Roll out the Barrel

According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal on May 11, 2015, American whiskey distillers were facing an imminent shortage of the white oak barrels critical for giving bourbon its distinctive taste. The cause: the explosion of craft distilleries corresponded with a reduction in the American white oak harvest, as well as the closure of some stave mills, the factories that transform the raw timber into narrow strips of wood that make up the sides of a barrel.

A barrel shortage would have seemed unthinkable a few generations ago. Until WWII, wooden barrels were the container of choice for a wide range of goods. When Constitution slid down the ways into Boston Harbor in 1797, barrels, along with crates and bales, were everywhere bulk goods were bought, sold, transported, or stored.

Making casks, a trade called “coppering,” was an important job in any seafaring town. Naval vessels usually carried a cooper as well, because without tight, well-made casks, the operational range of a vessel could be severely limited. If the brine oozed from the salt meat or the fresh water leaked into the bilge, a ship had no choice but to seek the nearest friendly port to re-provision. Naval coopers were rated as petty officers, received $18 per month, and reported to the ship’s carpenter.

Coopers on board naval vessels rarely made a cask from scratch. The Navy purchased most of its casks ready made from civilian coopers. The ship’s coopers were tasked with keeping them in good repair, and also “shaking” or carefully breaking down empty casks as provisions were consumed, so they could be reassembled when needed.

We know the names of two coopers who served on Constitution during the War of 1812. John Northrop joined as a seaman in 1811, but was promoted to cooper in 1812. He saw action in the battles with HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, and left the ship after her return to Boston in 1813. Boston-born cooper Alexander Lane joined Constitution’s crew in April 1813 and served through the rest of the war. After his discharge in June 1815, he worked at his trade in several different shops around Boston, most of them on one of the town’s busy wharves, and finally enlarged his business to include furniture making. He retired to East Boston and died in 1852 at the age of about 66.

Excerpts from a post by M. Brenckle which appeared first on

USS Constitution Museum The-Cooper