London, April to September 1822 — In the chicken-coop, there is a favourite cockerel that is sacred, so to speak, and has survived all others; he is famous for having crowed during battle, as if in the farmyard amongst his hens. Below deck a cat lives: its fur streaked with green, with a mangy tail, hairy whiskers, firm on its feet, countering the pitch and roll with its balancing act; it has been round the world twice, and was saved from shipwreck riding on a barrel. The ships’-boys give the cockerel biscuits soaked in wine, and Tomcat has the privilege of sleeping, when it pleases him, on the second captain’s fur mantle. ◈
A barrel full…
Barrels are useful to have around and they prove it time and again: a lifeboat for Tomcat, a shelter for Cora’s shipwrecked seafurrer and his penguin chums, a bit of elevation for a spell on watch, and a submersible for the first purrson to shoot over Niagara Falls. Fundraising dare devil Annie Edson Taylor took the limelight for this fame game insanity, but the cat did it first. And it wouldn’t have been a barrel of laughs in there. But this was no scaredy cat. I personally think he looks remarkably cool, calm and collected sitting on that barrel after the event, not even whimpering about the cuts on his head. If Annie or anyone did that today, imagine the Twitter storm and probable prosecution. ◈
Oak barrels replaced amphoras for storing and transporting fermented beverages. All kudos to the Celts who first crafted these watertight containers to withstand stress (from rolling) and weight (from stacking) for shipping wine and other fermented beverages on oxcarts and boats. The rest is history. Much like container shipping, it was a game changer. Before long wooden barrels were storing and shipping just about everything from precious metals, powders, ochre, and sulphur to fish, olives, jam, mustard, vinegar and pickled foods. However, Annie Edson Taylor possibly gave the wooden barrel one of its most unusual watertightness and resilience tests – she went over Niagara Falls in a custom-made pickle barrel to garner fame and boost her bank balance in 1901. (Wanting to make money out of being famous is nothing new.) The barrel was made by West Bay City Cooperage Company, a supplier of kegs to Kolb Brewery.
Annie may have gone over the Falls once; the oak barrel did it twice. Two days before taking the plunge Annie sent her cat on a test plunge to check the barrel was really watertight. Barrel and cat survived. Two days later the barrel did it again, this time with Annie on board for the 20-minute trip. Asked afterwards how she felt Annie said: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.” The barrel might well agree. The cat certainly would.
Wooden barrels are made much the same way today as they always have been. Sections of oak trunks, from trees ideally aged 100 to 150 years old, are cut or split along the grain into staves, are then bent, and stacked in the open for between 18 to 36 months to enable the wood to dry evenly in the air.
Staves are the heart of the barrel. Created from oak that must be straight, knot-free, and properly aged, they are shaped and fitted together in a precise pattern that will render the finished barrel water-tight. Hoops are almost always metal; steel, copper, or unusually, iron. Typically a barrel will have: 2 chime (or head) hoops at the outer edges of the barrel; 2 quarter hoops about ¼ of the way to the center of the barrel; 2 French hoops between the Quarter hoop and the Bilge hoop; and 1 bilge hoop encircling the widest part of the barrel. The chime is the bevelled edge at the top, and bottom, of the barrel. It is made up of the ends of all the staves coming together. The croze is the groove that is created at the top and bottom of the barrel staves. It is created to hold the head. The head is the flat, circular top, or bottom, of the barrel. As each barrel is completely unique, each head must be measured and created specifically for the barrel it will fit. ◈