Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Hogshead

One of my favorite things about studying history is learning about the everyday things of times past. Today we don't even take for granted some of the items that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries, simply because many of these things aren't used anymore. For example, in an earlier post I discussed the simple plow. Most of us don't use plows (especially animal pulled plows) today, as they have been replaced with more modern or better developed equipment to make its nature of work easier and the older item virtually obsolete.

In today's post I thought I'd discuss another seemingly simple item that has always interested me; the hogshead barrel. By looking at the picture here, the hogshead looks pretty much like any other barrel, but hogsheads were much larger than a normal barrel. In colonial times, by law, hogsheads were to measure 48 inches tall and 30 inches across the head. That's four feet tall with an almost three feet opening!

Hogsheads, of course, were meant to hold and store something; most often crops of one kind or another. Tobacco was the most widely known crop to be packaged and shipped in hogsheads. A fully and tightly packed hogshead of tobacco weighed from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. When I worked as a museum educator I used to ask students why hogsheads were round. When I told them how much the hogsheads weighed, they quickly understood they would be much easier to roll than lift.

To pack a hogshead, tobacco was usually placed in the hogshead's open end until it was full, then a screw mechanism operated from above compressed the tobacco until it was stuffed full. But not only tobacco was stored and shipped in hogsheads. They were used for sugar, molasses, salt, flour and other grains, and even liquids, such as wine and beer. Salted or pickled pork, salted fish, and other perishable items also found hogsheads useful for shipping. Material culture items such as dishes, hats, hand tools, and other assorted good were sometimes packed in straw or sawdust and moved to market in hogsheads.

I can only image the skill it took coopers to make these large barrels. Individual staves had to be cut and fit as closely as possible, especially when the hogshead was meant to hold liquids. The staves were most often made of oak; white oak being a favorite. Oak is a strong dense wood, so breaks and leaks were less likely with its use. Then the bands had to be cut and split from saplings. The bands were usually made from fibrous wood saplings such as red, white, and water oaks, as well as hickory and ash. The bands had to be malleable, and of course their purpose was to hold the staves together. Later, iron barrel bands replaced sapling straps, but I have not been able to track down when exactly this transition occurred. The hogshead was then topped off (and bottomed off) with a "head." Heads were fitted boards that kept the contents safe inside the hogshead.

The 55 gallon drum and the common cardboard box has largely replaced the use for heavy oak hogsheads these days, but a closer look at what seems to be an obscure item gives us better insight into what life was like - as some of the students today say - "back in the day."


  1. Can you, would you say, if Thomas(1598)Applegate's alleged canoe which was going across Fore River ,Weymouth ,Mass.,in September , 1635 was instead a small sloop , not a Canoe, which he instead sailed from Berghen-Op Zoom in 1634 ? I ask this because it had a hogshead of salt in it from time to time ,etc. ? And, so far , no other ship has been found to have brought him and family from Holland ?

  2. Hi Tim,
    I enjoyed your post. I read in Linklater's Measuring America that Maryland's tobacco hogshead was larger than Virginia's, which was larger than New York's. Can you verify that? If hw is correct, were the actual barrel sizes different or were the amounts put in the barrels different? Thanks for any insights you can offer!

  3. My wife's great-great grandfather traveled from the Netherlands through South America and the US around 1830, and he said in his diary that for tobacco the vaten (barrels, i.e. hogsheads) for tobacco weighted 8 quintals in Maryland, and 15 quintals in Virginia (a quintal was 100 lbs), so if he was correct it was Virginia that had the larger tobacco hogshead.

  4. As a follow-up to my above comment, according to Lorena S. Walsh in "Motives of Honor, Pleasure & Profit", in Colonial America the Maryland hogsheads were 2 inches larger in diameter than the Virginia hogshead, and Maryland's justification for the larger hogshead was that their orinoco tobacco couldn't be packed as tightly as the Virginia tobacco. So maybe the Maryland hogshead was larger than the Virginia hogshead, but lighter.