The first novel in my Adam Fletcher adventure series, The Smuggler’s Gambit, is set in 1765 and deals with shipping and smuggling. As I was writing it, one of the many areas I had to research was the coopering trade. In the book, 17-year-old Adam Fletcher is bound apprentice to a shipping merchant, so one of the first skills he has to learn is coopering.
Coopers were standard fixtures on ships, as well as on plantations, breweries, wineries, distilleries and any other industry that required containers for the commodities they produced.
To put it in modern terms: You know those big shipping containers that bring stuff to your local Wal-Mart? Or how about those beautiful brown boxes that come to your door from Amazon.com? Well, in the 1700s, all of those containers would’ve been made of wood, and they would’ve been shaped like barrels — made by coopers.
I had ancestors in the 1700s who were coopers, and while I have their estate records naming all of the tools they owned, until recent months, I had limited understanding of how they were all put into practice.
While I knew that casks (or barrels, as we might commonly call them today) were used to store virtually everything in colonial times: dried grains, salted meats (pork, beef, fish), wine, rum, tobacco, naval stores (pitch, tar), gun powder, various merchandise, etc.., I wasn’t sure what the typical process would be if one wanted to learn the cooper’s trade.
In my research, I have found a whole wealth of information on the cask-making process, so I thought I’d share some of it here.
One of the first things I learned is that not all things that look ‘barrel’-shaped are actually barrels. There are also tuns, pipes, puncheons, hogsheads, and so forth, all named depending on their size and purpose.
I also learned that there is a difference between wet coopering and dry coopering. As you might guess, wet coopering involved making containers that would hold liquids, while dry coopering produced containers that held dry substances such as tobacco or gun powder.
This video shows some of the tools of the trade in action, as well as demonstrates some of the processes:
Even after watching the video, and reading several websites about coopers and barrel-making, I still had questions. Fortunately, I knew where I could turn for answers.
Colonial Williamsburg to the Rescue
Colonial Williamsburg is one of my favorite places to get in the 1700s mood. Just walking through the historic district makes me feel as if I’ve traveled back through time to when America’s founders were busily crafting the Declaration of Independence and a Revolution was brewing. There are many costumed reenactors walking the grounds, and the (almost complete) absence of cars and modern conveniences allows one to really soak in what life in the colonies might have felt like in the period.
The official website for Colonial Williamsburg offers a great wealth of information, but I’ve found that if I need to know something that goes a little bit deeper than what they have available on their public site, there is almost always someone willing to provide me with more details, or point me in the direction of where I can find them.
Jonathan A. Hallman, a Journeyman Cooper with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), was one such person. A few weeks ago, he was gracious enough to answer several questions for me in great detail.
Please keep in mind, while there were many commonalities among coopers everywhere, these answers are particularly relevant to the plantation society in the vicinity of the James River and Colonial Williamsburg, so there may be differences depending on where a cooper lived, or what industry employed him. For instance, some of the answers provided might not be applicable to a ship’s cooper.
Questions and Answers with Journeyman Cooper Jonathan A. Hallman
If a cooper’s shop knew they needed to produce a certain quantity of casks by a certain date, how might they organize their tasks to assure they get it done on time? Would they shape all of their staves first, and then move through the steps for all of the barrels in sequence, or would they just move forward making one barrel at a time?
In most circumstances, individual coopers worked on a single container from start to finish. Since they were normally paid piecework, they wouldn’t want to go any length of time without actually producing finished pieces. In addition, because the work is all done visually (no patterns or calculations), the check is to see the pieces go together. If you shaped staves for a bunch of casks before assembling them, it would be easy to start to drift slightly from the correct shape, and then you’d end up with a lot of extra work to do later. The key would be to ensure you had sufficient staff to achieve the necessary production. Having said that, most coopers making barrels were working on site for a specific industry (at a brewery, for instance), and were constantly producing casks, so that the finished containers could simply be drawn from stock whenever needed.
Was everyone in a cooper’s shop typically doing the same kind of work? I mean, if there were a few men, would they all be shaping staves at the same time, or might it be that each would be handling a different part of the barrel-making process?
Again, the usual method would be “one person, one barrel” so in a given shop you could have individuals at different stages of the process depending on how efficiently each person worked. An exception to this rule could be found on plantations with slave coopers, who were sometimes employed in gangs where tasks were divided up. This tended to work only in the case of the manufacture of containers like tobacco hogsheads which didn’t have to be terribly well made in the first place.
Regarding the heating and bending of staves — would it be likely that a cooper’s shop might have multiple chimneys for this purpose, or would they be done one at a time?
A large working cooperage would typically have what was referred to as a “chimney corner” that was essentially a fireplace large enough for several people to walk into and truss (heat and bend) a couple casks at a time.
How long does the heating process take for the kinds of barrels/casks/hogsheads that would’ve held tobacco, rum, molasses, etc?
The fire used to heat a cask through is sized in relation to the cask being bent, so the heating time tends to be roughly the same regardless of the size of the cask. It should take about 20 minutes or so to heat the wood to the point where it is pliable enough to bend.
I’ve heard there were sizing hoops, then final hoops were made on site. I’m assuming the sizing hoops were made of iron. From what materials were the final hoops typically made? (Not for gunpowder, but for commodities as mentioned above.) If they were iron, would that mean a cooper’s shop would typically have a blacksmith on staff, or would they contract those items from another tradesman?
