Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blue Barrels

The question was asked recently as to why the name barrel is abbreviated as bbl. There have been a few answers and I found a few more in the Internet as well. Some are almost right but a bit off the mark and some are just pure bunk.

It is widely believed that the abbreviation of barrel is bl and the bbl for blue barrels. Both of these are bunk. Yes, there were blue barrels but at the same time there were red barrels. Barrels (also known as casks) have been around for centuries and not until recently have they been standardized. Beer and wine barrels were standardized for a number of reasons. First and foremost that coopers (barrel makers) need a way to mass produce them. Although made by hand they cut staves to a uniform length so that the barrels would hold the same quantity of material. Beer barrels were made different that ale barrels so one produce could be distinguished from the other. This is where the blue barrels debut. It was not until western Pennsylvania became the oil capital of the world that color came to be applied. As the country was involved with a civil war, the northern government needed a way to tax oil to fund the war. It took some doing and industry basically came up with the standard size of 42 gallons. Thi sisze was in use during the 1700’s. Bunk 1: Standard Oil did not standardize the barrel, the industry as a whole did. Bunk 2: The barrel was not open topped and companies would not pay for spillage. Only an idiot would ship a valuable commodity this way. Bunk 3: A 42 gallon barrel was not used to guarantee anything to a buyer. It is just what the oil producers came to agree on.

Why was the barrel painted blue? Because it was not red. When the oil was refined there were a number of products derived. One was gasoline that nobody wanted. What did you need it for? It was also dangerous. The most important commodity derived from oil in the 1800’s was kerosene. This was the money maker for oil companies. As barrels were pretty much the same size (unlike beer and ale) another way was need to tell one from the other. Hence, kerosene was in blue painted barrels and gas was in red painted barrels. Even though kerosene was the more important product all barrels were still abbreviated bbl and not rbl. As shown in the link below, the abbreviation was used before the birth of “big oil” in 1859. Any further investigation will have to involve Ben Franklin.

See: http://sites.google.com/site/petroleumhistoryresources/Home/42-gallon-oil-barrel This story also tells of the birth of the Heisman Trophy.

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