Making barrels

Ramona Vogel's love of woodworking led her to the Worshipful Company of Coopers. March 27, 2006


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. For women’s history month, I’m asking Ramona Vogel, who is an apprentice cooper, which, on the face of it, at least, does not seem like something a woman would do.

Ramona Vogel: That’s true.  I think that’s a very common thought process in our modern era that we live in – anything within the last century – I would say that’s true, and that’s one of those myths…misinformation that we do try and correct basically. We have done a number of research and we came to find out after I actually applied to do the job because I love woodworking. You start to get all these questions from guests that come here, “Well, would you be here? Why are you here? Do you really do this?” … these sorts of curiosities.  You have to answer those questions; you need to answer them in a polite friendly manner and answer them accurately, and as you come to find out women were in all the different areas. You worked because you had to, it wasn’t a privilege; you worked because you had to put food on the table like anyone else. 

Lloyd: Now, you say you have to answer them in a polite friendly manner. Is that always easy to do?

Ramona:  It is not always easy to do. There’s days when it is 102 outside, you’re sweating, you’re dirty, and you’ve had that question a number of times, and you just really have to remember you really love your job, and the people are curious. And that’s good. That is a good thing. We’re here to educate, and that’s what you really need to remember.

Lloyd: They aren’t intentionally trying to be insulting.   

Ramona: They are not. They are not even insulting. I would say that’s extremely rare. It’s more they are asking a question because they don’t know about that trade. They don’t know what’s going on in this period of time, and that’s why they are coming here, that’s why they bought that ticket; that’s why they are coming and asking those questions. And you just always have to remember to keep sight of that, even though it’s a question I may have heard or another interpreter or tradesman has heard maybe five million times because they have worked here for so many years, it is the first time that person has asked that question.  

Lloyd: I was reading something about you – I think in The Virginia Gazette – and you were the first female inducted in England into a thing that I just love – the Honorary Freeman of the City of London by the Worshipful Company of Coopers.

Ramona: (Laughs) Yes, they are a really sweet group. They really are.     
Lloyd: You must be pretty good at it if the Worshipful Company of Coopers want your membership.

Ramona: Well, that’s very nice, and I guess I am a rather shy individual truthfully, and I think a big part of the reason why I was able to get that honor is my master – Jim Pettengell. He actually did serve his apprenticeship in London, as did his older brother who was the first master of our shop, George Pettengell. So they are very much in control of their trade and very knowledgeable. They are affiliated with the guild themselves. So because of that honor I was able to get to know the guild, go over, do research, work with them, get to know them and really get involved with the historical accuracy and the traditions of the trade. Things kind of hit it off and it’s been this building of this partnership between the guild and Colonial Williamsburg in helping preserving these trades and preserving the traditions that had started to dissipate.

Lloyd:  So you have coopered – if that’s the right verb – other places than Williamsburg.

Ramona: I have not. I have only apprenticed here. I have only done coopering here in Williamsburg.  I started actually in another area of Williamsburg. I’ve moved around a bit. I’ve been in the trades department I would say about eight years. I’ve been at the cooper as an apprentice. I’m in my fifth year – five and a half years.

Lloyd:  How many apprentice years must you serve?

Ramona:  Usually right around six and a half, seven years.      

Lloyd: And then you move up to…?  

Ramona: What is referred to as journeyman – now, I know if you talk to different women in the different trades throughout town, there are a couple of trades that you will see a difference in that title, and you will actually see the term “journeywoman” or “journeywomen,” and that’s in the trades that you’re going to see in the 18th century actually being dominated by women, where mine is not.

Lloyd: Which were?  
Ramona:  Milliner. Mantua-making – those you do see as being dominating by women, so you actually do see that change in title. But all the others – silversmithing, coopering, foundry, blacksmithing – all of these other trades that also did have women working in them, not as often as you saw men, you saw them keeping that title of journeyman, because it really is deriving from “human” and “humankind” and “mankind,” and it is not a gender specification, coming from the French term meaning day laborer. You’re then paid, so it really didn’t come from a gender idea.

Lloyd: You said you liked woodworking.

Ramona:  I do.  

Lloyd: Is that what attracted you?

Ramona: It is. I actually worked in the cabinetmaking shop before I went to the cooper as an interpreter. I had gone to that because I wanted to become more specialized, and I really do enjoy woodworking, I guess the creativity of it, and I know the guys in the shop are going to make fun of me for this, but the smell of the wood, I find very soothing, and it’s very enlightening.  

Lloyd:  Now, my father, who was not a cooper or anything like it, his way of relaxing at the end of the day was woodworking, cabinetmaking.

Ramona: It really is. It can be frustrating, too, but there is a very soothing [aspect] because you get to see something you’ve made from beginning, middle, to end, and you get to have that satisfaction that you’ve created it, and you get into that rhythm, and it is very soothing to yourself.

Lloyd: Let me ask you a question, he told me, and I never doubted it, I’m just curious, he said a person doing woodwork will see his own mistakes before anybody else.    

Ramona:  I think that’s true, not just in woodworking, in everything, just like a musician will see his own mistake, somebody who is doing calligraphy is going to see any hairline fracture, if you’re an author, if you’re a woodworker...I think everyone is their worst critic – whether they show that to the outside world, who knows, but I definitely do think everyone is their worst critic.

