The 55 gallon steel drum is perhaps the most iconic barrel Skolnik produces. Seen in countless movies and TV shows, in real life and in photographs, if you were to ask someone to think of what a barrel looks like, a 55 gallon steel drum would most likely be on their minds. One of the biggest reasons these drums are so inexorably planted into our public consciousness is their use in the oil industry. In fact, the two are so closely associated, that the very unit of measurement one uses to talk about oil is barrels. The two weren’t paired from the start, however. Instead, oil has had a somewhat complicated relationship with the 55 gallon steel drum as industry needs have grown, changed, and evolved throughout years.
First and foremost, the “barrel” unit of measurement did not start with steel, but with wood. In the late 1850s, as oil prospecting in Pennsylvania took off, the prospectors used whatever they had to hold it in, and old wine and whiskey casks turned out to be the best solution on hand. Consequently, barrels were there with oil production from basically the very beginning. In those early days, there were some variances, but by the late 1860s, they sought to standardize. Basing their model off of King Edward IV’s herring industry legislation, they decided to sell oil in 40-gallon units, with an additional good will top-off of 2 gallons; the oil equivalent of a baker’s dozen.
These old wooden casks were not quite up to the same standards of quality as the stainless steel wine barrels we here at Skolnik offer, however. Consequently, improvements were sought out. After some early mass-produced steel containers from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, in 1905 Nellie Bly designed a solution to the crummier containers. With the capacity of holding 55 gallons and key features such as the ribs that provide rigidity and strength, Bly had crafted a new industry standard with the iconic drums we all know so well.
Even with these new containers though, the oil industry was still seeking to pare down their shipping costs. This led to investing in such things as tanker ships and pipelines, with the goal of eliminating physical barrels entirely. It didn’t help that the dissociation between oil and the 55 gallon drum had already begun. The unit “barrel” was still 42 gallons while the container was 55, so the 55 gallon steel drum kept being pushed farther and farther away from the industry that invented it.
Meanwhile though, in an attempt to improve public perception of the barrels that still existed, oil companies they painted the barrels bright colors and adorning them with corporate logos. The beautification initiative worked so well that it’s these barrels from the mid-20th Century that cemented the iconic look for generations to come. It is from this initiative that the evocative blue barrel came from.
By the 1950s, for the most part, tanker trucks, railways and pipelines pushed barrels out of the oil production chain all together. The barrels have instead made the transition into other industries, carrying supplies and materials for countless other products. Consequently, the oil barrel is now little more than a term we use when talking about catastrophic spills or energy outputs. The 55 gallon steel drum, however, is still going strong, and will continue to do so for many years to come.