The final hoops could be made either of metal (usually iron, but copper or brass in the case of gunpowder), or of wood. In either case, making those hoops was part of the cooper’s work. In the case of iron hoops, the material was produced and sold as coopers hoop iron by mills (the same ones that produced nail rod for smiths, etc.) and purchased by the cooper. The bending and riveting to form that material into the hoops is done cold. In the case of wooden hoops, which were very common on tobacco hogsheads and casks for other dry goods exported from the colonies, they were made primarily from saplings split in half and bent while green, and notched at either end in order to hold the ends together. You might want to check out the albums “Riveting” and “Wooden Hoop Making” on the Facebook page to get a little more feel for these.
If someone were brought into a cooper’s shop as an apprentice, what would be some of the first tasks he’d be trained in? Or would he be expected to just dive right in for whatever kind of work was being done at the time?
Usually an apprentice would be put to work fairly quickly, as the idea was to train the apprentice as quickly as possible and then to make money off of his (or her) labor for as long as possible within the overall timeframe of the apprenticeship. Developing the skills meant building one skill on top of another, so the apprentice would normally be giving one particular task to start with – hollowing staves, for example. Once that skill was well developed, another – backing staves – would be added. One by one, skills were added until ultimately the apprentice had all the skills necessary to produce the finished product. While this learning process was going on, the tradesman teaching the apprentice would be watching over the work, and stepping in whenever necessary to ensure that the material wasn’t wasted and the finished product was still sellable.
How many containers could likely be made in a day in a cooper’s shop with four coopers and an apprentice?
It depends on the type of container, and it depends on the day. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1800 that he expected the coopers at his grist mill to turn out an average of 5 flour barrels a day each. He did not specify the length of the work day, however, and his comments suggest (though they don’t clearly state) that other slaves were doing some rough shaping of the stock before it was given over to the coopers to finish the casks. Rum could be shipped in seven different size casks ranging in capacity from as little as 16 gallons to as much as 252 gallons – obviously there’s a substantial difference in production times. The time of year and the weather greatly affect the length of the workday, as there are more hours of workable daylight in the summer and fewer in the winter. There are also more hours of workable daylight on a clear, sunny day than on a cloudy, rainy one. Depending on where the apprentice was in the course of the apprenticeship, he could either impose a substantial impediment to productivity in the early stages as his learning drew from the production time of one of the skilled workers, or he could be as productive as any of the other four coopers if he was towards the end of the apprenticeship. If there’s a particular type of cask you have in mind, I could probably be a little more specific about production times. Keep in mind that the casks were usually made where the product going inside was produced – beer barrels at the brewery, gunpowder kegs at the powder mill, flour barrels at the grist mill, and so on. It would be very unusual to find coopers producing much variety.
One other thing, were the barrel heads made on site, or did they come from a third-party?
Making the heads is part of the process of making the cask.
Mr. Hallman also sent me a couple of Word documents that were produced for use there at the Cooperage. I did not seek permission to republish those documents here, but I would imagine that if you had specific questions about how CWF goes about training their apprentices in the trade, they would probably be happy to send them to you.
What about a ship’s cooper?
As I mentioned above, Mr. Hallman’s answers to the questions about the cooper’s trade related more specifically to the local industry as it existed along the James River in the colonial era. There were coopers that worked in other industries, as well, for whom their craft was sometimes used, or approached, in a different capacity.
A ship’s cooper is a prime example. So far, the best resource I have found for the function and craft of a ship’s cooper was on the Scholastic website. It was about John Alden, who served as cooper aboard the Mayflower (1620).
While the page on the Scholastic site features several questions and answers (written as though John Alden, himself, was answering them), I have chosen a few here that are specifically related to the cooper’s trade as practiced on board a ship.
Why have you decided to leave England?
I’ve decided to leave England because I was paid to be a cooper on the Mayflower. All merchant ships need coopers to look after their merchandise. The money is very good in the merchant service. I make 21 shillings a month.
What was your job in England?
I was a cooper on land. I couldn’t earn as much money as I could earn sailing on merchant’s ship. On land, I only make a smaller portion of 20 shillings. I’ve only been free of my master for two years, and the money I would make as a new journeyman on land would be far less than I could earn on this ship.
What is your job as cooper of the Mayflower?
The Mayflower is a large ship, and I’m responsible for safekeeping all merchandise. In weather there can be damage from the goods rolling into each other. If anything is damaged, I will use my woodworking to repair it.
Why is the job of cooper on board a ship so important?
Most of the supplies that a ship carries are stored in casks and barrels. Coopers like myself are on board to repair the ones that get damaged during rough weather. In storms, such as we have had this voyage, there is much pitching and rolling — the stores can get greatly knocked about and bruised. Being only made of wood, although stout English oak, the staves can crack or hoops can loosen. When this happens, the stores within the cask get damaged, either by water leaking in or the stores themselves leaking out. I am kept aboard to prevent this from happening.
Have you had to repair barrels of water and things?
Yes, although we have little enough water aboard. Water spoils quickly. On long voyages such as this, we carry some for cooking and for the livestock. Most of the casks contain beer for drinking, biscuits, stores of grain, salt beef and fish, dried peas, and such like. There are also barrels holding cloth, iron tools, gunpowder, fishing equipment, and other stores the passengers will need for the new settlement.
How difficult will it be to set up a shop as a cooper once you get to the New World?
In Virginia, I expect there will be a call for my services. The colonists hope to get much profit by the fishing there, and those fish will need to be dried, salted, and packed in barrels before being shipped back. I’m armed with my training and tools, but I’ll need good timber, cut and dried, before I can begin my trade of coopering. Seasoning the wood will take several months at least.
Still have questions?
If there is anything this article didn’t cover that you’d like to know, feel free to submit a question in the comment box. I’ll do my best to answer them from the whole folder of research information I gathered on this topic.