What Is a Hogshead? Barrels and Measurement in Colonial America
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.
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.
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.
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.