Coopers: The Backbone of Virginia's Tobacco Economy

Cooper shop drawing
Cooper shop drawing

Drawing courtesy of NPS

In 1612, John Rolfe determined two important points: 1) tobacco grew well in Virginia's soil, and 2) the crop had a market in England. Within ten years, tobacco became "the 'staple' of the Chesapeake colonies in a broader sense than any other staple the world has ever known. For, in the ancient province, all of the processes of government, society, and domestic life began and ended with tobacco." 1

Tobacco became currency: people paid fines and taxes in pounds of tobacco. The cash crop's value became the focal point for colonial protective legislation and tobacco provided Virginia with an important revenue stream. Augustine Washington and planter like him could not make the economy successful on their own. The world of gentlemen relied on working-class craftsmen to make goods that contributed to success. Barrel makers, in particular, played an important role in teh economy because of the goods they made.

Tobacco and the Barrel Makers

The cooopers made the shipping containers that carried Virginia's tobacco to England. The hogsheads they built stood about 48 inches tall with a diameter of about 30 inches. When properly packed, each barrel held 900-1,000 pounds of tobacco. The best hogsheads remained watertight during shipment.

Coopering also required a high degree of visual acuity: each stave's curvature had to match the next, plus the edges of each stave had to be preceisely beveled to ensure the neccessary watertight fit. Colonial barrel makers did not have the luxury of the precision provided by many modern tools. They depended upon their years of practive with woodworking tools and upon their skilled eye. If the coopers completed their tasks properly, the planter's tobacco arrived in England undamaged and ready for sale.

If the barrel leaked and the tobacco became wet, it spoiled. Rotten tobacco possessed no sale value and thus the planters' profits diminished. Tobacco agents in England could not stamp hogsheads of rotten tobacco "Return to Sender."

From the property inventory compiled upon Augustine Washington's death in 1743, historians know he owned a set of coopers tools. Historians know nothing about the man or menn who used those tools. Did one of Augustine's enslaved learn the trade? Did he hire an indentured servant from another plantation?

Barrel makers' work was critical to the success of colonial Virginia's economy. Would the economy have succeeded without them?

¹ Thomas J. Scharf. History of Maryland: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Day, p. 47, quoted in Economic Aspects of Tobacco During the Colonial Period 1612-1776 Accessed December 12, 2008.

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Last updated: October 1, 2020