Skilled 19th century coopers made wooden barrels of every capacities, consisting of hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, and tuns.

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Soon ~ America’s first commercial oil well of 1859, a small group met in northwestern Pennsylvania and also decided a 42-gallon barrel was finest for carrying their oil.

When filled v oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon “tierce” sweet 300 pounds. The 42-gallon oil barrel to be officially embraced in 1866. Today, a barrel’s refined assets include around 20 gallons that gasoline, 12 gallons that diesel and four gallons that jet fuel (and rocket fuel) and also other commodities like liquefied petroleum gases and asphalt.

By the 1860s, barges floated barrels that oil under the Allegheny flow to Pittsburgh to it is in refined right into a extremely demanded product – kerosene because that lamps. Picture from very early oil firm stock certificate.

In respectable 1866 a handful of America’s faster independent oil producer met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a barrel the oil. Pennsylvania led the world in oil manufacturing as need soared because that kerosene desk lamp fuel.


The 42-gallon typical was embraced by the Petroleum producers Association in 1872.

Although pipelines would certainly later challenge the oil ar teamsters, the company of relocating oil depended largely on men, wagons, horses, flatboats, and also barrels. To with railroad station and docks, teams of equines pulled wagons transporting as countless as eight barrels of oil. Rough northwestern Pennsylvania terrain and muddy roads added to transport problems.


Meanwhile, as derricks multiplied, forests along Oil Creek were diminished to barrel staves by recently introduced barrel-making machinery. Hoop mills operated day and also night sustaining cooperages that sprang increase to join in the oil boom in what would later on be dubbed “the valley that readjusted the world.”

Why a 42-gallon Oil Barrel?

Long before England’s King Richard III identified the alcohol puncheon together a cask stop 84 gallons and also a tierce as holding 42 gallons, watertight casks of plenty of sizes were crafted by “tight” coopers.

A an effective guild, the Worshipful company of Coopers, prescribed the path of construction. Lesser expert craftsmen (known together slack coopers) make casks, barrels, and pails because that dry goods. Practical experience and custom make the 42-gallon watertight tierce a standard container because that shipping whatever from eel, salmon, herring, molasses, soap, butter, wine, and also whale oil. The 42-gallon barrel came to be a familiar 19th century container.

Then come Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 oil exploration at Titusville, Pennsylvania, the first commercial U.S. Oil well. The petroleum exploration and production boom that complied with it spend wooden tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and also barrels of all sizes.

A guild, the Worshipful agency of Coopers, prescribed the way of building and construction for a watertight barrel. Lesser expert craftsmen – slack coopers -made casks and also pails because that dry goods.

When filled with crude oil rather of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon tierce weighed an ext than 300 pounds – about as much as a man could reasonably wrestle. Twenty would fit top top a typical barge or railroad flatcar. Enlarge casks were unmanageable and also smaller were much less profitable. Contemporary photographs show cooperages’ prodigious response to the new demand. Within a year the Drake’s discovery, oil barrels were typically considered to host 42 gallons according to “The Oil Fountains that Pennsylvania” in Littells’ life Age of September 1860.

By 1866, these abundant tierce-sized barrels were the logical choice to come to be the industry’s conventional measure. The 42-gallon standard oil barrel was officially embraced by the Petroleum producers Association in 1872 and the U.S. Geology Survey and also the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1882. The size soon ended up being a key part that petroleum industry transportation infrastructure.

Pennsylvania’s “valley that readjusted the world” likewise has relations to college football’s Heisman Trophy. Among the late 19th century Titusville companies, the Oberly & Heisman cooperage on leg Street offered 42-gallon barrels for the oil trade – offering Michael Heisman’s boy John one after college job.

John Heisman played varsity football for Titusville High college as a security on the varsity team from 1884 to 1887. He graduated in 1887 and went top top to become the legendary football coach for whom the Heisman Trophy is named.

Standard Oil “Blue Barrel” Myth

Not long after developing the standard Oil firm in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1870, john D. Rockefeller focused on efficiency and also growth for his brand-new petroleum refining business.

Technologies for making watertight casks replaced “tight” coopers and their guild. Conventional Oil present a steel variation of the 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902 through the same classic bildged, cask-like appearance.

Instead of purchase oil barrels, standard Oil to buy tracts that oak timber, hauled the dried lumber to Cleveland ~ above its own wagons, and built the barrels in its very own cooperage. Standard’s price per wooden barrel dropped native $3 to much less than $1.50. A persistent oilfield myth says that the abbreviation “bbl” because that a barrel the oil result from typical Oil Company’s at an early stage practice of painting their barrels blue – bbl for “blue barrel.”

However, while Ida Tarbell’s controversial 1904 History of conventional Oil Company recognized the “holy blue barrel,” the abbreviation “bbl” had remained in use prior to the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry. In the early on 19th century, wooden barrels of every capacities were typical containers that trade: hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, tuns, and other long because forgotten terms.

Shipping manifests disclose that quantities of honey, rum, whale oil, and other products were shipped by the “bbl” – well before John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s blue barrels. For today’s industry, the abbreviation just signifies a 42-gallon (159 liters) unit of measure…of any kind of color.

Learn about the background of the 55-gallon steel drum in the exceptional Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum.


Recommended Reading: The background of the typical Oil Company: all Volumes (2015); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the beforehand Oil Industry (2009); The Prize: The Epic quest for Oil, Money & Power (2008); Trek that the Oil Finders: A history of expedition for Petroleum (1975). Her Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas historic Society. As an Amazon Associate, earns a commission indigenous qualifying purchases.

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Citation information – short article Title: “History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas historic Society. URL: Critical Updated: October 4, 2020. Original Published Date: December 1, 2006.