Who Invented the Barrel?

by Thousand Oaks Barrel Co.

Who invented the barrel isn't known for sure but the history of this remarkable object goes back at least to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.

The humble barrel is such a commonplace object that it's easy to take it for granted, but some historians have compared the invention of the barrel to the invention of the wheel. Without barrels to store food and fresh water for hundreds of crew over hundreds of days, long sea voyages by explorers like Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus would simply not have been possible.

Barrels made international trade easier, and have been used for storing liquids, food, oil, gunpowder, nails, coins, and even dead bodies. The British hero Lord Nelson, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was taken back to his home country preserved in a barrel of brandy or rum.

Who invented the barrel?

What's remarkable about the barrel, even more so than the wheel, is that it's been around for about 5,000 years virtually unchanged. The only modern adaptation has been to use metal hoops instead of wooden ones to hold the barrel's staves together. 

The earliest depiction of a barrel is on the walls of the tomb of an Egyptian official who lived in about the 3rd millennium BC. His tomb shows a barrel, which was probably made from palm wood and held together by wooden hoops. It was being used to measure grain of some kind, which is another key use of a barrel: to provide standard measures. Oil is still measured in barrels, as oil was stored and measured in whiskey barrels when oil fields were discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859.

So we know that barrels were around in the 3rd millennium BC, but it's likely they were invented several hundred years before that. There was a thriving wine industry in Egypt's Nile Delta by about 3,000 BC, and other wall paintings show barrels holding grapes, so it's probable that barrels were in common use back then.

Barrels conquer the world

While we may not know for sure who invented the barrel, we do know that the Romans helped to spread the use of barrels around the world. By the time the Romans conquered Egypt in 30BC, barrels were being used in both countries. The Romans had found even more uses for them. They turned them into weapons of war by filling them with burning pitch and firing them at their enemy using giant catapults. It was a bull's-eye if one landed on the building that held the enemy's store of gunpowder... being held in barrels, of course.

Roman armies carried some empty barrels with them when they traveled, so that they could be tied together to create improvised bridges for crossing rivers. They also used them to line wells to keep the water clean.

The Creation of Cooperages

According to the Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century AD, the first European people to use barrels widely, and to build cooperages, was a Celtic group called the Gauls, living in what is now the French Alps. The usage of barrels was now becoming more sophisticated, too. Cooperages were springing up in towns and villages in southern Europe, and these were often one-man businesses with the cooper's skills being passed from father to son.

Different coopers began to specialize in different types of barrel, as demand increased. The easiest kind to make were those for storing grain and other solid items, as they didn't need to be waterproof. They did, however, need to be tight enough to keep mice and bugs out. Grain had previously been stored in hessian sacks, which were no barrier to mice and rats.

Other coopers specialized in making watertight barrels, for keeping wine and water in. This was a pivotal time in the coopering industry. Coopers where divided into "Dry Coopers" making barrels for grains or other products, and "Wet Coopers" who made barrels to hold liquids. The skills of distillation hadn't yet arrived, so no-one knew yet that barrels would add flavors when spirits were stored in them for long periods. Yet another kind of cooper would make what were called simply large barrels, which was an even harder skill to master.

A further virtue of the barrel, people discovered, was that they could be dismantled and rebuilt, as necessary. You could transport goods in them on a long sea voyage, then take apart any that weren't needed for the return journey. Even today, used American white oak bourbon barrels are taken in pieces for shipping to Scotland for use in the whisky industry, with the staves numbered to make re-assembly easier.

So, we may not know for sure who invented the barrel, but the world is glad that they did!

by Mike Gerrard