Coopering at Colonial Williamsburg

Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

I just wanted to say an enormous thank you to Marshall Scheetz, historian and journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, for coming to MERL and giving us such a wonderful introduction to coopers and cooperage.

We began the day with a visit to the Museum stores, where we looked at the various coopering objects in the collection, from an array of tools to various coopered items such as buckets, butter churns and measures. Marshall then gave a fascinating talk about his work at Colonial Williamsburg, the history of coopering, the process of making a barrel , and the different trades and industries that coopering has been associated with ­– including whaling, tobacco and gunpowder. The day ended with Marshall talking us through the coopering video on display in the galleries and pointing out the tools used in each process. The highlight for me was the way that Marshall used the part-made cask, truss hoops and cresset that we have at MERL to illustrate his talk – it really showed how you make a cask, the movements and actions involved etc.

Colonial Williamsburg sounds like a truly amazing place, and I’m really grateful to Marshall for taking the time to visit us here in Reading and tell us more about it. It’s a ‘living history’ museum set in the time period of the 1770s, but what makes it so exciting for me is that the museum has twenty trade and craft workshops (e.g. basket-makers, coopers, dyers, wig-makers etc.) where the trades/crafts are practised as they were in the late-eighteenth century. Craftspeople undergo apprenticeships to learn their craft, and make items primarily for use within the historic areas of the museum. Most of the workshops have about four full time staff, who take turns talking to the public and carrying out their work. The drawback to this system, however, is that production rates are really low – in fact, just enough to keep the skills alive. Colonial Williamsburg is now firmly on my list of places to visit!

We had a great turn out on the day, so thank you to everyone for coming.

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