Historians write about the days before automobiles and of early grocery stores that received edibles in barrels, cloth bags or wooden boxes. Today, we as consumers understand those "packaging" terms, but there were names for shipping containers that we no longer use nor would we understand. With a few small tools to loosen and remove the nails that fastened the wooden box lids, a pine box top was removed and the bulk contents were ready for display. The same was true with barrel heads that could be removed and the contents opened for easy viewing. When a customer made a selection the product was weighted out usually by the pound and placed in a paper bag for the customer to take home.
Many products were stored and shipped in barrels such as smoked pork or pork packed in brine. Some held apples and flour in the days before refrigeration. Iced compartments were not thought to be practical until railroad cars were fitted out to provide the service. Wood barrels churned out by local cooper shops made both “tight” and “slack” types. Tight barrels were made for holding liquids such as vinegar or cider requiring hardwoods such as white oak with strength enough to endure rough handling during the days of the mid-nineteenth century. Slack barrels made of softer woods such as elm, basswood or linden were fine for sugar, fruit, flour, or salt. Then there were different grades of slack barrels since flour required a tighter fit than say one for apples.
Next a grocer had to know the several sizes and capacities of barrel design. Smallest of them was a tight barrel called a “kit” which held one or two gallons used often for salt-mackerel in brine. “Kegs” came in various sizes as did half-barrels used to contain linseed oil that were made of oak and some times reinforced with iron hoops. Depending on the product a slack keg was ideal durables such as nails. A “firkin” normally held about one quarter of a barrel and typically was a tight barrel used for consumables such as butter or lard. Standard sized barrels were supposed to hold 31-1/2 gallons. A larger size called a “tierce” had a nominal capacity of 42 gallons and the type most often produced. Another was the “hogshead” which was larger ranging up to 140 gallons.
As a suggestion, the next time you go grocery shopping please don't confuse that hard working clerk with a line like, "Oh, I don't know, how about giving me a tierce worth, but I will have to have help getting it to my car."
From an unpublished manuscript with the working title, The Merchants of Vittles, T. Castaldi - 2011