I am sure you have heard the phrase “More fun than a barrel of monkeys!”, but did you know how much fun that is? If you were in the UK, it would be more than 160L of fun (or 43 US gallons). Today’s artifact of the day is the hoop that bound a small cylindrical container that was originally made of wooden staves. The staves are long rotted and gone, but the hoop remains.
These barrels or casks were made by coopers, also known as barrel-makers. This is a bit limiting though, as barrels were only one type of cooperage. There were also buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, kegs, kilderkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and beakers!
These types of containers were ubiquitous, and were used for storing liquids such as water, oil, spirits, wine, and beer. They were also used for storing butter, sugar, tobacco, flour, produce, preserved foods like salt pork and pickles, and salt. They were even used for nails, gunpowder, gold coins, and other bulk goods.
A barrel has a convex shape and bulge at the centre, which is known as the bilge. The reason why they are constructed like this is that it makes them more manoeuvrable than a cylinder. The convex shape of the bilge allows someone rolling a barrel to change directions with little friction. Barrels were the dominant form of shipping or transport container for nearly 2000 years!
I measured our little hoop and calculated the projected volume of the whole cask. I think our little cask represented here was about 20-25L, which suggests it was a pin cask, or a half-firkin. A firkin is one quarter of a barrel, which when filled with monkeys is apparently a lot of fun!
I have no idea what our little pin cask could have contained. It could have had liquor, beer, or some other consumable. It could have contained some other kind of bulk-transported food, or it might not have contained food at all!
Barrels were also used as punishment. The “Drunkard’s Cloak” was a punishment for being inebriated in public in the UK and Germany, and there are documentary sources from the US Civil War that recount the practice of making thieves wear a barrel with “thief” written on it as punishment:
While we were standing in the snow, hearing the abuse of Major Beal, some poor ragged Confederate prisoners were marched by with what was designated as barrel shirts, with the word “thief” written in large letters pasted on the back of each barrel, and a squad of little drummer boys following beating the drums. The mode of wearing the barrel shirts was to take an ordinary flour barrel, cut a hole through the bottom large enough for the head to go through, with arm-holes on the right and left, through which the arms were to be placed. This was put on the poor fellow, resting on his shoulders, his head and arms coming through as indicated above; thus they were made to march around for so many hours and so many days. Now, what do you suppose they had stolen? Why, something to eat. Yes, they had stolen cabbage leaves and other things from slop barrels, which was a violation of the rules of the prison.
At some point, the punishment aspect of the barrel became entwined with the idea of poverty, and we had the appearance of the “Bankruptcy Barrel”, where a person is in such dire financial straits they have literally ‘lost their shirt’ and has to wear a barrel instead of clothes.
And finally, who could forget poor the poor Duke of Clarence, who was drowned in a butt of malmsey!
If your last name is Cooper, Tonnelier, Tonnellier, Varelas, Bødker, Faßbinder, Böttcher, Fässler, Keiper, Kuiper, Cuypers, Mucenieks, Kádár, Bodnár, Bednarz, Bednarski, Bednarczyk, Bednář, Dogaru, Butnaru, Bondarenko, Bondar, Bodner, Tanoeiro, Toneleiro, Cubero, Bačvar, Bottai, or Bacvarovski, you probably have an ancestor somewhere who made barrels!
The invention of pallet-based logistics and containerization in the late 20th and early 21st century was the downfall of using barrels for the transportation of bulk goods. They still live on, however, as an integral component to the aging of wines, spirits, and ales.