Cork

a broken man, a bankrupt. Probably intended to refer to his lightness, as being without “ballast.”
“to draw a cork ,” to give a bloody nose.—Pugilistic.

Those who are accustomed to value things used in common life only according to the price for which they can be purchased, will perhaps imagine that my subject must be nearly exhausted when I think it worth my while to entertain my readers with a matter so inconsiderable. Cork, however, is a substance of such a singular property, that no other has yet been found which can be so generally employed with the same advantage; and before the use of it was known, people were obliged on many occasions to supply the want of it by means which to us would appear extremely troublesome.

Cork is a body remarkably light, can be easily compressed, expands again by its elasticity as soon as the compressing power is removed, and therefore fills or stops up very closely that space into which it has been driven by force. It may be easily cut into all forms; and though it abounds with pores, which are the cause of its lightness, it suffers neither water, beer, nor any common liquid to escape through it, and it is only very slowly and after a considerable length of time that it can be penetrated even by spirits. Its numerous pores seem to be too small to afford a passage to the finest particles of water and wine, which can with greater facility ooze through more compact wood that has larger or wider pores 972.

Cork is the exterior bark of a tree, belonging to the genus of the oak, which grows wild in the southern parts of Europe, particularly France, Spain, Portugal and Italy 973. When the tree is about twenty-six years old it is fit to be barked, and this can be done successively every eight years 974. The bark always grows up again, and its quality improves with the increasing age of the tree. It is commonly singed a little over a strong fire or glowing coals, and laid to soak a certain time in water, after which it is placed under stones in order to be pressed straight.

This tree, as well as its use, was known to the Greeks and the Romans. By the former it was called phellus. Theophrastus reckons it among the oaks, and says that it has a thick fleshy bark, which must be stripped off every three years to prevent it from perishing. He adds, that it was so light as never to sink in water, and on that account could be used with great advantage for a variety of purposes 975. The only circumstance which on the first consideration can excite any doubt of the phellus  being our cork-tree, is, that he expressly says it lost its leaves annually, whereas our cork-tree retains them. In another passage however he calls it an evergreen 976. This apparent contradiction several commentators have endeavoured to clear up, but their labour seems unnecessary; for there is a species of our cork-tree which really drops its leaves. Linnæus did not think this species worth his notice; but it has been accurately observed by Clusius and Matthiolus 977 , and its existence is confirmed by Miller 978. As Theophrastus 979 Pliny 980 Varro 981  and others mention a common oak which always retains its leaves, it appears clear to me that the first-mentioned author, where he speaks of evergreens, meant our common species of the cork-tree, and that extraordinary kind of oak; but in the other passage that species which drops its leaves in winter.

That the suber  of the Romans was our cork-tree, is generally and with justice admitted. Pliny relates of it, in the clearest manner, every thing said by Theophrastus 982  of the phellus 983 ; and we find by his account, that cork at the period when he wrote was applied to as many purposes as at present 984.

At that time fishermen made floats to their nets of cork, that is, they affixed pieces of cork to the rope which formed the upper edge of the net, and which it was necessary should be kept at the surface of the water, in the same manner as is done at present 985. The use of cork for fishing-nets is mentioned by Ausonius 986 ; and Alciphron describes so abundant a capture that the net and the cork floats sunk by the weight. This use, however, was much limited by the high price of cork; and small boards of light wood, such as that of the pine, aspen-tree, lime-tree, and poplar, were employed in its stead 987. The wood of the Marum arborescens  is used as floats in Guiana, and that of the Hibiscus cuspidatus  in Otaheite 988. The German and Swedish fishermen, and also the Cossacks, use for the same purpose the bark of the black poplar; but the Dutch and Hanoverians, who fish on the Weser, employ for their nets a kind of wood called in Holland toll-hout. It is a wood of a reddish-brown colour, extremely light, and of a very fine grain, which the Dutch, who export it to Germany, procure from the Baltic. At Amsterdam it costs a stiver per pound; but I have not yet been able to learn what wood it properly is.

Another use to which cork was applied, according to Pliny, was for anchor-buoys. “Usus ejus ancoralibus maxime navium.” These words Hardouin has not explained; and Scheffer 989 , where he speaks of anchors, and what belongs to them, takes no notice of cork. Gesner, however, has attempted an explanation 990 , but what he says is, in my opinion, not satisfactory. He certainly could not mean that it was employed to render anchors lighter. According to my idea, they may be easily made light enough without cork, and perhaps they can never be made too heavy. The true explanation of this passage is, that it was used for making buoys, called ancoralia, which were fixed to the cable, and by floating on the surface of the water, over the anchor, pointed out the place where it lay 991. Our navigators use for that purpose a large but light block of wood, which, in order that it may float better, is often made hollow 992. A large cask also is sometimes employed. The Dutch sailors call these blocks of wood boei  or boeye ; and hence comes their proverb, “Hy heeft een kop als een boei,” he has a head like a buoy; he is a blockhead.

