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Franklin E. Coyne, The Development of the Cooperage Industry in the United States, 1620-1940 (Chicago: Lumber Buyers Publishing Company, 1940).
Introduction If long continuation renders a trade venerable and those who follow it honorable, then the cooper, by such association with the ancient lineage of the wooden barrel, must be the salt of the earth. Barrels were made and used by the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians before the beginnings of recorded history. We read of "a handful of meal in a barrel" in the days of the early Hebrews, and Elijah used, or least commanded the use of tight barrels for the drenching of the altar, when he was in controversy with the pretended prophets of Baal. More than eighteen hundred years ago Pliny, the Roman investigator, who lost his life trying to find out what made a volcano smoke, tried unsuccessfully to trace the origin of barrel-making. He did discover, however, that a race of people at the foot of the Alps were familiar with the art of assembling staves to make barrels in his day. The construction of the wooden barrel is worked out, not by accidental methods, but along scientific lines and embodying engineering principles. The principal of the arch, formed by the stave accurately listed or shaped to conform to a given circle, is the first fundamental in barrel construction. As each stave rests in a set position and all are bound by external hoop pressure, the entire assembly of staves and heads becomes a compact and single unit. The staves are so listed that the lines of the joints, when projected toward the center, meet and form a series of acute angles. Due to this construction, any external impact or shock is automatically transmitted throughout every unit of material, and the resiliency thus afforded the barrel modifies the force of such impact. The convenience of vessels made with staves, their simplicity of construction and their durability, together with the wide range of uses to which they were suited, made the trade of the cooper a very necessary one in the development of society. The discovery that oak, whose every product is disagreeable to the taste, gave a peculiar and pleasing flavor to beverages stored in it, gave this wood a prominence in the cooperage world as a receptacle for the products of the vineyard and still. The earliest type of barrel probably was the one consisting of a log hollowed out and the end covered with skins. In the days of the Crusades barrels as we know them were common and were used extensively as containers for all liquids and for many such commodities as spices, salt, and peppers which were brought to Europe from the Holy Land. Since the discovery of gunpowder, the wooden keg has been the only container in which it has been shipped. Even in comparatively modern times, when the metal hoop has come into use, manufacturers have been obliged to continue the use of hickory hoops on gunpowder kegs to reduce the danger of sparks. Privateers used wooden barrels and kegs for rum as well as for tobacco, spice, gold and other things. The liquor industry would be in a bad way were it not for the existence of the ordinary wooden barrel. Whisky improves with age as long as it remains in the barrel, but does not age at all in the bottle. The best whisky is aged in new, white oak charred containers. There are two classifications into which barrels and kegs logically fall. Tight barrels are carriers of liquids and slack barrels are used for solids. While the construction of these two types is basically the same, they differ in detail as to thickness and types of staves, hoops and heading. They are also grouped according to sizes in commercial classification. In tight cooperage, sizes up to 25 gallons are called kegs, and those from 25 to 60 gallons are called barrels. Those above 60 gallons are known as casks, butts, and hogsheads. These few recorded facts are merely mentioned to prove that while the manufacturer of tight barrels is a very ancient trade there has been very little, if any, real improvement made in the details of its construction, which when considered as a whole, is in reality a work of art, and there is no doubt but that it was a remarkable achievement for the originators to conceive the form [page 8] in which it is made, and the essential details necessary to make of it the satisfactory container it has proved itself to be. When one considers the form of the chime, the opening in the center of the heading joints, the narrow and satisfactory croze, the arch construction of the body of the barrel, and the method of holding the whole together, making of it without doubt, the strongest possible container for any product, it makes one marvel at its simplicity
