Why are oil drums 55 gallons ?

More than 3 billion barrels of crude are produced in the United States each year. Oil is priced per barrel when it is sold, and its energy output is measured in “barrel-of-oil equivalents” (5.8 106 BTUs) when it is burned. A 55-gallon barrel is a barrel in the world of oil. But why are oil drums 55 gallons ? There is a backstory to this, and we will see it now.

History of the first oil drums

Prospectors raced to grab the erupting crude in the late 1850s when the first Pennsylvania wells started to flow. Whiskey or ale jugs, salt or turpentine vats, or any other container would do. The greatest solution was an ancient one: the wine and whisky aging casks still in use today. They were made by the Romans and the Celts to take the place of clay containers for transporting wine and olive oil. The demand for those barrels increased so quickly in the early Pennsylvania oil fields that at times their cost exceeded the worth of the oil.

man asking why are oil drums 55 gallons
The first drums were around 42 gallons and were made of wood.

The initial oil barrels had a capacity of 31.5 to 45 gallons, so that does not answer “why are oil drums 55 gallons” today. But by the late 1860s, Pennsylvanian producers had agreed on a uniform standard. They used another outdated model as the basis for their new system. King Edward IV established a 42-gallon standard for shipping containers in 1482 in an effort to eliminate unscrupulous business practices in the English herring trade. Oil corporations offered a bonus in addition to similar market consistency. They would sell oil in 40-gallon containers, but as a gesture of good faith, buyers would also receive “an allowance of two gallons.” Measurement was retained.

Barrels and their problems

It was challenging to meet the barrel requirement. John D. Rockefeller engaged in combat on several fronts. Standard Oil would use barrels sparingly if it had to. An editorial cartoon from the time depicted Rockefeller’s firm as an octopus-like oil empire, with barrel manufacture as one of its eight tentacles. Standard cut down trees to lower prices, turning acres of oak trees into barrel stacks. 

Standard created steel containers in the 20th century, doing away with the necessity for trees (and Rockefeller made another fortune selling iron ore to steel plants). However, the fundamental issues persisted: Standard’s mass-produced steel barrels had inferior seals, which resulted in more leaks, and the barrels were still difficult to move.

The goal of Standard and its rivals was to completely do away with the barrels. To replace barrel-filled boxcars, they created railway tanks, and to get kerosene to nearby stores, they dispatched horse-drawn kegs. Because the barrels were so heavy, water transport was preferred but ineffective (and leaky). However, in the early 1870s, small tanker boats made river shipping without barrels practicable. By the end of the decade, Ludvig Nobel, Alfred’s brother and the creator of the Nobel Prize, had created the Zoroaster, a tanker designed to transport Russian oil across the Caspian Sea. Similar ships also transported Standard Oil throughout the world in the 1890s.

The invention behind “Why are oil drums 55 gallons”

When Nellie Bly obtained a patent for the steel drum still in use today, the barrels underwent a transformation. Bly created her oil barrels to hold 55 gallons more oil and to leak less.

Nellie Bly observed steel glycerin containers while touring Europe in 1904. The young factory owner afterwards said, “I am going to build steel containers for the American trade.” One year later, she was granted a patent for her “metal barrel” design.

nellie bly patent of 55 gallon drums
The creator of the 55-gallon oil drum, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked for Nellie Bly’s Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, sold the patent rights to her in 1905.

Henry Wehrhahn, a Nellie Bly employee, deserves all the credit for obtaining the two patents that gave rise to the 55-gallon oil drum and the current steel barrel. On May 23, 1905, Wehrhahn, superintendent for the Brooklyn, New York-based Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, was granted a patent (number 790,861) that covered a metal barrel with a “method for quickly detaching and securing the head of a metal barrel.”

“My invention has for its object to provide a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation,” Wehrhahn explained in his patent, (no. 808,327).

The inventor gave Nellie Bly, the widow of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, the founder of Iron Clad Manufacturing, the patent rights.

So why are oil drums 55 gallons ? If oil drums are 55 gallons today, this is because their capacity is higher than what was available before, they are easy to manufacture, and they solve the problem of leaking.

How the 55-gallon drum became the norm

The concept of the barrel also became distinct from its actual physical form as a result of Wehrhan’s innovation. Despite the use of the new, larger barrels, the 42-gallon quantity remained—and still is—the standard industry unit of measurement for a “barrel.” People no longer talked about oil in the same barrels that they had used to store it. A barrel evolved into a unit of latent energy held, crude spilled, or oil futures sold.

Wars were the factor that spread out the use of 55-gallon drums.The Allies swiftly embraced 55 gallon drums after they were first used by the Axis (Germany and Italy). The Guadalcanal Campaign, the first American offensive in the South Pacific Theater, was successful thanks in part to the drums. 

The drums were frequently delivered to the island by quick ships, such destroyers, and tossed over the sides because the U.S. Navy could not keep control of the water for long enough to offload aviation gasoline for aircraft ashore (or, time permitting, lowered in cargo nets). The drums floated because gasoline has a density that is significantly lower than that of water. Drums were captured by Navy Seabees in tiny craft.

Did 55-gallon drums solve the problem of oil trade ?

The barrel problem was not resolved by the mismatch between the barrel’s physical existence and its meaning in industrial jargon. Even though Bly had enhanced the barrels, the oil industry would still have been better off without any barrels at all. Even better would be symbolic barrels that were just there in name, used to track sales and output, but were concealed from view. The barrels that did exist were painted with company logos and colors to give them a professional appearance.

By the 1950s, fewer and fewer barrels of oil were required to be transported due to the development of pipelines, rail tanks, and tanker trucks. They discovered new uses for them, such as transporting raw materials and ship fuel in ports. They also accumulated in suburban junkyards as a sign of their impending obsolescence, though.

Conclusion: the symbol around the 55-gallon drum

Nellie Bly’s company, the patent owner of the 55-gallon drum, eventually failed due to debt, and Bly went back to her previous job as a newspaper reporter, covering women’s suffrage demonstrations and the Eastern Front in Europe during the war. Two years after the 19th Amendment granted her the right to vote, she passed away from pneumonia in 1922.

The New York Evening Journal hailed her as Nellie Bly, “the best reporter in America.” She should be honored for her distinctive contribution to the history of petroleum in America, as her steel barrels eventually evolved into the common 55-gallon oil drum of today.

Now you know why oil drums are 55 gallons. The oil barrel is still used in approved locations in the industrial hinterlands. The oil barrel also illustrates the conflict between what industries need and what they want. Although they were required, oil firms didn’t want the barrels. They were filthy, useless items. The industry became slightly less wasteful and polluting when they were eliminated. The industry wanted to project the image of a world full of energy, life, and security, so it became easier to trade the chaos and the waste for that image.