 BCE in the Cisalpine and Illyria regions of Gaul (ancient France under Roman rule).  Wine made there was stored in wooden vessels called cupals and a person who made the barrels was called a cuparius.  This would eventually evolve into the word cooper and people with the surname Cooper, as well as Hooper for the hoop bands used to hold wooden barrels together, can most certainly trace their ancestry to a family member that made casks and barrels in Europe.

Sometime between 1483 and 1485, during King Richard III’s short time on the British throne, he declared that all wine puncheons (a large wooden container) would be 84 gallons and a wine tierce (a smaller barrel container) would hold 42 gallons. Prior to this royal decree, barrels and casks had been made in multiple sizes, which caused problems with commerce and trade.  The standardization led to the formation of The Worshipful Company of Coopers, who were highly skilled and made watertight puncheons and tierces. The more experienced artisans were known as “tight coopers” to distinguish themselves from less experienced “slack coopers” who made lower quality barrels, casks and buckets used for dry goods.

For hundreds of years, the tierce was used to transport food, including fish, as well as whale oil and of course wine, ale and mead. However, that would change in 1859, after Edwin L. Drake discovered oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The area was rural, roads were nothing more than muddy wagon trails, and pipelines were decades away from being built. Wooden barrels of all shapes and sizes were brought to the area to facilitate the transport of “black gold” to the many oil stills that sprang up in the region. But the random sized containers created problems. Different sized barrels made it difficult to stack and secure them to the wagons. Barrels larger than 42 gallons were too heavy for men to move and lift when filled with oil, and barrels smaller than 42 gallons made not profitable to transport the oil to market.

A 42 gallon, watertight barrel full of oil weighed approximately 300 pounds. This was about the limit that one man could wrestle across the ground and two men could lift onto a wagon. Barges and flatbed railcars of this era conveniently held twenty tierces. Being all the same size, they were easily secured in place, thus reducing losses from barrels falling off and spilling during transportation.

By 1860, the 42-gallon barrel would become the preferred container to store and transport crude oil out of Pennsylvania. By 1866, a small group of oil well owners would adopt the 42-gallon barrel as their preference and in 1872 the Petroleum Producers Association would declare the 42-gallon barrel as the oil industry standard.  Ten years later, in 1882, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey would adopt the 42-gallon barrel as an official unit of measure.

Oil barrels in PA, circa 1864. From http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Barrels/making_barrels.html

Oil barrels in PA, circa 1864. From http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/Barrels/making_barrels.html

So why is the modern metal drum 55 gallons? Credit for that invention goes to Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly.  Bly was the owner of “The Iron Clad Manufacturing Company” and in the early 1900s she sought to compete with Rockefeller on containers for transporting oil and kerosene. Rockefeller had been innovative; instead of building cooperages near the source of lumber, he was transporting timber to Cleveland by rail and making wooden barrels for his kerosene at his own cooperage. This allowed him to slash the cost of making a 42 gallon barrel by 50%, to just $1.50 each.

Metal barrel patent drawing, 1905. From US Patent Office website

Metal barrel patent drawing, 1905. From US Patent Office website.

Bly set about with her engineers, specifically Mr. Henry Wehrhahn, to develop a steel drum. After multiple failures, mostly involving leaks or contamination of the liquid in the barrel from the solder or brazing material used to seal the drums, the first steel barrel was born. Issued on December 26, 1905, U.S. Patent number 808,327 was for a metal barrel and a locking lid. A forerunner to the two ridges found in the body of modern steel drums, that first steel drum had two hoops attached to the outside that made it easier to move the barrel by rolling it.

Metal drums were cheaper, stronger, bigger and had a longer life span than wooden barrels and soon the 42-gallon barrel was replaced by the 55-gallon drum. Not long after that, pipelines and tanker railcars became preferred transport methods for oil and oil products. Nevertheless, that first standardized unit of measure, 42 gallons per barrel of crude oil, has stood the test of time for more than 150 years, and probably will for many decades to come.

In 1859, Edwin L. Drake and the Petroleum Producers Association were definitely Ahead of the Curve.

CORRECTION: The original posting contained a typographical error. King Richard III declared all wine puncheons to be 84 gallons, not 80 gallons. This has been updated in the posting as of 6/20/16.

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