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and perfection, and any real improvement in its construction would be almost an impossibility. In the Middle Ages, everything that pertained to drinks touched royalty with a tangent, and the royal fingers were often in the cooperage pie. The title "cooper to his majesty" was a synonym for wealth, prestige and ease. The jealousies of royalty led to the promulgation of many decrees regulating capacities and designations of vessels. The size of the container in which the sovereign stored his liquor was an index of how seriously he took himself. The telepathic suggestion of a "snifter" gave to the haut ton the "pipe", a container twice the size of a hog=s head; a vessel that was enlarged again to suit the capacities of the satellites of Good Queen Bess, giving us the "Queen=s Pipe", the culmination of the cooper=s art. A patriotic Dutchman modeled a vessel of royal dimension and capacity after a plethoric burgomaster, and gave to the world the "Berliner"; the oval head, a cross-section through the cadaver of a burgher who passed away full of years and stale beer. Some European royal personage conceived the idea of what is crystallized in American political argot as "the whole hog," when he ordered that a vessel containing a quantity "sufficient for a gentleman=s drinking for one quarter" (three months) should be called and known as a hog=s head. Export trade in the original thirteen American colonies created a demand for cooperage early in their history. Unlike most other Colonial industries, it was in no way localized, but rather attained prominence in both north and south at once. New England rum, Carolina tar and rosin, and Pennsylvania whisky, called for tight barrel cooperage at an early date, while rice and Virginia tobacco demanded the first American slack barrels. In the absence of good transportation, stock had to be manufactured where it was used, and the cooper shop was often the nucleus from which grew many a flourishing town. The cooper was usually a potent factor in the town=s life; often an arbiter of destiny. Among the early annals of Salem is an account of one Zerubbabel HOIT, a cooper who was once admonished for "shaving staves" after sunset on Saturday, the same being a "near violation of the Sabbath Day." His defense was that the day was cloudy and he had no means of knowing that the sun had set. The following chapters trace the course of cooperage development in a general way in the United States, beginning with John ALDEN, a cooper of the Mayflower, to the year 1940. [page 9] [photos] [CAPTION: . . .] Coopers making whale oil barrels drew more pay than when making the regular run of cooperage. Chapter I OUR ENGLISH HERITAGE It may be rightfully said that the beginning of the cooperage industry in the United States had its inception in the colony established by the Pilgrims. Of the one hundred and one persons who made the crossing of the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620, and of which only thirty-four were grown men, the rest being women and children, there is the record that one of them, John ALDEN, was a cooper and was hired as such. Governor BRADFORD, in his history of the Plymouth Colony, refers to him as follows: "John ALDEN was hired for a cowper, at South-Hampton, where the ship victuled; and being a hopeful 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." It is more than probable that others of the original Pilgrims were familiar with the art of coopering, which had been well established in England since Elizabethean [sic] days, when guilds of English coopers formed an important part of the trade unions of that time, which saw a vast amount of barrels, casks, kegs, pipes, hogsheads, and other wooden containers turned out in English cooper shops for use on English ships which scoured every corner of the known world. The Mayflower itself was well stocked with stout wooden containers of English oak, in which were packed or stored supplies of foodstuffs, powder, oils, and other commodities. Heavy iron bands were used for hoops on these substantial containers, making them, together with their heavy oak staves, objects of considerable weight. Nearly all of the containers were constructed to hold liquids, and so were classified as "tight" cooperage. When
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they became, after many years of service, unsuitable for liquids, they were used for drystuffs, and became "slack" containers. They were primarily constructed to endure, and endure they did, being used over and over again for one commodity after another. The first containers of New England, together with the few hand tools for keeping them in repair, were brought from England. These simple tools were those used by the coopers of that dayCa drawing knife for the shaping of the staves and clamps for fastening them in shape. During their lifetimes in New England, the Pilgrims themselves became, of necessity, cleavers of timber and fabricators of containers. When the primary need of small boats for exploring the territory and for bearing small cargoes on the shallow rivers, together with the need of whale oil for the lamps, were temporarily fulfilled C the one by the hard work of timbering and carpentry and the other by the fortunate incident of drift whales being washed ashore after storms C subsequent rapid developments of trade brought about a considerable demand for containers. The most