Nellie Bly and the Oil Drum
She was among the most famous journalists of her day as a reporter for the New York World. Less known is her role in creating the 55-gallon oil drum.
The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.”
The Remarkable Nellie Bly
For her first assignment as a reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World, Elizabeth Jane Cochran – young Nellie Bly – feigned insanity for 10 days in New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island Asylum. She had been hired in 1887 to write about the mental institution.
Writing under the pen name Nellie Bly (a character in a popular song of the time), her numerous exposés and adventures would capture the public’s imagination and make her a world famous woman journalist by age 25.
Much has been written about this remarkable woman from Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, and her investigative reporting career with the Pittsburgh Dispatch and the New York World.
There is an equally fascinating side of Nellie Bly – her “Iron Clad” steel oil drum.
In America’s oilfields, traditional wooden barrels had always been problematic for shipping oil. Despite the introduction of pipelines and railroad tank cars, there remained the need for manageable-sized, durable, leak-proof barrels.
Standard Oil Company introduced a steel version of the common 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902. It had the traditional cask-like appearance. Although stronger than wooden barrels, the new barrel could still leak. Nellie Bly had a better idea.
It was a big story for society pages in 1894 when Bly wed wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman, who was about 40 years her senior.
At the time, Iron Clad produced milk cans, riveted boilers, tanks, and “The Most Durable Enameled Kitchen Ware Made.”
At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, Iron Clad factories were promoted as being, “Owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such a magnitude.”
Some questioned her management skills – but not her flamboyance – after her husband’s death in 1904, when she became the energetic and innovative president of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
During a 1904 visit to Europe, Nellie Bly saw glycerin containers made of steel. “I determined to make steel containers for the American trade,” she said. She patented her own “metal barrel” one year later.
“My first experiment leaked and the second was defective because the solder gave way, and then I brazed them with the result that the liquid inside was ruined by the brazing metal,” she said.
“I finally worked out the steel package to perfection, patented the design, put it on the market and taught the American public to use the steel barrel,” she added.
Henry Wehrhahn’s Patents
Meanwhile, inventor Henry Wehrhahn of Brooklyn, New York, in December 1905 received two patents that would lead to the modern 55-gallon steel drum.
“My invention has for its object to provide a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation,” Wehrhahn explained in his patent, no. 808,327, a flanged metal barrel. The familiar encircling hoops allowed for guided rolling of the barrel for better control.
A second patent issued at the same time (no. 808,413) provided “a means for readily detaching and securing the head of a metal barrel.”
Wehrhahn, who had entered the machinist trade in 1884 at age 18, became superintendent of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company in 1902.
“Wehrhahn must have had a very merry Christmas in 1905,” notes one historian. “He scored two patents on December 26, 1905.”
Wehrhahn assigned his inventions to his employer, Bly, who proudly claimed that, “I am the only manufacturer in the country who can produce a certain type of steel barrel for which there is an immense demand at present, for the transportation of oil, gasoline, and other liquids.”
At its peak, Iron Clad employed 1,500 and could produce 1,000 steel barrels daily, but then charges of fraud led to bitterly contested bankruptcy proceedings, beginning in 1911. Nellie Bly was in Austria looking for financial backers when World War I began.
Wehrhahn earlier had moved on to become superintendent of Pressed Steel Tank Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1912. Iron Clad Manufacturing Company eventually succumbed to debt, and Bly returned to newspaper reporting, covering women’s suffrage events and Europe’s Eastern Front during the war. Her steel barrels ultimately became the ubiquitous 55-gallon drums of today.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman died of pneumonia in 1922 – two years after the 19th Amendment secured her the right to vote. She was eulogized as Nellie Bly, “the best reporter in America,” by the New York Evening Journal.
She should also be remembered for her unique contribution to America’s petroleum history.
Editor’s Note – In 1889, the New York World sent 25-year-old Bly on a steamboat trip around the world to mimic Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. After a 72-day journey of almost 25,000 miles, she returned to New York to write a widely popular book.
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.