Roll Out the Barrels

Casks (or casques) were the carry and/or store anything container for centuries. The craft had three broad divisions. "Tight work" produced containers for liquids. "Dry tight work" made casks for fine, powdery material, like flour. "Slack work" created containers for dry goods. Although not technically part of the cooper's trade, "white work" involved making buckets and tubs.[1]

The importance of the skill of the coopers who crafted casks was so great that the Coopers Guild (Great Britain) received a royal charter (monarchy issues a grant, rights or patents for perpetuity) in the 1500s.

In Colonial Virginia, many of these skilled craftsmen settled in Yorktown and Norfolk and large tobacco plantations frequently had slaves skilled in the trade. Coopers were often to be found in seaports, where the market was healthy. While coopers served aboard military and merchant vessels where they inspected cargo, repaired damaged casks, and built new ones; they were normally not hired by shippers. These merchants bought their casks from cooperages (the shops of the coopers) and often had standing contracts with different cooperages that specialized in specific casks.

Barrels, such as the two larger pictured here, could be rolled down ship gangplanks or roads, could be strapped onto pack animals or together to float along a water way – even be used as a refrigerator by imbedding them in a stream or cool earth. Wheels and handles could also be attached to make them more easily moved as well. There was no real limit as what kind of tree could be used, though some were better for liquids, such as Oak. Oak is also more easily waterproofed and could be altered to become buckets, wash tubs/basins and butter churns.