Over a Barrel

Josh Fruhlinger wants to know (and so do I):

I’m completely uninterested in discussing the didactic content of this cartoon, but it does bring up a question I’ve always found completely fascinating, which is: why are large, wooden barrels the Universal Comics Symbol For Poverty? I mean, I know I’m a decadent 21st century denizen who has grown accustomed to wearing garments that in relative terms cost very little, thanks to helpful Southeast Asian children with tiny, nimble fingers — certainly less than a finely crafted barrel. But is it possible that there was a time when a sturdy, wooden barrel with metal … circular dealies … that hold it together (boy, I hadn’t realized how weak a grasp I had of basic barrel vocabulary until just now) was actually cheaper than, you know, clothes? Did people really go into some kind of old-timey second-hand clothes store, sell all of their clothes (including the ones they were wearing), then walk, stark naked, up the street to the cooper (see, there’s a word that I know) to buy a barrel to wear, and have enough cash left over to afford life’s necessities? Did that happen? Because if not then, you know, barrels, what the hell?

Having recently drawn a cartoon employing this visual cliche (with some irony), I would really like to know the real answer to its origins. Which doesn’t mean that the possibilities — some plausible, others absurd — proposed on Josh’s discussion board aren’t incredibly amusing. Oddly, it may have something to do with Diogenes.

Also, Josh has written previously about this and other political cartoon cliches about poverty at Wonkette.

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2 responses to “Over a Barrel

  1. The “Barrel Cliche” seems to be associated with people who have recently been robbed, or lost at betting or gambling. Everything has been taken from them, and they’re left naked, or at least in their under underwear. Like another cliche, where one is caught naked in public and forced to steal gender-inappropriate garments from a clothesline, our unfortunates clad themselves in whatever they find on the road home. If it happened today, that they found a genuine wooden crafted barrel with metal hoops, they could probably sell it for a few hundred dollars and buy themselves some good new clothes. 😉

  2. maybe the idea is that they find a barrel lying around on the street, because they can’t find any other clothes… i’d imagine that back before plastic such barrels might have been almost as ubiquitous as milk crates are in some places.