All images courtesy DigitaltMuseum.
As a master cooper and historian focused on preserving the trade of coopering, I’ve been humbled by what I’ve learned over the past 20 years. Sometimes, my research leads to faraway places like Norway, a place that for many brings to mind Vikings, fjords, trolls, and gnomes. But as a cooper, when I think of Norway I fantasize about staved vessels: butter cups, lidded porridge tubs, barrels of salt fish, and beer tankards. Many people don’t realize that Norwegian culture is one of wood and woodworking – a cooper’s dream!
My debts are great, but I am especially indebted to Mortise & Tenon Magazine for supporting me in an upcoming study trip to Norway this September 5 – 18. Please follow my two-week journey both here at the M&T blog and on my Instagram account. Ask questions and keep me company as I travel to the land of the midnight sun. And when I return, you can read a detailed account of my findings in the article I am writing for a future issue of M&T.
In Norway, I’ll be visiting Oslo’s Norsk FolkeMuseum and several other museums. What do I expect to find? Lots of staved cooperage, specifically kannes, staups, and tankards (staved drinking cups). Several years ago, I stumbled into a digital vault of Scandinavian museum collections. With help from curators, scholars, and tradesmen familiar with Nordic culture, I navigated the collection using Norwegian and Swedish search terms to find a trove of staved vessels ranging from the 10th to the 20th centuries. I learned the hard way that if you don’t know the specific Nordic term for the object you seek, you may have limited results. For example, the English word “coopering” yields zero results. The Norwegian term for coopering, “lagget,” uncovers thousands of staved vessels strewn about the many museums of Norway and Sweden.
One of my challenges as a historian and practitioner of the cooper’s trade is finding surviving coopered vessels specific to historic time periods. Buckets and barrels, though commonplace, were not considered worthy of preservation. Wooden vessels simple and crude in form, intended for everyday use, have mostly vanished. Considered mundane, coopered items were used until they fell apart, and then were cast aside.
Excavations of shipwrecks and historic sites sometimes reveal cooperage in advanced states of decay. By comparison, few pristine original objects survive to the present. Inorganic material tends to be far more durable than wood, and I often envy historians of ceramic, glass, and metal material culture. They have a profound volume or library of artifacts spanning millennia from which to build their research. In Scandinavia there is a vast collection of staved vessels – conserved, curated, cataloged, and waiting to be studied. I am looking forward to my trip and the exploration of such an important collection.
As an outcome of my study of staved containers in Norway, I will be making a limited supply of 50 coopered tankards which I will take pre-orders for on my website. The tankards will be approximately one quart in volume. Handle and lid styles will vary based on my previous research of English, American, and now Scandinavian staved tankards.
You can read more about Marshall’s work on a blog post he wrote for us here.