We have a shortage of barrels in our country, apparently. My husband brought this to my attention recently. Seems certain "beverages" must be aged in casks or barrels and there aren't enough craftsman who know how to make the specific types of barrels needed. Here's a link to a recent article (click here.) In that article reference is made to the fact that there were so many coopers that there was even a Coopers' Union and their own periodical!
Here in coastal Virginia, in colonial times barrels of tobacco were even rumored to be rolled down the hill toward the harbor. We have images, in the area, of tobacco barrels being exported back to England.
With spirits, the flavor of the wood affects the alcohol. So coopering had to take into account what types of trees were available in an area. Oak is often a preferred wood for whiskey barrels, for instance. There also had to be a supply of water to keep the wood pliant. It should come as no surprise that one of the couple of dozen cooperages left in America, Independent Stave, has operations in Kentucky, known for its production of bourbon and whisky.
Barrels come in all different sizes. For tobacco, for instance, the Hogshead size is the one often note for use with tobacco shipments for the Virginia colonies.
Of course, casks, buckets, and barrels made by coopers were made for all sorts of products, e.g., food, milk, gunpowder, flour, etc. So everyday life during colonial time required many objects produced by coopers, who were often highly skilled. You can watch the craft when you next visit Colonial Willliamsburg and in this article it is notated that there were several levels of coopers from a tight cooper who made barrels to hold liquid to a slack cooper whose products held solids such as tobacco.
As I mentioned in a previous article about Middleton Plantation, the larger farms would have had their own coopers and slaves also would have been trained in the skill. Coopers could also be found wherever there was military, to provide for their needs. We don't think about how necessary this storage was because we're so used to our plastic Tupperware and other storage containers nowadays. Packaging has certainly changed.
For farmers and those living away from cities, enjoying country life also meant making ones' own barrels. (See Rebecca DeMarino's post on seasons.) Springtime means the "gathering splintwood for baskets and barrel hoops. Black ash, hickory and white oak were commonly used and after cutting into splints, they were kept in running water, which helped keep them soft and ready for pounding."
Question: Can you imagine having to store barrels of foodstuffs to get you through the winter? Granted there are other storage products during colonial times, but in all likelihood you'd need to have storage space for various sizes of barrels.