February 7

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (February 7, 1767).

“A Few Firkins of good Butter.”

Black and Smith placed this advertisement in order to obtain consumer goods rather than to market their own wares to potential customers. They did not specify what they intended to do with “A Few Firkins of good Butter” and “a small Quantity of Lump” butter. Instead they invited anyone who could supply these commodities to “enquire … at their Shop.” Black and Smith did not seek to entice potential customers to visit their shop by listing the variety of goods they stocked or guaranteeing low prices or making appeals concerning quality or fashion. Perhaps they felt that they already did brisk business and did not need to invest in marketing.

In their call for “good Butter,” the partners used a unit of measurement largely unfamiliar to modern Americans, though craft beer enthusiasts may recognize the firkin as a cask that contains one quarter of a barrel. In the colonial era, however, a firkin might be used to measure beer by volume or it might be used to measure butter and cheese by weight. For the latter, a firkin was equivalent to fifty-six pounds.

The term firkin testifies to the networks of trade that linked European nation-states to each other as well as locations throughout the Atlantic world. According to Russ Rowlett, “The unit is of Dutch origin, and its name is based on the Dutch word vier for four.” That makes sense and seems quite appropriate considering that a firkin was equivalent to four stone when measuring butter or cheese by weight or one quarter of a barrel when measuring beer and other liquids by volume.

Units of measurement used in colonial America may seem quaint and confusing when encountered by modern readers, but colonists recognized them just as easily as (and, in some cases, more easily than) modern consumers distinguish among short, tall, grande, and venti beverages at a popular coffee retailer.

November 11

GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 11, 1766).

“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.



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.