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Barrel Poor
October 17, 2007 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Why does an image of a naked man wearing a barrel with suspenders symbolize being poor? What is that image's origin?
posted by Falconetti to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, Google pointed me right at this page talking about a cartoonist called Will Johnstone (fl. early 20th century) who supposedly "developed the famous character of an impoverished taxpayer wearing a barrel".
posted by rolypolyman at 6:32 PM on October 17, 2007


This site hypothesizes that it's derived from the Drunkard's Cloak, a European method of public ridicule for inebriates, rather like a stockade.
posted by mumkin at 6:41 PM on October 17, 2007


I always just interpreted it as not having enough money to buy clothes and having to make do with a barrel. I have no idea why a barrel, though. Maybe because plastic bags weren't invented yet?
posted by Stewriffic at 6:47 PM on October 17, 2007


I always thought that image referred to a man who lost everything, even his clothes, while gambling.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:51 PM on October 17, 2007


I might be completely off, but I always assumed that it was a reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was an ascet and lived in a barrel.
posted by snoogles at 6:51 PM on October 17, 2007


Not too poor to be a Broncos season ticket holder. I always think about this guy when I think about guys in barrels (which is only occasionally).
posted by Frank Grimes at 6:58 PM on October 17, 2007


Second snoogles, Diogenes was my first thought.
posted by knave at 7:00 PM on October 17, 2007


He can't afford clothes! He lost them gambling?
posted by unknowncommand at 7:08 PM on October 17, 2007


Stewriffic, they had burlap (i.e. potato bags).

Interestingly, this idea very commonly specifically refers to a pickle barrel, rather than just any old barrel. I am uncertain what aspects of construction or social significance a pickle barrel might bring to the metaphor.

This threatens to connect it by means of folk etymology with the centuries-old phrase in a pickle. Johnstone's earliest uses of the character might help answer this, but there's very little of his work to be found.

Of course, it may also be related in some fashion to Diogenes.
posted by dhartung at 7:13 PM on October 17, 2007


"While we were standing in the snow, hearing the abuse of Major Beal, some poor ragged Confederate prisoners were marched by with what was designated as barrel shirts, with the word "thief" written in large letters pasted on the back of each barrel, and a squad of little drummer boys following beating the drums. The mode of wearing the barrel shirts was to take an ordinary flour barrel, cut a hole through the bottom large enough for the head to go through, with arm-holes on the right and left, through which the arms were to be placed. This was put on the poor fellow, resting on his shoulders, his head and arms coming through as indicated above; thus they were made to march around for so many hours and so many days."

-- MILES O. SHERRILL, Of Catawba County, - North Carolina
posted by ewagoner at 8:42 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Back in the day, just about everything shipped in barrels. Just like today we show the destitute living in cardboard boxes, pushing shopping carts, 150 years ago it'd make sense to show the destitute making do with an extremely common item.

I'll try to find more examples. It's pretty interesting!
posted by ewagoner at 8:44 PM on October 17, 2007


Clothes wore out. They did that, in the old days—wore right out from use, because you wore them most every day. That was back before we invented going-out-of-style. Anyway, clothes wore out. Couldn't afford new ones. Maybe couldn't get to any. Therefore, used an available piece of used shipping material to preserve decency. No gambling nor Diogenes necessary.
posted by eritain at 9:54 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wow. This is something I always wondered about, without realizing that I always wondered about it.
posted by brain cloud at 10:21 PM on October 17, 2007


I think part of why the image is iconic is that something not remotely clothing is being used as, in a desperate situation. Something like wearing a burlap sack isn't as powerful because it's still a cloth, albeit atypical for clothing.
posted by 6550 at 11:24 PM on October 17, 2007


Drunkards and debtors and other wrongdoers were once subject to public humiliation by means such as dragging them through the street naked in a barrel. Or at least that's what I learned from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. (Along with more pertinent, if metaphorical wisdom, such as not killing a goose which lays golden eggs :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:47 AM on October 18, 2007


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