GUEST CURATOR: Luke DiCicco
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“NEW-YORK distill’d rum … by the hogshead or barrel.”
This advertisement features “NEW-YORK distill’d rum,” a few other kinds of alcohol, and various other goods offered for sale. The different kinds of alcohol included white wine and “cordials of the best quality.” Some of the terminology used in this advertisement was new to me, such as words like “hogshead” and “cordial.” A hogshead is a unit of measurement used for beer and wine and was equivalent to about 64 gallons. Jeremy Bell states, “A hogshead is a unit of measurement used more commonly in colonial times than today. And why is that? The easy answer is that the average person today does very little with barrels.” However, this unit of measurement is still sometimes used today, even though it is not as familiar to most people as it was in the eighteenth century. This advertisement helps to show how the English language has evolved over the past two and a half centuries.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Luke raises an interesting point about how readily colonial consumers recognized units of measurement that are largely unfamiliar today. Advertisements in colonial newspapers regularly offered commodities by the firkin, tierce, hogshead, and pipe. Such denominations would send most modern readers to a dictionary or some sort of online encyclopedia to find out how much they contained, but colonists who saw Manuel Myers’s advertisement in the New-York Journal knew how much rum a hogshead held … more or less.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hogshead as “a large cask, esp. for storing liquids; spec. one of definite capacity, varying according to the commodity held.” It further elaborates that the quantity sufficient to fill a hogshead varied “over time and according to locality and commodity.” As Luke indicates, a hogshead held 64 gallons in the eighteenth century.
Today we often use the word “barrel” to refer to a cask of any size, adopting the name that denoted a specific quantity in the British Atlantic world during the early modern period. A barrel held thirty-two gallons or half of a hogshead. Colonists adeptly doubled or halved the volume contained in casks when they considered the relative amounts held by firkins (8 gallons), kilderkins (16 gallons), barrels (32 gallons), hogsheads (64 gallons), pipes (128 gallons), and tuns (256 gallons). Other casks held quantities that did not follow this progression. A tierce, for instance, held approximately 42 gallons or one-third of a pipe.
Colonists spoke a language of consumption that may seem unfamiliar to most modern readers. Just as they recognized the distinctions between textiles in other advertisements in the New-York Journal – lutestrings, cambricks, taffaties – they also understood the relative quantities held in the hogsheads and barrels of rum advertised by Myers. For colonists, it hardly required a second thought to realize that hogsheads were larger than barrels. These words have not disappeared from the English language, but they have faded over time.