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Log Cabin Living: Food Storage

Wooden Barrel

Artifacts from 19th Century Life

Written by Madeline Teddy, Museum Intern

Edited for publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

The Log Cabin Living: Artifacts from 19th Century Life exhibit at Job Carr Cabin Museum encourages visitors to take a closer look at more than 20 objects in the museum's collection.

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The wooden barrel on display at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Until the early 1900s, almost everything was stored or shipped in wooden barrels. They were one of the most significant shipping containers in the last 2000 years, serving all sorts of uses worldwide. Barrels are sturdy, easy to maneuver, made of easily accessible and cheap materials. They can hold liquids and dry goods. Barrels are a container with built-in wheels. The bulging shape means that only a small part of the barrel comes in contact with the ground, lowering the amount of friction and making it easy to roll and pivot. Rolling the material also meant that a single person could roll up to a couple hundred pounds, significantly more than they could carry. Many types of occupations found barrels useful. Fishermen used barrels to ship pickled and dried fish, farmers used them to store grains and butter, and merchants used them to store all sorts of goods.

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The LaMotte & Watkins Grocery Store at 2420 Pacific Ave in Tacoma, ca 1891. The image shows a variety of food storage containers, including wood barrels, wood crates, and fabric bags. Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.

Barrels were made by professional coopers. To be a cooper, you had to be highly skilled, and the skills in the 19th century were generally learned through apprenticeships. A good cooper could produce two barrels a day. There were three basic types of barrels to hold different types of goods. “Dry” or “slack” barrels held dry goods like fruit and vegetables, tools, or tobacco. “Drytight” barrels kept moisture out of the barrel for goods like flour, sugar, or gunpowder. And “wet” or “tight” barrels kept liquid inside the barrel so that liquids could be transported.

When Europeans first landed on the shores of the Americas, coopers came with them because barrels were so versatile. The Mayflower hired America’s first Cooper, John Alden, in 1620. Colonization encouraged the production and demand of barrels because they needed products shipped into America, which were also necessary for export.

Barrels were also crucial for whale oil, which was used for candles and lamps and was an important material. Some whaling ships had a cooper traveling with them to repair the barrels onboard. Once people started to move westward, barrels did not lose their importance even though goods were being transported over land.

The first cooper in the Commencement Bay area was Chauncey Baird in the mid-1850s. He built a small cabin on the waterfront and a large shed where he constructed fir barrels. He sold his barrels to the first commercial fishermen on the bay, John Swan and Peter Reilly. However, because of the Puget Sound Treaty War, Baird and other settlers moved away several years before Job Carr arrived in 1864.

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Photograph of a boy next to a barrel used for collecting rainwater circa 1907. Courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.

Even though the first mechanized production of barrels began in 1837, making barrels by hand was still preferred. The mechanized production of barrels frequently created leaky products. However, what put the use of the barrel for transportation out of fashion was the railroad. The shape of the railcars did not easily allow for the storage of barrels. They were gradually replaced with other substitutes such as cloth bags -- after the invention of the sewing machine -- and steel drums. The proliferation of plastics in the early 1900s and the introduction of standardized shipping containers in the 1950s meant that fewer barrels were needed for food storage. Grocery stores also changed to a self-serve model with pre-packaged servings in cans and cardboard boxes rather than clerks measuring and weighing each customer's order from bulk barrels, crates, and fabric sacks. A few industries, however, still rely on traditionally-produced wood barrels to store and ferment foods.

Take a closer look at the Museum's wooden barrel in this short video:


“Craft Traditions – Cooperage (Wooden Barrel Making).” Cooperage | Learning Center | New Hampshire Folklife, State of New Hampshire, Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

“John Alden.” MayflowerHistory.Com,, Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Morgan, Murray, and Michael Sullivan. Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound. University of Washington Press, 2018.

“Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Red Wing Pottery Sales, Inc..” Reference for Business, Advameg, Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

Twede, Diana. “The cask age: The technology and history of wooden barrels.” Packaging Technology and Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 13 June 2005, pp. 253–264,

Williamson, Paul. “Value of Antique Crocks (Full Stoneware Price Guide).” True Legacy Homes, 6 Aug. 2020,

About the Author

Madeline Teddy completed an internship with Job Carr Cabin Museum in Fall 2023. She was a graduate of University of British Columbia majoring in history and classical Near Eastern religious studies. She hoped to take her studies further and become a museum curator.