Barrels and Buckets: the Cooperage at Colonial Williamsburg

Master Coopers Ramona Vogel and Jonathan Hallman

Has any craftsperson disappeared so thoroughly from the modern imagination as the cooper? What youngster, tugging her parent’s hand in the Colonial Williamsburg parking lot, has demanded to go straight to the cooperage? How many visitors scan the gift store shelves looking for a miniature hogshead to bring home as a souvenir?

It’s not hard to understand why the cooper might be overlooked. His job has largely vanished from the modern world. If you don’t already know what a cooper does, the name “cooper” doesn’t really tell you. And the work isn’t all that glamorous. Coopers made barrels and buckets.

With the right perspective, however, barrels and buckets can be highly useful objects for thinking about the past, and the process by which the cooper made them raises interesting questions about concepts like “precision” and “skill,” and what these things meant in the pre-industrial world. We had the chance to explore some of these questions first-hand in our trip to Williamsburg.

Each member of our group was tasked with shaping a single stave—one of a number of pieces that fit together, bound by an iron band, to make up a simple bucket. Starting with a pre-cut piece of wood, we began at the cooper’s jointer, a long plane held diagonally to the ground by two legs. The jointer is used to true up and angle the stave’s edges. At the direction of Ramona Vogel, one of the shop’s masters, we put our whole body into pushing our stave down the plane, double-checking our grip to make sure our fingers were clear of its blade. The jointer reminded me of a large, free-standing cheese slicer, and operating it successfully elicited the same visceral pleasure.

Students taking turns with the backing knife (left) and jointer (right)

Next we used a backing knife, or drawknife, to cut the outer curve of the stave. A shop apprentice showed us how to clamp the stave onto the beam of a shaving horse and pull the two-handed knife blade back towards our stomachs to shave pieces off the face the wood. I quickly came to appreciate the backing knife’s versatility. With just a slight change in my attention and effort, I could just as easily take a thick chunk from the stave or curl a fine sliver from its surface. In three days of rotating through the trades at Williamsburg, this was the only task that felt at all natural to me, and after awkward turns at silversmithing, bookbinding, and several other tasks, I was quietly exhilarated to suddenly find myself comfortable with one of the tools.

We used a “hollowing” knife to cut a corresponding curve on the inside of the stave, first using its sinuous blade to scoop thick pieces from the flat inner face and proceeding to smaller cuts as we tried to perfect its shape. As master cooper Jonathan Hallman explained, 18th coopers would have performed all of these these operations by eye, shaping each stave to fit snugly alongside its neighbors without taking any measurements. Though standards were not as high for household pails, it took the skill of a “tight” cooper to make a cask that was sealed well enough to transport beer or rum. I was struck by this aspect of coopering and found it satisfying to consider how the prosaic job of cask-making rested on the cooper’s ability to make such incredibly fine visual judgments.

 

Master Cooper Jonathan Hallman evaluating a stave

Unglamorous though it may have been, cooperage was vital to domestic and economic life in the 18th century. Pails would have been common in most households as they were a simple but effective means of transporting water, a daily chore. Casks were essential to a far-reaching market economy, mobile containers that facilitated the storage and transport of commodities like tobacco, grain, fish, and wine. These casks were standardized by legislation according to size and commodity. The specific dimensions of a tobacco “hogshead” or a flour barrel would have been familiar to a cask-maker. Casks, pails and tubs were everywhere in the Atlantic World yet seldom noticed or mentioned.

Shavings gather on the floor of the cooperage

Some coopers specialized in these sorts of commercial containers. Others traded exclusively in household items like tubs, buckets, and churns. In both cases the work was highly repetitive, and it was done quickly. As was true for many craftspeople, speed could mean sustenance. If we find ourselves occasionally harried by the pace of contemporary life or exhausted by the responsibility of tending to our inboxes, we shouldn’t look back nostalgically to the working life of the cooper. His labor was not guided by any deeply-felt commitment to the craft so much as the simple, enduring rubric of “good enough to sell.”

Nor should we imagine the cooper exclusively in pre-industrial terms. As Hallman pointed out during our visit, the trade has survived in some form to the present. Even after World War I, casks remained the preferred method for transporting certain goods. But outside of the alcoholic beverage industry, the cooper’s role did diminish, and mostly disappeared, as new types of containers and more sophisticated forms of infrastructure replaced pails and casks. Things like cardboard boxes, plastic buckets, plumbing, pallets, and shipping containers—often invisible but utterly indispensable—function as the cooperage of our day.

 

By Kyle VanHemert, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Delaware Department of History

 

For many years, the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg has generously hosted Winterthur students as part of a course in pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Over the course of several days, we students work closely with the tradespeople, trying our hands at a wide range of eighteenth century occupations that bring our studies, quite literally, to life.  Every year, we leave with a deeper understanding of the material world.  This post is part of a series that chronicles our visit in March, 2017.



2 responses to “Barrels and Buckets: the Cooperage at Colonial Williamsburg”

  1. Peter says:

    Hey there my name is Peter I am currently a whiskey Distiller in VA and I have grown an interest in cooperage but don’t know how to build a barrel. I deconstruct barrels all the time at work but don’t know how to build them and so I was wondering if y’all ever offer courses or classes to teach people the art of cooperage. I have been trying to learn but can’t find anywhere that teaches people and was hoping you could help me out. Please let me know if you have any feed back, Thank you

    • rkasbury says:

      Peter, thank you for the comment. Unfortunately, we do not offer classes in cooperage or additional training beyond our American Material Culture master’s program. I would recommend trying to contact members of the Cooperage at Colonial Williamsburg for more information. They might have resources that would better suit your needs as they actively pursue this craft medium. Best of luck in your search!

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