Home Drake Well Foundation About OilHistory.com The Author Contact
Oil Barrels
Volume (Liquid Capacity)
Early Scarcity of Barrels
Making Wooden Oil Barrels
Used Barrels
Observations, Wooden Oil Barrels

Used Barrels

Many hundreds of thousands of wooden barrels were needed in the oil regions of the 1860's.  Empty barrels, although sometimes in need of repair, were nearly as valuable as new ones.  River boats and barges returning from the Pittsburgh refineries to Oil City would arrive loaded with empty barrels, unless other freight contravened.

Returning used barrels to the oil-producing regions was an essential part of the oil trade.  They fetched a good sum in the early years.  For instance the price range for good second hand barrels received at the dock in Oil City in 1863 was $1.50 - $2.00.  For comparison, prime new barrels ranged from $2.25 to $2.50 in 1863 and by January, 1864, had risen to $3.00 - $3.25.  Looking back to the fall of 1859 when Col. Drake struck oil, the price for a new barrel was only fifty cents and used oil barrels were hardly known.

Several hundred or more used barrels were customarily received each month at Oil City if the Allegheny River was navigable.  During some months or even weeks the number rose into the thousands, as, for example, a delivery of 11,637 second hand barrels for one week ending July 23, 1863. 

An empty barrel that had held crude oil could not be used for any other commodity, not even refined products, so the use, even though great, was strictly focused.  The demand for crude alone in those early years took care of all barrels available for that purpose. 

The high cry for barrels in the early 1860's gave rise to a strange but short-lived occupation which for lack of any official name is here called barrel raiding.  It appealed to the outlaw element and rag pickers since it involved a virtual raid on unsuspecting hamlets.  These "agents" of the shippers would cajole their way into cellars, attics, barns, sheds, and would even scratch around rubbish heaps looking for barrels of any type or size.  It didn't matter if they had contained molasses, whisky, vinegar, or turpentine, as long as they might be used to ship oil (Williamson and Daum, 1959).

Another type of replacement barrel (as opposed to second hand) were the poorest grade or greenest of new barrels.  In the rush to make them, the staves were not properly dried and the glue coat was uneven and thin.  The price for these seconds was around $2.00 at a time when prime new barrels sold for $3.00 to $4.00 and higher.  The cheaper green barrels could barely stand the rigors of transport.

An early Canadian refinery at London and later at Petrolia, Ontario, in 1883 shipped wooden barrels of refined products as far as rails went and from there by oxcart or horse-drawn wagon to distant places in that northern land.  The recipients usually didn't return the barrels for a refund of $1.25 because the empty barrels had many uses at the homesteads including being cut in half for washtubs (Purdy, 1958).


© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
all rights reserved