A cooper makes and repairs round wooden containers such as pails, casks, and tubs. The bodies of these containers are formed from small boards called staves, which are bound together by hoops.
Rural coopers made the kinds of round wooden containers that their neighbors needed in their households and on their farms. That included water and well buckets, milk pails, butter churns, laundry tubs, and barrels for storing salted meat and apple cider.
Urban coopers, and rural coopers in areas that exported commodities in cooperage, made the casks and kegs to ship items such as flour, gunpowder, rum, nails, and hundreds of other things.
There were many different specialized woodworking trades in the 19th century, only one of which was coopering. Cabinetmakers made furniture and carpenters built houses, while wheelwrights made wheels and shipwrights ships. Sash-joiners made window frames and turners used lathes to make chair parts. Each tradesman had a specialized tool kit and particular techniques adapted to his trade. The tools and training of coopers were designed for them to make round vessels. In the 1800s, however, men sometimes followed more than one trade.
Our research indicates that rural New England coopers, like most of their neighbors, farmed for a living. Usually there was not enough demand in country towns for pails, tubs, and casks to keep a full-time cooper busy. So men who had the tools and training to cooper did it part-time to supplement their farm income. (Farming was generally a desirable occupation in early America.) Coopers made containers on a custom, or “bespoke,” basis as their neighbors required them. They made such things as milk pails and butter churns in the spring, cider barrels in the fall, and meat barrels in the early winter.
In ports and urban commercial centers, however, there was a large enough demand for shipping containers to permit coopers to work full-time at their trade. In some rural areas where large quantities of goods were produced for export farmer/coopers made large numbers of barrels for shipping those commodities. For example, the original owners of this shop in Waldoboro, Maine spent their winter months making barrels for shipping lime (used in making plaster).
The Products & Tools
Buckets and barrels are round because a round container is very strong for its weight. It is also easy to move because it can be rolled. A circle is also a relatively easy shape to make (if one is a cooper!) because it is so uniform: all its curves and angles are the same.
Not every container made by coopers is a barrel. A barrel is a form of measurement, and a specific size of cask. Generically speaking, bellied containers (i.e. “barrel shaped,” that is wide in the middle and narrower to the ends) barrel-sized and larger are called "casks," and those smaller than a barrel are called "kegs." In the 19th century, the size of a barrel was determined by either state law or sometimes just common convention. To further complicate matters, the specific size of a barrel might vary somewhat over time, from one region to the next, or from one commodity to the another. For example, in 1836 Massachusetts changed the size of a cider barrel from 31 ½ gallons to the 32 gallons that many other states used. A flour barrel held 196 pounds, while a meat barrel held 200 pounds. A cider barrel held 32 gallons, but an oil barrel held 42 gallons. Even in the 21st century, some commodities, such as crude oil, are still sold in terms of a barrel-measure, although not usually in an actual barrel.
A rural cooper working part-time probably used second-hand tools that he had inherited . In the 19th century most tradesmen’s tools were being manufactured by specialist toolmakers, and purchased from storekeepers and tool dealers. England, especially the Sheffield area, had long produced the best quality tools. By the 1830s, however, a growing number of American manufacturers were producing high-quality tools for coopers and other woodworkers.
Fit and pressure allow cooperage to hold liquids. A cooper carefully cuts the edges of each piece to fit perfectly with those next to it. He then hammers the hoops that hold the pieces together from the narrow part of the container towards the wider part. This forces the pieces snugly together, making a watertight seal. Traditionally no coatings or sealers were added inside or outside of a bucket or cask.
Containers were made for a specific purpose, and not all were meant to be “tight.” Apple barrels and nail kegs, for example, were made quickly and cheaply. They held what they were intended to hold, but time was not wasted making them watertight.
Different species of wood have different properties, such as weight, flavor, ease of working, and decay resistance. Coopers tried to match the properties desired in a specific type of container to the kinds of trees that grew in his neighborhood. (Of course a cooper in a port city bought his wood, brought in by ships sometimes from hundreds of miles away.) State laws regulated what kinds of wood could be used for some containers, while for others only practical concerns, including availability, dictated the type of wood used.
For example, white oak was commonly used for long-term storage of beverages. Lighter weight woods such as pine made more sense for pails and tubs, which were frequently carried about. Massachusetts’s law required either white oak or ash for meat barrels, as but one example.
Coopers require very high quality wood for their work. The trees must be straight and without a lot of branches, which would produce knots in the wood. Trees were felled in the winter, then cut to length and split radially (“quartered”) into thin billets or staves. These were then stacked and allowed to dry (“season”) for a year or more before use. Rural coopers might prepare the wood themselves, or hire a neighbor to do it for them. Urban coopers received their staves already split and dried, shipped in from forested rural areas.
Hoops are essential in coopering, as they hold the containers together. Green (freshly cut) hardwood saplings, such as Ash, Hickory, or Birch, were frequently used for most containers. Sapling hoops were cheap and readily available. Less often thin iron hoops, made by the cooper himself by cold-riveting the ends together, were also used. Very rarely were blacksmiths called upon to apply heavy, welded iron hoops to something like a well bucket.
Many factors effect how long it takes to make a coopered container, but a simple water pail might take about two hours. Containers for dry goods such as an apple barrel required even less time, while a cider barrel could take a long day to make.
Skilled trades were traditionally learned through a system called apprenticeship, although some boys simply learned by working with their fathers. But if a father wanted a boy to learn skills that he did not have, he sent his teenage son off to become an apprentice. Apprentices lived and worked with a skilled tradesman, called a master. In exchange for the boy’s labor the master housed, clothed and fed the boy, and taught him the trade. The apprenticeship ended when the boy became a legal adult at 21 years old. By the early 1800s the old apprenticeship system was changing, however, and beginning to break down.
A part-time cooper had little need for the labor an apprentice could provide. More research is needed to learn how rural farmer/coopers learned the trade, but evidence suggests that they learned it from a father or other relative.
Money and Customers
There was very little cash in circulation in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Therefore, most people gave a “dollars and cents” value to goods sold and services rendered that were recorded as debits and credits in an account book. Over time debts between neighbors often cancelled each other out, although small amounts of cash were sometimes needed to settled accounts. Immediate swapping of items of equal value, what we think of today as “bartering”, was usually impractical, however, and therefore rare.
Most rural coopers did custom, or “bespoke” work for people in their neighborhoods. In areas that exported products in bulk, coopers often made barrels for shipping. For example, the cooper who used this shop made large numbers of casks for shipping lime (for making plaster and mortar) from kilns nearby.
Although Americans in the 1830s used dollars and cents to express value, their values do not correspond with the value of dollars and cents today. A cooper might charge about a dollar for a cider barrel, which took him a day to make, but he only made money when someone asked for a container.