Stupid Question ™
Oct. 28, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: Where did the image of a poor person wearing a barrel originate?
A: For that matter, where is an image of a poor person wearing a barrel? A week of research, and I don’t even have that.
I do have pictures of Renaissance drunks wearing barrels. In 17th and 18th century Germany and 1650s England, drunks were sometimes publicly punished by being forced to wear booze barrels. The barrels had holes in one end for the head. In Germany they were gaily painted, and in England sneeringly called the “new-fashioned cloak.”
If we make the huge and unsafe presumption that this is where the image originated, I still can’t say how it came to represent poor people or how it was popularized.
My searches of photo archives, cartoons, film, vaudeville, folklore, popular sayings and some major satiric paintings all came up empty on barrel-wearing. (One exception: A character in the 1925 film “The Big Parade” wears a barrel over his head rather than carry it.)
The advertising department of the University of Texas said the image is a popular one in advertising, but didn’t mention specifics.
Comic opera may also be a promising field. William Florescu, general director of Columbus Light Opera in Columbus, Ohio, said barrel-wearing “has certainly been used as a device in comic opera,” but couldn’t name a specific example.
Opera/Columbus is Columbus suggested Franz von Suppé’s 1879 comic opera “Boccaccio,” saying the cooper villain Lotteringhi wears a barrel. In “Cooper’s Song and Chorus,” Lotteringhi sings about how he hammers barrels so he doesn’t have to listen to his wife. In one line, he rather obscurely says (in the English translation of the original German), “So donning this apparel, I beat upon my barrel!”
It’s not clear, however, that his apparel is a barrel, and critical commentary doesn’t describe him as wearing a barrel. Perhaps Opera/Columbus was confused by a later scene in which Lotteringhi is tricked into climbing inside a barrel as a trap.
Other clues may lie in the symbolic value of barrels. In 1800s US political slang, “barrel” meant dirty campaign money, as political cartoons from 1880 to 1904 make clear (though of course no one was shown wearing the barrel).
The term “cracker barrel” apparently comes from “crackers,” or poor whites, talking around a barrel used as a table in a general store—what the dictionary “American Slang” calls an “archetypical image.”
Early comic strips also connected the barrel with poor people, who often used it to jerry-rig various items (such as a train car in a 1911 “Bear Creek Folks” cartoon).
The barrel also has a long association in theater, fiction, film and cartoons with hiding and stowing away. It’s possible the image had some anti-immigrant context.
If I can ever remember the last place I saw this deceptively familiar image, I’ll update my answer. Until then, this one really has me over a barrel.