A hogshead is a large cask of liquid (or, less often, of a food commodity). More specifically, it refers to a specified volume, measured in either Imperial units or U.S. customary units, primarily applied to alcoholic beverages such as wine, ale, or cider.
A tobacco hogshead was used in American colonial times to transport and store tobacco. It was a very large wooden barrel. A standardized hogshead measured 48 inches (1,219 mm) long and 30 inches (762 mm) in diameter at the head (at least 550 L/121 imp gal; 145 US gal, depending on the width in the middle). Fully packed with tobacco, it weighed about 1,000 pounds (454 kg).
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the hogshead was first standardized by an act of Parliament in 1423, though the standards continued to vary by locality and content. For example, the OED cites an 1897 edition of Whitaker's Almanack, which specified the number of gallons of wine in a hogshead varying by type of wine: claret (presumably) 46 imperial gallons (55 US gal; 209 L), port 57 imperial gallons (68 US gal; 259 L), sherry 54 imperial gallons (65 US gal; 245 L); and Madeira 46 imperial gallons (55 US gal; 209 L). The American Heritage Dictionary claims that a hogshead can consist of anything from (presumably) 62.5 to 140 US gallons (52 to 117 imp gal; 237 to 530 L).
Eventually, a hogshead of wine came to be 63 wine/63 US gallons (52.5 imp gal; 238.5 L), while a hogshead of beer or ale is 54 gallons (250 L if old beer/ale gallons, 245 L if imperial).
A hogshead was also used as unit of measurement for sugar in Louisiana for most of the 19th century. Plantations were listed in sugar schedules as having produced x number of hogsheads of sugar or molasses. As well a hogshead is used for the measurement of herring fished for sardines in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick.
The etymology of hogshead is uncertain. According to English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835-1912), the origin is to be found in the name for a cask or liquid measure appearing in various forms in several Teutonic languages, in Dutch oxhooft (modern okshoofd), Danish oxehoved, Old Swedish oxhufvod, etc. The word should therefore be "oxhead," and "hogshead" is a mere corruption. It has been suggested that the name arose from the branding of such a measure with the head of an ox.
Full article ▸