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The Cooperage Handbook

Source: Fred Putnam Hankerson, The Cooperage Handbook (Brooklyn: Chemical Publishing Company, 1947).

[page 13]


By 1492 when Christopher COLUMBUS set sail to discover a new land, the wooden barrel was in general use throughout the commerce of the world.  It is not surprising, then, to find that the Santa Maria and her sister ships, the Pinta and the Nina, carried a full supply of both food and drink in cooperage.

Filson Young, in his narrative on the voyage of COLUMBUS, has this to say:

“…. on the 2nd of August, 1492 …. the last barrel of beef was stowed away….”  Further on in this interesting account of the voyage of COLUMBUS, Mr. Young tells us that on the 16th of October, on the Island of San Salvador, “…. while the barrels of water were being filled, he (COLUMBUS) landed and strolled about the pleasant groves….”

Cooperage occupied the decks and the hold of the Mayflower, when she set sail with the Pilgrims in 1620.  Azel Adams, author of The Mayflower and Her Log, tells us that provisions carried in barrels and hogsheads included biscuits or ship bread, oatmeal, rye meal, beef, pork, hams and shoulders, salt, beans, cabbages and peas, vinegar, beer, brandy, and gin.  He tells us too that coopers’ tools were included in the cargo so that the Pilgrims could make barrels in the new land.

John ALDEN, of “Why-don’t-you-speak-for-yourself-John” fame, was “hired as a cooper at Southampton just prior to the sailing of the expedition,” according to Mr. Ames.  Governor BRADFORD, in his History of the Plymouth Colony, confirms this fact.  He says: “John ALDEN was hired for a cowper, at South-Hampton, where the ship victuled; and being a hopeful

[page 14]

young man, was much desired, but left to his own liking to go or stay when he came here; but he stayed, and married here.”

The cooper played an important role in the early days of the colonies.  Fish, meat, whale oil, sugar, rum, molasses, tobacco, and even shoes and money were transported in wooden barrels and kegs.  Wooden casks were also the standard containers for water.

As more ships arrived and the colonies grew apace, more coopers came to the new America, bringing their tools with them.  The colonists made new products, soap, butter, candles, cider, syrups and the like, and each created a demand for more barrels and more coopers.

The early cooper in America was known as a journeyman cooper.  He had no fixed place of business, but journeyed from village to village and from town to town, fashioning the products of his trade.  His tools were simple: a cooper’s adze, or short-handled axe; a fro; a draw knife.  Staves were made by a laborious hand process of hollowing out the inside and curving or backing the outside through the use of the draw knife and coopers’ adze.  The barrels were assembled by hand, and it took a good workman to produce two barrels in a day’s labor.

The art of making staves, heading and finished barrels remained a hand operation (Figure 6) until the turn of the nineteenth century. […]

[page 15]

The early cooper shop was usually little more than a shed, where a cooper and two or three helpers turned out a few barrels a day (Figure 7). […]

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