Cooperage: History

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Until relatively recently, coopers played an important role not only in the wine business but in myriad aspects of daily life. Almost all containers—buckets, barrels, tanks—were made by coopers from various woods (see barrels, history). Barrels were made to hold salted fish, flour, gunpowder, oil, turpentine, salt, sugar, butter, and many other household commodities since they retain liquids safely, keep the elements out, and are easy to manœuvre.

Coopers’ guilds were already established by the end of the 9th century and, during the Middle Ages, laws relating to apprenticeships, master–apprentice relations, and guild memberships were codified throughout Europe (with nepotism already playing its part). At the end of the 18th century, there were approximately 8,000 coopers in Paris alone. It is still possible to meet coopers who are the last in a line of craftsmen dating back to the 17th century. Such men, who can probably make barrels with handtools alone, may well have served traditional apprenticeships that often involve extensive work in different regions of their own countries as well as abroad.