What Is a Hogshead? Barrels and Measurement in Colonial America

Updated on February 4, 2017
A line of hogsheads
A line of hogsheads | Source

Colonial Measurements

What weighs more? A ton of feathers or a ton of lead?

A ton of lead, of course! No, I haven't gone crazy, but a 17th century colonist would think you were daft if you said they both weighed the same.

In the 17th century English colonies, a tun was standardized at 256 gallons. And, yes, I do mean tun, not ton. This archaic wet tun still exists, but most people prefer to use the dry ton of 2000 pounds. The modern ton is actually how much a tun of water weighs, so the two are related.

Various casks at Montpelier
Various casks at Montpelier

What is a Hogshead?

Wooden casks used for shipping were named according to the fraction of a tonne they carried. While most historic cask names have fallen out of common usage, today people frequently use the word 'barrel' for any wooden cask they see. A barrel is properly a unit of measurement. Just as a cup technically refers to 8 ounces, a barrel really means, historically, 32 gallons, or 1/8 of a tonne. A hogshead is 1/4 of a liquid tonne.

Historically, basically all non-living cargo was shipped in a wooden cask, whether the cargo was beads, nails, sails, salted fish, rope - you name it! Just think of how many things today come in come variety of box. Wooden casks were simply the historical equivalent of cardboard boxes.

A sign located at the Mayflower II
A sign located at the Mayflower II

Sizes of Casks

Cutting the quantity in half each time, volumes were measurement went as follows: tone, butt/pipe, hogshead, barrel, kilderkin, and firkin. Other measurements, such as the demi-firkin, also existed, but were less common. A puncheon, one-third of a tun, was also a popular measurement. If you look up these measurements today, you can find information about modern Imperial quantities, which are slightly different than historic measurements because. According to current standards, the Imperial liquid tun is 216 gallons.

A hogshead for dry goods
A hogshead for dry goods | Source

Wooden casks are still in use today! Frequently distilleries sell off used casks that are still functional, but no longer desirable for aging beverages.

Wet Cooperage and Dry Cooperage

So what's in that potential barrel? The way a cooper makes a cask and the type of wood he uses are dictated by the cask's intended use. A cask made for liquids, like a modern bourbon or whisky cask, is the product of wet cooperage. It must be made from a hard wood, such as oak, wrapped tightly with metal bands and is usually waterproofed in some way, either with brewers' pitch or wax. A cask intended for nails is an example of dry cooperage. Dry casks can be made of soft woods, like pine and are frequently held together with sapling bands. Wet casks are frequently used for many years, but dry casks are usually only used once.

Using the incorrect cask for the job can be more than annoying (when your rum leaks out into the cargo hold) - it can be downright dangerous. A lot of people don't realize it, but flour becomes an explosive when it is compressed. A cask for flour must be made with the correct woods and bound together in a manner that contains the flour, but does not allow for an explosion.

Once again, think of boxes. Some boxes are sturdy and hold a bag of wine, while other shapes and sizes of boxes may hold everything from a major household appliance to a few pieces of gum.

Why use Casks for Shipping?

Boxes and crates are easy to stack, so why use wooden casks? Because they are easy for one man to roll on skids. Also, they are favorable for aging many alcoholic beverages, which is why wooden casks are still used by vineyards, distilleries and breweries today. Historically, drinking water had a very unhealthy reputation because, realistically, you were pretty likely to catch something. There are bacteria, protozoans, amoebas, and all sorts of other things you can catch from contaminated water. They didn't understand the existence of these organisms, but they knew they did not get sick when drinking alcohol, or when adding alcohol to water. That is why rum rations became popular on boats. Water only stays fresh for a couple of days in a wooden cask, but if you add a shot of run to your water, it kills off lurking bacteria.

Questions & Answers


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      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

        It isn't very common knowledge today, that's for sure! Thanks for voting and sharing.

      • Flinter-50cal profile image

        Flinter-50cal 5 years ago from SE Minnesota

        At reenactments, I've wondered what the relationship was between the various sizes of barrels and casks. Thank you for explaining it so clearly and giving some of the history associated with them. A definite thumbs up, useful, and very interesting.

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

        Nice! I bet that makes the cider very unique and tasty. Being old whiskey casks, chances are good those containers are hogshead size.

        Thanks for stopping by!

      • Little Nell profile image

        Little Nell 5 years ago from Somerset, UK

        We use wooden barrels to make our cider. They were formerly used for aging whisky and impart a very characteristic note to the cider. I'll have to call them casks now!

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

        I'm glad you enjoyed it! This is a topic I am very interested in, but it doesn't seem to be that popular, overall. I'm glad I'm not the only one out there who thinks this is cool!

        I, too, love sea literature, as well as sailing and many other things having to do with maritime history - as you may be able to tell if you've also seen my hubs on making maritime knots.

      • Jason Marovich profile image

        Jason F Marovich 5 years ago from Detroit

        Informative article about the history of barrel-making. I'm a fan of seafaring literature, and many stories make mention of a cooper - giving that worker the same importance on board as the doctor and carpenter. Interesting to see it here now. Voted up!

      • alocsin profile image

        alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

        What an interesting historical piece. Never realized there were difference between wet and dry barrels, though now that you point it out, it's only logical. Voting this Up and Interesting.

      • profile image

        TatianaH 6 years ago

        Really interesting! I'd never heard of the majority of these measurements before. Cool stuff.

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 6 years ago from Hawaii

        You could probably call water and rum grog. Historically, grog originally referred to a beverage made by mixing rum and small beer, also called short beer. It's stuff with only a percent or two alcohol. Warm, weak beer and rum - must have been delicious!

      • profile image

        6 years ago

        I believe the watered down rum was called grog. These rations were alloted to the sailors and a chaplain later replaced the grog ration with coffee to allow for a safer working environment.

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 6 years ago from Hawaii

        Thanks so much for reading and commending. I'm glad you found it informative!

      • UnnamedHarald profile image

        David Hunt 6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        What an interesting article-- chock full of neat facts and factoids. You write very well, Natashalh. Great images, too. Voted up and interesting.