Lloyd: What part of coopering do you like best and least?   

Ramona:  Best and least?  I would say “bouge” work which is when you are actually making the casks, when you are doing the trussing, because there really is a rhythm to doing that when you actually are having the small fire, and you’re taking shavings, and stuffing them into a small cresset, which is an iron basket, you place it in the center of the cask that you’ve shaped pretty much… but you actually have to heat it to bend the last bit of shape into place. So it really is an art that you are going to gain through skill and practice through that apprenticeship in being able to feel the wood, feeling when it’s warm enough, that it’s to the right temperature, that you can start to bend it by driving a series of hoops that decrease in size, down the container, pulling it together, and part of the reason I love that part is because people find it fascinating. You get that crowd around you, there’s that thrill; you’re working as a team, as a unit, which is also really nice. There’s also the fact that you have that beating, this hammering down on these hoops, and you get into that rhythm and you can just really kind of see it all coming into place and form, as well as the fact that it’s the hardest part of the trade, so that’s why it can go either way. It can be very frustrating if you get a stave that the wood that has impurities in it, and it cracks. And that’s hard – that’s a very difficult thing when you are working in front of the public, particularly when you are learning. They get to see all your mistakes, too. And that fragile ego that we all have…     

Lloyd:  And the least?

Ramona:  The least…I would say is those times you are just having an off day, and it doesn’t matter what you are making – if you are making a bucket, or making a wine pipe, which is for shipping 126 gallons of wine. It doesn’t matter what it is, when you are having that off day, it is highly frustrating, just like with anything. You drop the hammer, you’re being a klutz – that I would say is the worst, and it is not any particular part of the trade, it is yourself.

Lloyd: Can you wear your rings when you are actively coopering?  

Ramona:  I usually don’t but this is new, so…

Lloyd:  Oh, well, congratulations!    

Ramona:  Thank you, so I have been trying to be a little delicate about it, I felt I should wear it a little while, but I’ll probably put it on a chain and wear it around my neck, though, because I usually do not.

Lloyd: Because I’ve seen a picture of you with what I think they call a draw knife which looks like you have to put it out and then pull it toward you. Rings it seems to me would…

Ramona: I wouldn’t say with that tool it would be a problem truthfully, the drawknives really aren’t too much of a problem, I would say with a broad axe when we are doing a lot of axe work where you are roughing out with a taper as well as that belling of a stave, you see a lot of the broad axe work there. I would say joining, when you are running the piece of wood across that joiner blade where it could be very dangerous to your body, and anything that could lose that equilibrium…there’s just a lot of hard physical work where you don’t want anything to get caught.  And that’s true… one of the things I get asked about is my clothing attire when people come to see me [they’ll say] “Why are you not in petticoats? Are you pretending to be a boy?” And I’m not pretending to be a boy. The thing we forget about is when we go to these shops today, you would never have gone into the work space of any of these tradesmen in the 18th century, just like we don’t go into factories today. It’s dangerous to you as a public and dangerous to the tradesman. We – as Colonial Williamsburg – at these living history sites have developed an area that is safe for both, so we are going to work slower, and we’re going to do certain things to compensate for that and so it’s more along those lines that you want to be careful in how you are doing things.   

Lloyd: So, a female cooper in the 18th century would be dressed pretty much as you are…in a leather apron…

Ramona:  It’s possible. I don’t have a specific document that tells me what a female cooper is wearing at all. I know of three female coopers that were in Virginia in the time period we are depicting. None of them was in Williamsburg.  One was a slave cooper at Nomini Hall.  The other two were master coopers. One was in northern Virginia in Alexandria County, and the other was in Augusta County. And, they both were taking on apprentices. It doesn’t say what their attire is. We do know – there was a very wonderful article written by Donna Woodward who used to work in our shoe shop a few years ago – and a great caption in it was about these women blacksmiths that were outside of London. And the people who saw them in the 1770s weren’t surprised that they were women doing blacksmithing work, they were surprised that they were divest of their upper garments. So, you’re going to wear whatever you need to get the job done.

Lloyd: Well, if you are that hot in a blacksmith shop…

Ramona: …you gotta do what you gotta do…

Lloyd: Yeah…

Ramona:  I do see documents of some women farmers who were wearing men’s clothes; you see women sailors who are wearing men’s clothes, so you see different things like this popping up, and you see some prints, and we took that and took an educated guess… I have tried both. I have tried petticoats, and there is a problem of bulky things or things that get caught in things that we do, as well as keep in mind – straddling a draw bench in a petticoat.

Lloyd: Yeah…that would…

Ramona:  That’s going to be a little bit of an issue…

Lloyd:  I should think that getting caught would worry you more. That seems to me that petticoats would have been flat dangerous, just plain dangerous.

Ramona: And the thing is that petticoats would have been a lot fuller than I think a lot of women wear around town. I think costume design [here] has been excellent in the fact that they have changed them to deal with the modern conveniences that we do have.

Lloyd:  We shall declare that that is what female coopers wear…

Ramona: It could be. I’m not going to say for sure until I see an actual document, but I have taken the educated guess, and I think this is very probable…

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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