A Brief History Of: The Oil Barrel

Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum

Inspecting oil barrels in India, where steel drums are still sometimes used. Most of our oil is stored in tanks.

It has been more than a century since any major producer shipped oil in an actual barrel, but the unit has been the industry's standard since the mid-1800s, when overwhelmed Pennsylvania oilmen collected the substance in whiskey barrels after striking their first gushers. Before U.S. drilling began in 1859, "rock oil" (to differentiate it from vegetable oil or animal fat) was sopped up with rags, wrung out and peddled as a cure for everything from headaches to deafness. Spurred by demand for lamp fuel as whale blubber grew scarce, derricks popped up all over Pennsylvania's oil region in the 1860s--although subsequent...

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