Exploring Packaging in Colonial America

For our readers in the United States (and all who celebrate), Happy Fourth of July! 

In honor of the holiday, we decided to explore the use of packaging in colonial America, a period that ranges from 1565 to 1783. While many could conjure up images of petticoats, taverns, or farmsteads when envisioning colonial America, the packaging nerds here at The Packaging School go down a whole different track and wonder instead how precious goods were packaged, stored, and transported. 

Colonial Americans used an array of materials and packaging systems to store goods from dry grains and flours to alcoholic beverages, oils, and medicines—for the sake of this blog, we will focus on the use of barrels and glass bottles, planning to explore other packaging systems in later blogs. Join us as we explore how packaging enabled colonists to trade and store the goods and foods that helped society run efficiently. 


One of the first packaging systems in Colonial America that comes to mind is the barrel—a container vital for shipping and storing both dry and liquid products. New Hampshire’s Folklife site highlights the fact that until the early 1900s, nearly everything was “stored or shipped in wooden barrels”; they were also utilized on plantations to send tobacco and other crops from colonies, like Virginia, to Great Britain.

Barrels were often made of a primary type of wood (white oak, red oak, ash, pine, etc.) that was bound together with iron. Those who created wooden barrels were referred to as “coopers,” as the art of barrel making was referred to as “coopering.” 

The image below from RevolutionaryWarJournal.com shows the basic anatomy of a common barrel used in colonial times. 

Barrels were made from many different woods with varying purposes, including the storage of liquids (tight cooper) and the storage of dry materials and goods (slack cooper). 

The tight cooper (a.k.a. wet cooper) made barrels out of “clear white oak staves” for long-term storage and shipping of liquids including water, wine, oils, paint, etc. For example, rum was one of the most popular drinks in the colonial era, with colonists drinking 3.7 gallons a year on average by the time of the revolution—waterproof barrels were used to ship molasses from Caribbean territory to be processed and distilled for rum making in the American colonies. These barrels were also used to support New England’s whaling industry, allowing colonists to transport and trade whale oil between the colonies and across the Atlantic Ocean. 

The slack cooper (a.k.a. dry cooper) made barrels out of woods like red oak, chestnut, and pine for storage of dried goods—from food and tobacco to tools for construction.

Due to the colonist’s reliance on barrels to store and transport both dry and liquid goods, the profession was extremely prevalent. According to RevolutionaryWarJournal.com, coopers were the largest artisan profession in the southern colonies, with Virginia coopers crafting, on average, 300,000 barrels annually.

Many other types of barrels were utilized in colonial America, including gum containers, piggins, hogsheads, and more. But despite differences in applications, the core use involved long-term storage of dry and wet materials—enabling the colonists to ensure food security, store vital tools and materials, and trade effectively without damaging or spoiling the goods contained within. 

When you stop and think about it, barrels were a rather sustainable and circular packaging system, as the raw materials were sourced locally, the manufacturing process was not very energy intensive, and barrels could be cleaned and reused as long as they were needed. 

Now, let’s take a look at the types and use of glass bottles in the colonial era . . .

Glass Bottles

Glass was not the most widely used material in colonial times, due to its fragility and technical nature of manufacturing, but it did serve a purpose in select applications. The Corning Museum of Glass highlights that glassmaking is one of America’s first industries, with evidence of a glass workshop being present in Jamestown, VA in the year 1608. The shop failed due to natural disasters and economic circumstances, therefore, the colonists' main source of glass was imported from England during much of the 1600s. Due to this, glass was often seen as a marker of status in colonial America, with mirrors and glass windows serving as indicators of wealth. 

The first successful glass company in the 13 colonies, Wistarburgh Glassworks, was founded in New Jersey in 1739 by Caspar Wistar, a German immigrant. The factory primarily produced glass windows and bottles, producing an excess of 15,000 bottles a year—a big feat for its day. The bottle pictured below, on display at the Corning Museum of Glass, was created by Wistarburgh Glassworks between 1745 and 1755.

Most glass bottles produced in the American colonies were green, as the colonists did not have access to pure silica sand, meaning they had to use sand with impurities (high iron content). The bottle above was said to be manufactured using a technique from the Middle Ages in Europe. The stamp contains the initials of Richard Wistar, son of Caspar Wistar and likely the head of Wistarburgh Glassworks at the time of production. Labels like these are early examples of packaging serving as a vessel for branding and brand identity.

Glass bottles were used for storing alcoholic beverages, medicine, and many types of oil. Bottles also housed sauces, inks for writing, perfumes, pickling food, and much more. As glass became more prevalent in the colonies, the glass bottle was more accessible and, therefore, utilized in many households for consuming liquids, storage, and other applications. 

Want to Learn More About Packaging? 

Studying these two packaging systems in colonial America—barrels and glass bottles—makes us realize how far the packaging industry has come. From barrels and glass bottles to today’s innovative materials and technologies, the evolution of the packaging industry continues to catalyze the storage and transportation of the goods we rely on most. 

Since the Packaging School’s founding in 2015, we have been dedicated to exploring and educating the industry on the advancements in packaging that have shaped and will continue to shape our world. We have trained over 10,000 students in over 40 countries in the art, science, and business of packaging through our flexible, online microlearning courses. 

We don’t have courses on coopering, but we do have one on glass packaging

Explore our entire course catalog here: https://packagingschool.com/all_courses 

Want to Go Further?
Dive into a comprehensive course crafted by subject-matter experts.
Related Lessons
Who We Are

The Packaging School brings together the business, art, and science of packaging so you can lead projects, optimize supply chains, increase margins, and develop sustainable solutions.

Our company headquarters are located in Greenville, SC. Please reach out to us at 864-412-5000 or info@packagingschool.com.

Stay Up To Date

Be the first to know about new classes and the latest tools to maximize your knowledge.

By signing up you indicate you have read and agree to our Terms of Use. Packaging School will always respect your privacy.


Certificate of Mastery in Packaging Management

Certificate of Packaging Science

Automotive Packaging Certificate

Certificate of Sustainable Packaging

Food Packaging Certificate

All Courses




Food & Beverage



The Packaging School Logo
South Carolina Commission on Higher Education License #5400
Copyright © 2015-2022 The Packaging School, LLC. All Rights Reserved.