Oil “Barrels” Trace Back to Pennsylvania Whiskey
If you didn’t know before, the BP oil spill has likely taught you that in the US crude oil (like some other petroleum products) is measured in barrels. Commodity market prices, inventory data and oil spill volumes are all presented in barrels. An American barrel contains 42 gallons—hardly an intuitive or easy-to-remember quantity. So where did the 42-gallon barrel come from?
An informative article in Tuesday’s Washington Post answers that question with some surprising facts. The first oil wells, drilled in Titusville, PA in the 1860s, frequently sprung leaks or “blowouts.” When blowouts occurred, nearby workers scrambled to collect the spewing crude in any receptacle they could find, and 40-gallon whiskey barrels quickly became reliable standbys. As the oil industry grew, it sought to set its own standards of measurement, and adopted the whiskey barrel plus two gallons. Why the extra two? The Post cites one oil historian’s theory that it was the oil producer’s equivalent of a “baker’s dozen”:
One theory comes from Charles A. Whiteshot in “The Oil-Well Driller,” who cites producers agreeing in 1866 that “An allowance of two gallons will be made on the gauge of each and every 40 gallons in favor of the buyer.”
The article goes on to explain the discrepancies between US and UK gallons: both contain eight pints, but British pints (as most American beer-drinkers traveling in the UK have noted) are larger than American pints—20 ounces to 16 ounces. Because of that difference, our 42-gallon barrel of oil represents just 35 British gallons, though the UK now favors metric “litres” over gallons.
So it turns out that the American tradition of crude oil production is intertwined with another great American tradition—whiskey. And even though the rest of the world measures crude by weight (in metric tons—a much more accurate measurement that factors out fluctuations in volume that come with temperature changes), the US will continue using its own special measurement for the foreseeable future, despite the obvious benefits of adopting the rest of the world’s established standard.
Take that, metric system! American exceptionalism marches on!