GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WEST-INDIA Rum in Hogsheads, Muscovado Sugar in Hogsheads and Barrels.”
In this advertisement, two colonial merchants, Edward Blake and John Savage, promoted the arrival and sale of various products including rum, sugar, salt and flour. I was fascinated by this advertisement because I did not have any idea what the terms “Hogsheads” or “Barrels” meant.
According to Russ Rowlett, “Larger volumes of liquids were carried in barrels, hogshead, or other containers whose size in gallons tended to vary with the commodity, with wine unites being different from beer and ale units or other units of liquids.” In general, a hogshead was a relatively large and wide cylinder cask that contained sixty-four gallons.. Barrels were relatively shorter and wider, containing thirty-two gallons, half the volume of a hogshead.. Casks like hogshead and barrels were easier to stack and maneuver than boxes and crates as they were shipped from one place to another. Additionally, they were designed to keep various liquids from becoming spoiled. According to Natasha Hoover, a cask made to transport liquids “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.” By doing this, bacteria and pests were not likely to get on the inside and spoil the liquid that was in the container.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Carolyn and her peers enrolled in my Colonial America class recently worked through a primary source exercise involving customs and shipping records from the 1740s. To make sense of the documents, they familiarized themselves with some of the common weights and measures used in the eighteenth century, a system that seemed strange and confusing to modern eyes. (This exercise also involved more math than some expected to encounter in history class, a good reminder that several subdisciplines, including economic history, require quantitative skills as well as the ability to engage in qualitative interpretation of texts.) I appreciate the way that Carolyn applied her curiosity from that classroom exercise to learning more about the weights and measures included in the advertisement she selected for today.
In her research, Carolyn turned up a very useful reference page, “What is a Hogshead? Barrels and Measurement in Colonial America.” On that page, Natasha Hoover explains that “a tun was standardized at 256 gallons” in the English colonies in the seventeenth century. Furthermore, the modern ton “is actually how much a tun of water weighs, so the two are related.”
We tend to think of all casks as being some sort of barrel today, but, as Carolyn points out, a barrel was a specific designation in the colonial period. Units like firkin, kilderkin, hogshead, and pipe are no longer regularly used in everyday life, but colonists recognized each and would have noted the relative volume contained in each without much thought. Once familiar with the system, that would have been easy because each successive unit doubled the volume of its predecessor.
Firkin = 8 gallons
Kilderkin = 16 gallons
Barrel = 32 gallons
Hogshead = 64 gallons
Pipe = 128 gallons
Tun = 256 gallons
This system was not as complicated as the unfamiliar names might suggest, but just to keep things interesting the puncheon was also a popular measurement. A puncheon contained one-third of a tun – eighty-five gallons – which meant it contained more than a hogshead but less than a pipe.
I have invited my students to serve as guest curators with the intention that they learn something about colonial commerce and life from each advertisement they select. I am often surprised and pleased by what attracts their attention. My first instinct would have been to examine the commodities contained in the hogsheads and barrels listed in this advertisement. Although Carolyn went in a much different direction, she investigated an important aspect of the world in which colonists lived.