The Blue Barrel Myth
A persistent oilfield myth says that the abbreviation “bbl” for a barrel of oil resulted from Standard Oil Company’s early practice of painting their barrels blue –bbl for “blue barrel.” However, while Ida Tarbell’s controversial 1904 History of Standard Oil Company acknowledged the “holy blue barrel,” the abbreviation “bbl” had been in use before the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry.
In the early 19th century, wooden barrels of all capacities were common containers of trade: hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, tuns, and other long since forgotten terms. Shipping manifests reveal that quantities of honey, rum, whale oil, and other commodities were shipped by the “bbl” – well before John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s blue barrels. For today’s industry, the abbreviation simply signifies a 42-gallon unit of measure…of any color.