Drum It Up! Steel Drum Industry News, Trends, and Issues

A Brief History of the 55 Gallon Drum

February 20th, 2014 by Lisa Stojanovich

Filed under: Cool Stuff

Cylindrical containers have been used for centuries for the transport of solid and liquid goods.  The wooden barrel was most commonly used before the invention of the steel drum.  Born out of necessity, the steel drum has continued to improve the efficiency and safety of the storage and transport of goods for countless industries. The most notable of these, the standard 55 gallon steel drum, has a long and rich history of inventive individuals meeting the needs of thousands through creative and industry-leading decisions that have helped propel the steel drum into the 21st century.

In the year 1900 the world saw continuous growth in the supply of oil.  Drilling was taking place all over, from Texas to Persia, modern day Iran.  However,the current means of transporting the good, commonly known as the “Bayonne Barrel” for the New Jersey manufacturer producing the container, was heavy and not entirely leakproof.  The demand for a better means of transporting oil grew.  Enter Nellie Bly, the former journalists turned inventor, with the patents for a straight-sided steel drum, with rolling hoops and a side or top fitting.  Thus, the 55 gallon steel drum was born.  The drum designed by Bly is almost the exact configuration still used today.  The main difference being the straight-sided cylinder design of the early 1900’s had metal rolling hoops that were separate from the body; the modern day design features hoops that are attached to the drum itself.

Fourteen years after the invention of the drum, Charles Draper, referred to by peers as “the Daddy of the Barrel Business”, received a contract to ship drums of sulfuric acid to Europe during WWI.  Two ships were lost in the first month of shipping when the acid ate through the steel of the drums, so Draper went to work designing a machine that would solve this dangerous problem.  He ended up with an automatic seamer that was able to double seam 12-guage steel, although at the time it was thought impossible to do so.  The rest of the army’s acid was delivered safely and the seamer later went on to help produce drums at a rate of 2,000 per day.  Draper continued to make improvements upon the steel drum and is credited with the first idea for the open head drum with his patents for a “Removable Head Barrel” in 1932.

Flanges, plugs, gaskets were a hot button item, with hundred of patents taken out to try and create a more leakproof drum.  There were breakthroughs in the early 1920’s with a surge of ideas for removable closures, but the public was cautious and nervous about flanges that were not fused with the drum.  American Flange began production of the what is known now as the “Tri-Sure” closure system, and T.W. Rieke outlined his idea for a pressed-in fitting.  Maurice Schwartz’s began producing the “Multiseal” but as new concepts were tested and failed by 1957 the two remaining forces were Rieke and American Flange, who were able to increase production speed to meet the needs of their customers.

While the future of the 55 gallon steel drum may be unknown, it is clear the durable container has a past that proves its efficiency in adaptation.  Thanks to the dedicated individuals and businesses that brought the container through the turn of the century, the 55 gallon steel drum can move confidently into the next, and await the future improvements upon Bly’s 113 year old design.  This safe and reliable unit for storage and transport offers thousands of uses to so many business and individuals it is exciting to think about who will bring forth the new chapter of the 55 gallon steel drum.

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6 Responses

  1. Reggie Alan Ross says:

    but why 55 gallon size?

  2. Very simply, the 55 US gallon size was deemed the largest capacity vessel that could be easily maneuvered manually. The 55 gallon drum could be moved with a tilt-truck, rolled on it’s edge, or on it’s side, all without mechanical assistance. Hope this answers your questions.
    Thanks for asking.

  3. peter johnson says:

    pjau2001@yahoo.co.uk what is total production of steel barrel world wide approximately?

  4. Hello Peter,
    Thanks for the inquiry. While I do not have the number for global production, I would suggest that you email Paul Rankin at the Reusable Industrial Packaging Association. His email is: prankin@ripaus.com
    Hope this information is useful. With thanks,
    Howard Skolnik

  5. Michael Del Vecchio says:

    Surprised Rockefeller isn’t mentioned in the history of containing oil in barrels. He got his start in the barrel business, cornering the market and domination all barrel production requiring anyone shipping oil to rent barrels from him. By the time of steel Rockefeller had dominated the tank car business and had built a network of pipelines to compete with railroads to keep transportation costs down.

  6. Michael,
    Thanks for this slice of history. Actually, Rockefeller wasn’t in the business of making or reconditioning barrels. He did corner the barrel market by buying large quantities of barrels which prevented other companies from accessing barrels for shipping their products.
    Thank you,

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