important of these develop[page 10] ments were growth of a good market for codfish, the profitable enterprise of making rum from molasses and sugar, and the beginning of trade in naval stores for shipbuilding and maintenance. Thus, Johnny Puritan, going to take the whale, found much better profit in the codfish, of which he was able to secure 60,000 in a single month. No phase of potential profit escaped the vigilence [sic] of the early Massachusetts legislators, whose economic theories were inherited from medieval England. Governor BRADFORD sent a company to Piscataqua (now Portsmouth) in 1623, to establish a fishery and a plantation. here the company also erected a salt works to obtain pure salt for the packing and storing of fish. Another fishery was set us [sic] at Cape Ann, and these enterprises began the great industry which has been called the corner stone of New England prosperity. Some of the first ships returning to England from the Pilgrim colony carried back barrels and casks of salted codfish. In a very short time there was developed a considerable demand for this New England product at other European ports, and especially those of Spain and Portugal and the Catholic countries of Europe, because of the fast days decreed by the Church of Rome. What the French peasant thought of the newly discovered New England delicacy is exemplified in the trite saying of the day: "The codfish is more important than Louis XIV." From the humble beginning of extracting oil from drift whales for their lamps, the New England colonists were to see the whale oil industry become, in about 1670, a very profitable undertaking. A cargo from Boston to Amsterdam in about 1630 included 748 barrels of oil "of New England fishing." A few years later someone recorded a shipment from Massachusetts of two cargoes of 144 barrels and 152 barrels of whale oil to London. Nantucket was to become a leading center of whale fishing after the year of 1700, and it was there recorded that 27 barrels of oil were extracted from a yearling whale killed there in 1707. While most of the first containers for fish and oil were brought from England, the demand for cooperage products was so great as to cause considerable concern to the Massachusetts legislators. As early as 1631 a man by the name of GIBBONS started the first sawmill in Piscataqua (Portsmouth). While this mill was largely occupied with turning out lumber suitable for boat building, a considerable number of bolts from which staves were hewn were also turned out at this establishment. Water-power furnished the force necessary to operate this mill. Two other mills were established in New Hampshire a few years later. These mills possessed four saws and were likewise powered by water. The products of these mills, together with the efforts of the few coopers in [page 11] the colony were unable to meet the ever-increasing demand for barrels, casks, pipes and hogsheads. Need For Containers The record of the Governors of Massachusetts reveal that they were in correspondence with cooperage firms in England "to provide us some staves," in 1642. In the same year the Massachusetts Court ordered that all vessels of cask used for any liquor, fish, or other commodity should be of London assize, and appointed inspectors to gauge these vessels and mark them with the gauger=s mark. The demand for coopers in New England and the relatively high rate of pay for their services soon brought many adventurous craftsmen in this trade from England. The passage rate from England was established at 5 English pounds in 1630. Pipe staves at this period were at a premium and were valued at the extraordinary
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price of 18 pounds per thousand in 1639. This price, of course, could not endure, and became lower as the supply became greater, and it is recorded that barrel staves were valued at 1 pound, 10 shillings in 1694. At the petition of the coopers, the Court called together in 1645, all those engaged in the cooperage trade in the various communities, to form a company, and to be invested with the power to regulate affairs of their trade. By 1648, the coopers of Charleston and Boston had united with the other coopers of New England to form such a company. This marks the first association of coopers in the United States as well as probably the first labor union. The production of pipe staves for export to wine-producing countries had become an important business by 1650. This trade was deemed so important that, in 1647, the Court appointed viewers "to inspect them in all the towns." A brisk trade had sprung up between Boston and the Western Islands at that time, and a specimen cargo of 1653 shows a shipment of staves valued at 265 English pounds, together with 533 stave "boults" (bolts). One trader, in recording the sale of his staves, not only notes the fact that his staves were sold, but added characteristicly [sic], "Blessed be God, well sold." The Western Islands needed the grain, pork, fish, and other solid food products of the New England colonists, together with staves and lumber. The plantation at Richmond