Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Barrel of History (or how barrel became 'bbl')

CORRECTION:  Since writing this post, I have discovered that the explanation of the origin of bbl given below is a popular myth.  For an explanation, please see my subsequent post HERE.


I was watching the TV show "Dirty Jobs" with the kids tonight.  The host was working in a whisky distillery when he asked, "Why is barrel abbreviated 'bbl'?  Where did the extra 'b' come from?"


Interesting question, so I researched it and here's the short answer.  In the early years of the oil industry in Pennsylvania, wooden barrels were used to ship oil.  Barrels of the day came in all sizes, most were somewhere between 30 and 50 gallons, but the most common was the 40 gallon barrel.  Buyers became frustrated at the lack of standardization, so in 1866 more than two dozen leading producers agreed that 40 gallons would be the standard measurement for oil sales.  An extra allowance of 2 gallons per barrel was agreed upon to account for evaporation and leakage during transport.  So by 1872, 42 gallons became the accepted national standard.


At first, the oil industry produced far more kerosene than gasoline.  Kerosene was shipped in blue painted barrels and gasoline was put in red barrels.  Because the oil industry was now using the standard 42 gallon barrel and kerosene barrels were more plentiful, the term 'blue barrel' was used to identify 42 gallon barrels verses barrels of other sizes.  So it makes sense that 'bbl' became the abbreviation for blue barrel.  Eventually they stopped painting barrels blue, but the abbreviation stuck.

29 comments:

Far Side of Fifty said...

I have a barrel upstairs it is green..someone called it a pickle barrel once..I wonder if it really was. Great stuff about the barrels..I enjoyed it:)

Astrocrabpuff said...

If it's a pickle barrel there should be a lid that can be weighted to keep the pickles in the brine.

Judi said...

Nate: There is so much of interest in our world. 'Things I never knew...' would sure include bbl. Thanks.
Far Side: Is your picture a Daytonian lily? (or something like that?) Isn't there a wayside on the Oregon coast devoted just to that one flower?

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Evil Nate Maas,
I tracked you down after reading your great posts during "Old Sailing Ships Week" at "Old Picture of the Day". (I've recently became a follower of that blog and was reading some of the older stuff.)

Any way great blog you have here. I will be adding it to my list. I am a big fan of History and I always tell people if I would have gone into teaching history would be the subject.

My knowledge of barrels is pretty limited. I know a "Cooper" is a craftsman who makes barrels. Also when wine is aged in wooden casks, a barrel made of French Oak will impart a mellower and more subtle character to a wine while American Oak produces a much bolder flavor.

Thanks, I always wondered about the bbl term.

Rebecca2 said...

Interesting bit of info. Thanks once again.

Rebecca2 said...

Interesting bit of info. Thanks once again.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but a myth. "bbl" was used long before Standard Oil existed.

http://sites.google.com/site/petroleumhistoryresources/Home/42-gallon-oil-barrel

Scroll to the bottom.

Nate Maas said...

Anon, how right you are. I'll run a correction soon. Thanks!

US-UK Trading said...

Nate: Have you seen this article? http://aoghs.org/transportation/history-of-the-42-gallon-oil-barrel/

It also debunks the myth of the Blue barrel.

Steve R.

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