Was this ever anything more than a humorous way to illustrate having lost your last dime?
I have nothing to cite but it seems highly unlikely.
Wooden barrels are very heavy. I’ve lifted a half-barrel (the type used as a planter) and that was a chore. I can’t imagine walking around all day with a whole barrel suspended from my shoulders.
You’d have to break the metal rims to get the bottom out, destroying the barrel in the process. Or cut a hole in the bottom with a saw of some sort. Would a penniless man have the tools to do this?
Barrels are made from somewhat exotic types of wood, and therefore expensive. That half barrel cost me $25, I think. A pair of raggedy second-hand trousers can be had for a few dollars. I’m not saying that somebody in need of clothing would go shopping for a barrel, rather that taverns and wine cellars would know the value of their barrels and not just toss the empty ones out in the street.
Wait, Rodeo Clowns?
I believe the cliche is meant to depict someone who has lost their clothing (often as a result of gambling) having to resort to some emergency means of getting home without getting arrested for indecent exposure. In other words, you find yourself naked in an alley: whaddya do? More modern depictions of the same predicament usually show a cardboard box used in the same way. (Wooden barrels used to be common containers once upon a time).
Well, in 1979, Steve Martin improvised by wearing two dogs. Of course he was in front of his own house at the time, if that matters.
That wasn’t because he was destitute, it was because he was a jerk.
Hey, all he needs is his ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair. Not one other thing, except his dog.
Well, maybe not his dog.
Having been born a poor black child screwed with his mind.
Perhaps it was a nod to Diogenes of Sinope who advocated a life devoid of any luxuries and allegedly lived in a wine barrel in abject poverty.
So dirt poor, living in a barrel, could be easily turned into destitutes having nothingbut a barrel to wear.
I was reading an account the other day of a slave who was made to wear a barrel for a day as a form of punishment. Part of the punishment was that it was supposed to have prevented him from sitting down.
I understand this form of punishment was sometimes used in the army as well.
I’m not sure how the barrel being worn went from a form of punishment to an emblem of poverty.
As seen in “Curse of the Were-Rabbit”, where Wallace wakes up to find himself naked, and quickly dons a box – labeled “May Contain Nuts”.
In An American Werewolf in London after his first transformation and reversion back to human-form, the titular hero finds himself in Hyde Park naked. A quick cut and he’s clutching a balloon strategically as he flits from bush to bush looking for a way home. Another quick cut to one of my favorite quotes in all moviedom: A small boy tugs on his mother’s sleeve and complains, “A naked American man stole my balloon!” – like there’s any number of naked Irish men or Aussies hanging around Hyde Park.
Don’t know if he’s still doing it, but there’s the, “Beer Barrel Guy,” that did his thing at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.
Other than a hat, socks, and shoes he claimed to wear nothing but his beer barrell. I saw him once in person and several times on TV.
The Navy uses barrels differently:
Hope it’s OK to revive this somewhat older thread. I found a reference today to something called a Drunkard’s Cloak - apparently this was a punishment in the Elizabethan era - the offender would be forced to walk about the town wearing a barrel and would be derided by the public.
There are woodcut prints of this practice - although I couldn’t find anything authentic looking online - but I did find this old glass plate photograph (presumably a photo of a line drawing/illustration somewhere)
Oops… I also found a reference from a book published in 1929, quoting another one published in 1655, mentioning the practice - although reading the commentary accompanying this quotation, it sounds like the practice itself may be have been rare or at least sparsely documented.
The practice could even be completely apocryphal, but nevertheless, the account exists and could have inspired the popular images.