Island, Maine, as early as 1639, was doing a vigorous business in staves, fish, beaver, and oils. When a voyage was made to these Islands, a cooper went with the ship, making the bungs, heads, etc., on the outward trip, to be set up, together with Taunton staves and Narragansett hoops, into barrels and hogsheads when port was reached. White oak staves went into rum casks, while red oak staves were used for sugar hogsheads. Two grades of wooden water casks were also in use at that time, fashioned out of heavy staves. The ships returned with a cargo of molasses and crude sugar for the distilling plants at Boston and Newport. It is recorded that one such trading vessel left New England with the following cargo: "80 hogsheads, 6 barrels and 3 tierces of rum, containing 8,220 gallons; 19 barrels of flour; 4 tierces of rice; 2 barrels of snuff; 20 barrels of tar; 3 barrels of loaf sugar; 4 barrels of brown sugar; 7 quarter-casks of wine; 1 barrel of coffee; 1 barrel of vinegar; 20 firkins of tallow; 10 barrels of pork; 15 half-barrels of pork; 4 kegs of pickles; 2 barrels of fish; 1 barrel of hams; 12 casks of bread; 4 casks of tobacco; as well as 3,000 staves, hoops and heading boards." Molasses and Rum Molasses and poor sugar were distilled in Boston and Newport into rum and was in turn traded for slaves. Rum constituted a staple export to African ports and was traded easily and profitably on the Gold Coast. Newport alone had 22 still-houses in operation before the year 1700. The quantity of rum produced by New England distilleries was enormous; Massachusetts alone consumed more than 15,000 hogsheads of molasses annually for that purpose. Governor HOPKINS [page 12] recorded Rhode Island sent to the Gold Coast annually 18 vessels carrying 18,000 hogsheads of rum. There was also a considerable domestic market for this product, since those engaged in the fishing and timbering industries required it to off-set the harsh staple diet of pork and bread. Shipments of staves and other wood manufactures were moving constantly to England, Spain and Portugal by the end of the seventeenth century. Ireland was also a considerable market for staves and it is recorded that two ships laden with barrel staves were dispatched there in 1719. Trade with European ports was much more prevalent than domestic trade, since most of the ports of Europe and Gibralter were as near, commercially, as Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. With the latter, Boston traded in woodenware and other products in 1732, while the first record of stave trade with Philadelphia appears to be in 1755, when the sailing ship Bathias carried a cargo of 1,500 staves from Philadelphia to Boston. The making of apple cider was carried on extensively in New England in Colonial days. Cider was a favorite drink of the colonists and thousands of barrels were required for the annual output of the presses. It is recorded that one small New England village of 40 families made 3,300 barrels of cider in 1721; while a somewhat larger community produced 10,000 barrels of this beverage. As early as 1645 the first wines were imported into the colonies from Spain and Portugal, and it is recorded that English vessels brought in "about 800 butts" of wine in that year. Both the production of staves and the fabrication of the wooden containers were carried on entirely by hand work and with hand tools since there was no cooperage machinery. The staves operator, usually also a
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farmer, cut his timber into bolts in much the same fashion as the small backwoods operator in certain parts of the South today. With his good sharp axe, and no doubt with his sons keeping a sharp lookout for lurking and often hostile Indians, the colonist felled the trees, sawed them into short lengths, and hauled them by oxen to his yard or shed. After they were sufficiently air-dried he would, when not engaged in his farming, hew the staves from the bolt. Staves for pipes, which held about as much as 2 hogsheads, were easier to fabricate, since they were straight, while barrel staves had to be hollowed out on one side and "backed" on the other to produce the necessary bilge. After further storage in the yard or shed, the same oxen hauled them to town to be sold to cooperage firms or stave traders. The first successful iron works in the country was at Taunton, Massachusets [sic]. Here, in addition to iron for ships, a large number of iron hoops was turned out. Later, coiled elm was used for this purpose on some containers; the wooden hoop becoming known as the New England coiled elm hoop. Narrangansett became a center of trade in elm hoops. Naval Stores All of the English governors highly regarded naval stores and did all they could to develop the production of this commodity. They sought them directly for the royal navy and for the king=s merchant ships, and saw in production of naval stores in New England a means of freeing England of her dependence on Sweden and the Baltic ports for this commodity so essential to the wooden sailing ships of that day. Agents of the king went about in