Can I build you a barrel? 1

Have you ever researched your own name?  It really is fascinating stuff.  When I was younger I was occasionally reminded by jovial teachers here and there that my last name, Cooper, was in fact also a profession.  It seems that a “Cooper” is a person who makes or repairs barrels.  While this is mostly true, through some good old Internet research I have come to know that my name is actually much richer and means so much more than that definition alone.  I thought I would share some of it with you. Hope you enjoy.

A traditional Oak Barrel

Cooper is the transferred use of the English surname that originated as an occupational name for a cooper, a cask or barrel maker or seller. It is derived from the Middle English couper (a cask). Sometimes a shortened version of that name was used known as Coop.

Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and breakers. The word is derived from Middle Dutch kūpe, “basket, wood, tub” and may ultimately stem from cupa, the Latin word for vat. Everything a cooper produces is referred to collectively as cooperage. “Cask” is a generic term used to describe any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge in the middle of the container. A barrel is technically a measure of the size of a cask, so the term “barrel-maker” cannot be used synchronously with “cooper.” The facility in which casks are made is also referred to as a cooperage.

There were actually four divisions in the cooper’s craft. The “dry” or “slack” cooper made containers that would be used to ship dry goods such as cereals, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. The “drytight” cooper made casks designed to keep dry goods in and moisture out. Gunpowder and flour casks are examples of a “drytight” cooper’s work. The “white cooper” made straight staved containers like washtubs, buckets and butter churns, that would hold water and other liquids, but did not allow shipping of the liquids. Usually there was no bending of wood involved in white cooperage. The “wet” or “tight” cooper made casks for long term storage and transportation of liquids that could even be under pressure, as with beer.

Sometimes-in more modern times-the profession of the cooper is specific to wineries, where the cooper would look after the aging barrels in which the wine is stored. Rarely today, coffin-makers are also known as coopers.

Cooperage is an ancient trade. The art of coopering dates back centuries, and the basic trade has remained unchanged. Coopering requires skill, intelligence, and strength. The tools of the trade are often handed down for generations. Many colonial coopers worked on plantations to produce the many hogsheads needed to ship tobacco from Virginia to Great Britain. Other coopers worked in towns like Williamsburg, turning staves and hoops into everything from butter churns to tubs. Large plantations often trained slaves in the trade. Coopers could also be found on military and merchant vessels, since casks were common aboard ships.

So you see, there is much more to it than merely making barrels..cheers!


About JayCooper

Puzzled WebWizard from Mount Juliet Tennessee. Married for 25+ years to a wonderful wife with three grown sons.

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One thought on “Can I build you a barrel?

  • Sally (Davis) Ward

    “Everything a cooper produces is referred to collectively as cooperage.”

    Sooo . . . this what you call your kids?? J/k, very interesting. I did not know any of this!