Back in the day, like way back, a few years after the first oil discovery in 1859, some of America’s earliest oil and gas producers in Pennsylvania decided that a barrel of oil should be set at 42 gallons. Forty-two gallons seemed like the most reasonable size for transportation and for floating down the Allegheny River. At the time, Titusville, Pennsylvania led the entire world in oil production.
A 42-gallon barrel weighed 300 pounds when filled with oil. At that time, men, wagons, horses and boats and barrels moved the area’s oil. Pipelines wouldn’t come into play until later. Three-hundred pounds was about as much weight as a man would handle. Twenty would fit on a typical barge or railroad flatcar. Anything bigger was unmanageable, anything smaller was less profitable.
In that day, watertight tierce was a standard container for shipping fish, soap, butter, molasses, wine and whale oil. The 42-gallon barrels were quite familiar for commodity traders before the oil guys claimed it.
Just as a side note, for comparison sake, of course, a normal wine cask back in the day held 84 gallons. Today, wine cask capacity depends on the varietal.
Before the oil guys deemed a 42-gallon barrel their vessel of standard choice, they used wooden tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes.
In 1872, the 42-gallon standard was officially adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association, and by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1882.
The industry soon struggled with finding 42 gallon barrels after the decision was made, so Standard Oil Company began making the 42 gallon oil barrels, which they painted blue. Well, that’s the rumor anyway.
It wasn’t long before people in the oil and gas industry started referring to the barrels as blue barrels, and thus the abbreviation BBLS came into play.
About that rumor: Ida Tarbell’s controversial “1904 History of Standard Oil Company” claims that the “holy blue barrel,” and the “bbl” abbreviation had been in use before the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry.
Today, the oil and gas industry refers to a 42-gallon barrel of any color as a “BBL.”
“Oil and Gas Production in Nontechnical Language”. PennWell Publishing
“History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel”. American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Retrieved 27 October 2015.