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1. A round vessel or cask, of more length than breadth, and bulging in the middle, made of staves and headings, and bound with hoops. 2. The quantity which such a vessel contains. Of wine measure, the English barrel contains 31-1/2 gallons; of beer measure, 36 gallons; of ale, 32 gallons; and of beer-vinegar, 34 gallons. 3. Any hollow cylinder; a tube, as the barrel of a gun. — Webster, 1882

George Ferguson, Dealer in Coal and Wood, SALT by the Barrel. Give him a trial. De Smet, Dakota. – Kingsbury County News, February 24, 1881

A barrel was two things: it was both the type of vessel that held an item and a specific quantity of that item the vessel contained. A barrel bulged in the middle and was constructed of wooden (usually oak) staves and bound together with hoops. It had a flat top and bottom, the top of which was fastened in place after the barrel was filled. The barrel could then be tipped onto its side and rolled in order to move it. After the Hard Winter, Charles Ingalls and Robert Boast didn’t roll the Ingallses’ Christmas barrel down Main Street (See The Long Winter, Chapter 32, “The Christmas Barrel”), they carried it between them, most likely because the dirt road was still muddy and soft.

A barrel could store many items, from liquids to solids, or from lemonade and water to beans, crackers and flour in the Little House books. Not only foodstuffs were shipped or stored in barrels, also gasoline, nails, and gunpowder. Barrels were made by a person known as a cooper, who also made other wooden items made of staves, such as wooden churns or buckets.

Potatoes steamed in a barrel. Steamed potatoes were used for two things not mentioned in the Little House books: to feed cattle to fatten them before slaughter and in the distillation of certain types of alcoholic beverages. The practice of steaming potatoes for human consumption is similarly done. A barrel is filled with clean potatoes (about 175 pounds of potatoes constitute a barrel of potatoes) and water is boiled in a closed pot having a pipe running from the top of the pot to the bottom of the barrel so that steam is forced into the barrel, thus cooking the potatoes with its moist heat. Only a gallon or two of boiling water Could cook a whole barrel of potatoes.

Rain-barrel / Rain-water barrel. Barrels were used to store rain water gathered via pipes from roofs of houses and other buildings. The photo below is the home of early De Smet homesteader, Amos Whiting, taken years after settlers met at his shanty to organize the town’s government (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 3, “The Necessary Cat”). Note the two rain barrels and the board slanting to direct water from the roof into the barrel.

The De Smet Roller Mill. In September 1886, a roller mill begun operation in De Smet, one that had the capacity to make 50 barrels of flour each 24 hours. It did an “exchange business” during the quiet winter months of January-February 1887, taking in over three thousand bushels of wheat and grinding them into flour. By 1892, the mill had doubled its capacity. A barrel of flour was 196 pounds by weight.

Firearm barrel. A barrel could also refer to the cylindrical shape of a firearm, specifically the tube which controlled the explosion via which the rapid expansion of gasses propelled the bullet (or other projectile) from the gun at great speed. A gun barrel isn’t shaped like a true barrel (bulging in the middle), but was so called because early cannons were constructed of metal staves and were held together with metal staves, as a wooden barrel was.


barrel (BW 1, 7; FB 6, 7, 15, 21-22; BPC 21; SSL 14; TLW 18, 27, 32; LTP 8; PG)
     barrel-head (TLW 32)
     bean / cracker / pork (TLW 18)
     cannon (FB 16), see cannon
     Christmas (TLW 18, 32; LTP 9; PG)
     churn (FB 17), see churn
     church (PG)
     clothing “came out of a barrel” (LTP 11)- This implies that the clothes were a gift of charity
     flour (FB 7)
     gun (BW 3; LHP 23; PG)
     lemonade made in (LTP 8)
     missionary (LTP 23; PG), see missionary barrel
     pistol (LHP 17)
     potatoes steaming in (FB 21)
     rain-barrel / rain-water barrel (FB 6, 7)
     sugar-barrel (FB 18)
     water (THGY 13)