What’s This Antique Primitive Barrel Or Keg For?

My most recent Collectors Quest column was about primitives. Within a few hours of that column being published, I received an email about one of the items in the photographs, a small-to-medium sized antique keg or barrel.


I just saw a photo on your post I’d like info on. It was a primitive barrel-like container with a stoppered hole on top.

I recently obtained something very similar and don’t have a clue as to what it is. Can you tell me?



There are no labels or markings on this keg; no clues inside to what it once held. And, being handmade, there are many variations in size and design on barrels and kegs. The keg in the photo is now in our booth at Exit 55 Antiques, but to help you identify it, let me describe it in more detail. The keg stands between one and two feet tall. It’s made of tin, or other thin and light metal, covered in wood. (You can spy the metal through thin gaps in the wooden pieces.) There is a corked-hole, slightly off-center, at the top. The construction itself tells us what this was likely used for.

The hole at the top tells us that this barrel once held liquid. Where the hole is positioned tell us that the liquid was to be poured out. And the stopper at the top tells us that the liquid was likely poured out in small amounts at a time, rather than completely emptying the barrel all at once.

The tin or other lightweight thin metal also suggests a fluid. The wood used to cover the inner metal barrel was likely applied to protect the thin metal from punctures as well as to add strength to the piece, avoiding accidental ruptures. At the same time, use of wood keeps the piece relatively lightweight. (Had thicker metal sheeting been used, this keg when full would be very heavy and difficult to pour from.)

As mentioned, there are no obvious clues to what liquid this antique barrel may have contained. I’m sure scientific testing would provide results; but I’d rather save my money for buying more collectibles. *wink* Plus, like many primitive pieces, barrels like this were reused and repurposed. So even if we knew what it last held, it may not have been what it originally contained.

The best guess hubby and I have is that this antique primitive barrel was used to store household oil, like oils for cooking, kerosene for lamps, benzine and naptha for cleaning and other uses in the home. But honestly, there are a lot of options in types of fluids used back in those years — many of which likely occurred over the life of just one barrel.

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Deanna is the founder of Inherited Values, among other sites. She is also an antique dealer.

2 thoughts on “What’s This Antique Primitive Barrel Or Keg For?”

  1. Patti & Deanna,
    I have had several of these kegs. One was labeled from a paint company and the woman that bought it was family to the original owner of the company. She said it had held paint thinner. Her excitement in finding the item was fantastic.

    Another one that sold was from the estate of a railroad collector. It was suggested that the can held lamp oil used in the mail car lighting system before electric lighting was installed.

    Thus we can conclude they had several or many uses for storing fluids. You were correct the wooded shell would have protected the can from dents and punctures. It did nothing to increase the beauty of the piece.

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