the forests selecting large pine trees for this purpose and marking them with the broad arrow of the king, which designated that they were set apart for the king=s service and were not to be cut down by the colonists. The marking of trees was never popular with the colonists, and although there was a severe penalty attached to the disregarding of the king=s arrow, there is no record of any penalties being actually enforced, although it was common knowledge that the "king=s trees" were felled with reckless abandon. An English statute made it a crime to sell naval stores to the king=s enemies, so trade with Quebec and Canada fell off during the French and Indian Wars. the statute was also interpreted to include the king=s potential enemies; or in other words, the colonists were warned to sell naval stores to none except the mother country. A bounty was granted in 1706 on naval stores exported to England from the American colonies. This stimulated trade in this commodity to the extent that there were 9,266 barrels of pitch and tar sent to the mother country in the following year. One observing Colonial noted, in 1698, that one man, working alone, could produce a barrel of tar per week in Portsmouth. It sold in North Carolina in that year at 8 shilling, 6 pence per barrelCdelivered at the vessel. The first tar sent from America to England was apparently not very satisfactory, and it is recorded that it had too much "burning quality, which consumed the ropes," but the products of 1698 were said to be equal to the best from Stockholm and New England rosin was as good as the French product. Large amounts of tar and turpentine were made on the banks of the upper Connecticut river and shipped through Hartford to Boston in the period from 1696 to 1703. One party, Joseph PARSONS, sent 500 barrels of turpentine from western New Hampshire during these years. Turpentine was used extensively as a disinfectant in colonial times. Every ship carried large supplies of it for the washing of the crew=s quarters. The quarters of slaves on slaving vessels were thoroughly washed daily with turpentine. From June to December in 1722, Boston shipped 3,312 barrels of this product. After the English bounty or subsidy on turpentine, the price at Boston rose from 8 shillings per barrel to 15 shillings in 1718. By 1743 the supply began to grow scarce and the price soared to 2 pounds, 5 shillings per barrel. After about 1760, the supply of pine timber began to diminish in New England, and the center of naval stores operations was shifted to the Carolinas. Here a crew of red-faced Britishers heated the first pitch-pot near Cape Fear in 1584 after which the industry followed the slash pine for a thousand miles along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. At present the American headquarters of this time-honored industry is in Georgia and Florida. [page 13] Chapter II YANKEE INGENUITY Probably no single phase of industrial development has been less publicized than the development of the cooperage industry in the United States. While the importance of this industry to the early trade of the country was manifest in the number of wooden containers required for the substantial amount of trade carried on by the
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vigorous and enterprising New Englanders, very little has been recorded of the actual practices of the cooperage industry of that early date, and it is apparent that the industry was just as much "taken for granted" then as it is now. We have seen how the scarcity of coopers and the dearth of well constructed cooperage products was a matter of grave concern to the early Massachusetts legislators. Men who were coopers by trade engaged in container fabricating in all of the early American settlements, but in New England their work was regarded of special importance as a phase of the commerce for which this region became noted. There were Dutch coopers in New Amsterdam and in early New York, as there were among the Swedes of Delaware and in the English colony of Jamestown. Mention is especially made of coopers in a tract entitled "A Perfect Description of Virginia," published in London in 1649, which relates among other things that coopers of the Jamestown colony lived well there by their arts and labors. Most of the early American cooper shops were in the nature of back rooms or sheds wherein the cooper spent his time in turning out barrels, casks, and other wood containers with his simple hand tools. These consisted of a sort of drawing knife or cooper=s fro, a stave "bucker," clamps and windlass. With these tools the cooper was able to turn out two or three barrels a day, and he found a ready market for his products. Cooper shops followed commercial centers and fishing ports where their products were in greatest demand. During the years of the whale fishing industry in New England, cooperage establishments were usually found near the "trying houses" where the whale oil was extracted. Whaling vessels always carried a cooper to head the barrels and keep them in repair.
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