History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel
A handful of America’s earliest oilmen met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a “barrel” of oil. It was August 1866 and Pennsylvania led the world in oil production.
Although pipelines challenged the oil region’s teamsters, the business of moving oil depended mostly on men, wagons, horses, and barrels. To reach railheads and docks, teams of horses pulled wagons carrying as many as eight oil barrels.
As oil derricks multiplied, entire forests were reduced to barrel staves by recently introduced barrel-making machinery. Hoop mills operated day and night supporting cooperages that sprang up to join in the oil boom. So, why did early oilmen choose the 42-gallon barrel?
Long before England’s King Richard III defined the wine puncheon as a cask holding 84 gallons and a tierce as holding 42 gallons, watertight casks of many sizes were crafted by “tight” coopers in the manner prescribed by their guild, the Worshipful Company of Coopers.
Lesser skilled craftsmen (known as slack coopers) made casks, barrels, and pails for dry goods.
By around 1700, Pennsylvania statute, practical experience, and custom had made the 42-gallon watertight tierce a standard container for shipping everything from eel, salmon, herring, molasses, soap, butter, wine and whale oil. The 42-gallon barrels became familiar 19th century containers.
Then came Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery and the first oil boom. It consumed tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes. When filled with crude oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon tierce weighed over 300 pounds – about as much as a man could reasonably wrestle. Twenty would fit on a railroad flatcar. Bigger casks were unmanageable and smaller were less profitable.
Contemporary photographs show cooperages’ prodigious response to the new demand. Within a year of Drake’s discovery, oil barrels were commonly considered to hold 42 gallons according to “The Oil Fountains of Pennsylvania” in Littells’ Living Age of September 1860.
By 1866, these abundant tierce-sized barrels were the logical choice to become the industry’s standard measure. The 42-gallon standard was adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872 and by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1882.
Interestingly, the Oberly & Heisman cooperage on Bridge Street in Titusville supplied 42-gallon barrels for the oil trade – and provided Michael Heisman’s son, John, an after school job.
John played varsity football for Titusville High School as a guard on the 1884-1886 varsity teams. He graduated in 1887 and went on to become the legendary football coach for whom the Heisman Trophy is named.
Editor’s Note – A persistent oilfield myth says that the abbreviation “bbl” for a barrel of oil resulted from Standard Oil Company’s early practice of painting their barrels blue –bbl for “blue barrel.” However, while Ida Tarbell’s 1904 History of Standard Oil Company acknowledged the “holy blue barrel,” the abbreviation “bbl” had been in use before the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry.
In the early 19th century, wooden barrels of all capacities were common containers of trade: hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, tuns, and many other long since forgotten terms. Shipping manifests reveal that quantities of honey, rum, whale oil, and other commodities were shipped by the “bbl” – well before John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s blue barrels.
For today’s industry, the abbreviation simply signifies a 42-gallon unit of measure…of any color.
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