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I've known this phrase to mean roughly "Using ideas which are bad". The Collin's definition seems to be "to be forced to use one's last and weakest resource". I've seen claims that it refers to American food storage in times of need, but not found any references for this or tracked down any more specifics. For example, Wiktionary could not find the origin:

Derived from the historical practice in the early United States of storing food in barrels; when food supplies ran low, only what was on the very bottom of the barrel remained, and had to be removed by scraping.(Can this etymology be sourced?)

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    What do you think it means?
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 21 at 14:44
  • IdiomOrigins states 'The expression has been used in the figurative sense since the early 1700s' but adds no supporting references. Phrases.Org says that the first use in print that refers to scraping the barrel as 'providing a poor product because of scarce resource' may be by the Montana newspaper The Independent-Record, February 1932. Jan 21 at 15:11
  • Compare draining the dregs. As @YosefBaskin says, so transparent as to be "barely a metaphor". And my understanding from this link is that the Latin equivalents for both those "barely metaphorical" references were already being used by Cicero thousands of years ago. Jan 21 at 18:21
  • @FF If used literally, it's not used metaphorically. If used in a non-literal context, it's being used as a metaphor. Compare 'kick the bucket'. Metaphors may be pretty transparent (as here) ... ... ... opaque ('kick the bucket' = 'die'). Jan 21 at 19:26

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According to The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer the expression refers to the sediment of wine which in Roman Times were mentioned to refer to the lowest class.

Scrape the bottom of the barrel:

Obtain the last dregs, the least desirable remains. The sediment of wine was likened to the lowest, most despicable elements of society nearly two thousand years ago by Cicero. The metaphor remains current.

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    Of course, they didn't have barrels in those days, so they had to say scraping the bottom of the amphora, which just doesn't have the same ring. Jan 21 at 16:44
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    On the contrary, barrel-making was known in ancient Egypt c. 2600 BCE, and by the Greeks and Romans, with Pliny the Elder and Strabo mentioning it. See Wikipedia.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 22 at 1:15

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