The Cooper

In the 1800s there were no corrugated cardboard boxes or padded shipping envelopes. If you needed to store or ship any liquid—and most dry goods—the barrel (and its larger and smaller cousins) was almost always your container of choice.

Anderson, Alexander, engraver. Five Men on a Flatboat With Barrels and Sacks; One Man Operates the Keel from Above the Boathouse, the Others Are Resting on the Freight, circa 1830-1860, Library of Congress.

And when you needed a barrel, hogshead, keg, cask or firkin, or just an oaken bucket for your well, you would get it from a cooper.

Unknown photographer. Occupational Portrait of a Cooper, Three-Quarter Length, With Barrel and Tools, circa 1840-1860, Library of Congress.

The original store-flat container

Barrels and similar containers were made from a series of identical wooden staves, held together by metal or wooden hoops, and flat, usually circular, ends. Originally, tradesmen called hoopers made the hoops and coopers made the staves and ends and assembled all the parts into the final product. By the 19th-century, the separate trade of hooper was disappearing, and coopers usually prepared all the parts and assembled the complete barrels themselves. Barrels were often constructed, checked for a tight fit, and then disassembled for more compact shipping and storage by the eventual barrel user. A set of disassembled barrel parts was known as a shook.

Unknown artist. Der Böttcher [The Cooper]. Germany, circa 1840-1890, Library of Congress.

I did a survey of’s 1850 and 1860 federal population census indexes for the Clark family’s county, looking for coopers. On the 1850 census, in all of old Washington county, there were only 17 men that identified their profession as “cooper.” None of these 1850 coopers lived in Mequon. In 1850, the cooper closest to the Jonathan Clark house was in Cedarburg, a German immigrant named Joseph Littner.

By 1860, the seven towns of Ozaukee county boasted at least 42 coopers, all but eight of them immigrants from German-speaking lands. Three of Ozaukee county’s 1860 coopers—Ulrich Holzbentel (Holzbeutel?), Henry Pfeiffer, and Conrad Wangrin—lived in the town of Mequon. But, as in 1850, the largest concentration of coopers in 1860 Ozaukee county was in and around Port Washington. This was not a coincidence…

Barnum Blake, merchant & barrel maker

As early as 1855, one Port Washington merchant had developed a large barrel making operation, employing some 25 men in the cooper shop, and another 15 “choppers in the woods” to supply them. Barnum Blake’s operation was large enough that he was reportedly making 300 shooks per week, enough for export to the West Indies as well as, we presume, additional shooks and complete barrels for local consumption.

“Cooper Establishment at Ozaukee,” [Milwaukee] Free Democrat, citing Ozaukee Advertiser, Monday, Jan. 8, 1855, p. 3

According to the 1850 census, Massachusetts immigrant and Port Washington “merchant” (not cooper) B. Blake owned $6,000 worth of real estate. That’s a lot of money, and a lot of land, in 1850’s Wisconsin, and none of it appears to have been purchased from the federal government. My assumption is that Blake’s $6,000 in real estate holdings included substantial woodlands to supply his barrel making business, but that is only a surmise.

Stuff happens…

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Ozaukee’s (most?) successful barrel maker. On April 17, 1855, Blake’s “co[o]per establishment” was hit by lightning…

“Struck by Lightning,” Ozaukee Advertiser reprinted in [Milwaukee] Weekly Wisconsin, May 2, 1855, page 2.

Quick recovery

Apparently damage was minimal and Blake, and his business, made a quick recovery. By the time of the 1860 federal census, merchant Barnum Blake was worth a staggering $30,000 in real estate owned, and had a personal estate valued at $10,000. I have not made a thorough survey of local wealth as reported on the 1850 and 1860 censuses, but I have seen a lot of census data from these years and, to my recollection, no one else in 1860 Ozaukee county was worth that much. (It might make an interesting study to page through the census schedules and see if this is correct.)


That’s the end of our brief look at the essential 19th-century trade of the cooper. I hope you enjoyed it. Next week I plan to bring the Bonniwell party back from the California gold rush. And then it’s past time to focus again on Jonathan Clark’s possible roots in Lower Canada. We have old and new evidence to examine and evaluate.

Meanwhile, there’s still time to vote in our readers’ poll from last Monday’s post! I’d like to know how I should archive the contents of my April 22 Cedarburg History Museum talk here at Clark House Historian. Should I publish the words and images as a series of usual-format CHH blog posts, or as one or more YouTube videos, featuring all the original PowerPoint slides, accompanied by my re-recorded narration?

The polls are still open! Just scroll down to the Leave a Reply box, below, and where it says “Enter your comment here…” leave your vote for “Blog posts” or “YouTube videos.”  Questions? For the full story, just click this link and read the second part of Monday’s post, beginning at “That was fun!”

Thanks for reading. Back soon with more Clark House history.

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