Freelance Historian
The World of Historical Manuscripts and Ephemera

Old Words: All “Shook” Up

Posted in Old Words  by Steven on May 21st, 2012

While working on some whaling account ledgers, I came across entries for “shooks.” Thinking at first that I’d misread the handwriting, I skipped over it, but found the same item in the next ledger, in a clearer hand. Googling “shooks,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a shook is “a set of staves and headings for one hogshead, cask, or barrel”  and that the earliest written record of the word is from 1796. To find an illustration of a shook for a whaling barrel, I turned to Photo Curator Micheal Lapides of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, who kindly supplied this 1859 illustration of men on the New Bedford wharf tallying barrels of whale oil landed from an arriving ship. The man with the calipers is measuring the barrels to make sure that they’re the correct size:

courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Barrels of Whale Oil - New Bedford, Ma., 1859


The shooks are in the foreground. Barrels were carried disassembled like this to save space that could be used for bringing more food and supplies. The hoops for the barrels were carried in bundles as well.  Every whaler had a carpenter, cooper (barrelmaker) and blacksmith on board, so it was a simple matter to assemble the barrels as needed while the whale blubber was cooked down on the huge furnaces on the deck. Here is a close-up of the shooks from the illustration:

courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Close-up of the barrel "shooks" from the illustration

Another interesting note- Whale oil barrels were standardized at 31.5 gallons. The modern “barrel” unit of measurement for petroleum oil is 44 barrels.

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