Thursday, January 20, 2011

Correction (why bbl. is not the abbreviation for 'blue barrels')



A few days ago, I wrote a post about why the word barrel is abbreviated bbl.  I thought I had done my homework.  I had checked my sources and it seemed like my post was reliably sourced (going back as early as 1904) when I had attributed the abbreviation bbl to the use of blue colored barrels in the Pennsylvania oil industry in the 1860s.


Thankfully, an anonymous reader wrote in with a tip saying that bbl was in use long before the Pennsylvania oil industry.  Sure enough, I did a little poking around on the internet and found some old cargo manifests from the early days of sail.  I found one as early as 1764 that use the bbl abbreviation and it was certainly in use even before this.


(Manifest of the brig Sally, dated September 11, 1764 - note the bbl abbreviation)

So where did bbl come from?  I contacted three reference librarians across the country, and after doing their research, all three came back with the "blue barrel" answer.  When after I explained my earlier cargo manifest finds, one librarian from New York still put up a defense saying that "blue barrel" was well researched and had a long history of documented evidence.


One site I found took a couple of good guesses stating that the "b" may have been doubled originally to indicate the plural (1 bl, 2 bbl), or possibly it was doubled to eliminate any confusion with bl as a symbol for the bale.  Of course these are just guesses.


I'll keep looking for a satisfactory answer and I'll let you know if I find anything.  Of course if there's someone else with more information, feel free to post in the comments.

13 comments:

Mathan said...

I am envious of your polar bear photo. That is very cool, indeed.

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Duly noted Sir. That's an interesting manifest. Who might Hopkins be? The captain or owner of the shipping company?

Anonymous said...

According to the manifest Joseph Hopkins is the master of the ship.

Nate Maas said...

Mathan, the polar bear photo was not my own, just one I found and thought was funny. If I recall right the original photo went with the title of "Embearassed."

RCT, Anon is correct, Esek Hopkins is the master of the ship (or in today's term, Captain). The Sally was a slave ship sailing from Providence, Rhode Island. A more detailed history can be found here:

http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/sally/story.html

It's pretty interesting to read. The Sally was one of many ships involved in the famous Triangle Trade. Because slavery is such a popular interest of people, it was easier for me to easily locate a cargo manifest from a slave ship when looking for a early bbl abbreviation.

BTW, RCT, I was enjoying reading your blog. You and I share many of the same interests and even those that I'm not involved with now, I've considered starting. Thanks for the post.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

Indeed older mentions can be found, like in this book about a malignant fever in NY at the end of the 18th century. It includes a list of donations using ‘bbl.’ to describe the quantity of meal.

Roger said...

There may have been a use for the BL. before and they just started to use the BBL to indicate a barrel of what ever.

Nate Maas said...

Roger, bale is typically abbreviated as "bl," so you could be right.

Anonymous said...

Typically I would have guessed the doubling of the b was to indicate plural, as in 'pp' for pages, but I found Benedict Arnold's Regiment Book from 1775 in which he clearly uses bbl for one barrel. There are other references that may be older.

http://www.warnersregiment.org/Docs/75%2006%2024%20BENEDICT%20ARNOLD%20Journal.pdf
Page 5 (June 8th)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just hopped over to your website via StumbleUpon. Not somthing I would commonly read, but I liked your thoughts none the less. Thanks for creating some thing worth reading.

Tom Edwards said...

Hello Nate and friends, noted the comment within the comments about someone asking who might Step Hopkins be. He was the Governor of Rhode Island on several different occasions and also an original signer of the ' Declaration of Independence '.!! My son, an attorney from Pennsylvania, ismarried to a Kathy Thoma who is a great, great, etc, etc granddaughter of Step. Hopkins!! Always something interesting. Tom

Anonymous said...

good stuff man

Ken Dunip said...

Nate, nit-picking I might argue that master is today's term. Captain is a popular misnomer, carried forward from sailing days when a man with the rank of Captain was normally appointed to command a "true" warship. Smaller ships were sometimes commanded by a Lieutenant (hence the novel/movie "Master and Commander" and the title Lieutenant commanding. The latter now "corrupted" to the rank "Lieutenant Commander" which isn't actually connected to command. If you apply to the Coast Guard for a license to command a vessel, you get a Master's certificate, not a Captain's certificate.

kozmoknot said...

I read somewhere that fluid barrel measurement is also known in the UK and US as Beer Barrels. "Beer" could be the extra "B"?