A third use of cork among the Romans was its being made into soles, which were put into their shoes in order to secure the feet from water, especially in winter; and as high heels were not then introduced, the ladies who wished to appear taller than they had been formed by nature, put plenty of cork under them 993.

The practice of employing cork for making jackets to assist one in swimming, is also very old; for we are informed that the Roman whom Camillus sent to the Capitol when besieged by the Gauls, put on a light dress, and took cork with him under it, because, to avoid being taken by the enemy, it was necessary that he should swim through the Tiber. When he arrived at the river, he bound his clothes upon his head, and, placing the cork under him, was so fortunate as to succeed in his attempt 994.

The most extensive and principal use of cork at present, is for stoppers to bottles. This was not entirely unknown to the Romans, for Pliny says expressly, that it served to stop vessels of every kind; and instances of its being employed for that purpose may be seen in Cato 995  and Horace 996. Its application to this use, however, seems not to have been very common, else cork-stoppers would have been oftener mentioned by the authors who have written on agriculture and cookery, and also in the works of the ancient poets. We everywhere find directions given to close up wine-casks and other vessels with pitch 997 , clay, gypsum or potters-earth, or to fill the upper part of the vessel with oil or honey, in order to exclude the air from those liquors which one wished to preserve 998. In the passages therefore already quoted, where cork is named, mention is made also of pitching. The reason of this I believe to be, that the ancients used for their wine large earthen vessels with wide mouths, which could not be stopped sufficiently close by means of cork. Wooden casks were then unknown, or at least scarce, as Italy produced little timber, otherwise these vessels would have been stopped with wood, as is the case at present. The practice of drawing off wine for daily consumption, from the large vessels into which it is first put, into such smaller vessels as can be easily corked, was then not prevalent 999. The ancients drew off from their large jars into cups or pitchers whatever quantity of wine they thought necessary for the time, instead of which the moderns use bottles. It appears to have been customary at the French court, about the year 1258, when grand entertainments were given, and more wine-vessels had been opened than were emptied, that the remainder became a perquisite of the grand-bouteiller 1000 .

Stoppers of cork seem to have been first introduced after the invention of glass-bottles, and of these I find no mention before the fifteenth century; for the amphoræ vitreæ diligenter gypsatæ of Petronius 1001 , to the necks of which were affixed labels, containing the name and age of the wine, appear to have been large jars, and to have formed part of the many uncommon articles by which the voluptuary Trimalchio wished to distinguish himself. It is however singular, that these convenient vessels were not thought of at an earlier period, especially as among the small funeral urns of the ancients, many are to be found which in shape resemble our bottles 1002. In the figure of the Syracusan wine-flasks, I think I can discover their origin from these urns. Charpentier 1003  quotes from a writing of the year 1387, an expression which seems to allude to one of our glass bottles; but, when attentively considered, it may be easily discovered that cups or drinking-glasses are meant. The name boutiaux  or boutilles, occurs in the French language for the first time in the fifteenth century; but were it even older it would prove nothing, as it signified originally, and even still signifies, vessels of clay or metal, and particularly of leather 1004. Such vessels filled with wine, which travellers were accustomed to suspend from their saddles, could be stopped with a piece of wood, or closed by means of wooden or metal tops screwed on them, which are still used for earthen-pitchers. In the year 1553, when C. Stephanus wrote his Prædium Rusticum, cork stoppers must have been very little known, else he would not have said that in his time cork in France was used principally for soles (p. 578). In the time of Lottichius, rich people however had glass flasks with tin mouths, which could be stopped sufficiently close without cork; and these flasks appear to have been as thin as the Syracusan wine-bottles; for he adds, that it was necessary to wrap them round with rushes or straw 1005.

Flasks covered with basket-work must have been common among the Greeks, if it be certain that πυτίνηsignifies a flask of this kind. It appears indeed to do so, because Hesychius says it was a plaited wine-vessel, like the baskets which prisoners were accustomed to make. Suidas, however, states that it was a vessel woven of twigs, named in his time φλασκεῖον, from which is derived our word flask. It is probable that these wine-vessels covered with basket-work were only of earthenware, as glass ones were at that time costly and scarce. But I do not think it can be proved that a flask of this kind was called by the Romans tinia.

In the shops of the apothecaries in Germany, cork stoppers began first to be used about the end of the seventeenth century. Before that period they used stoppers of wax, which were not only much more expensive, but also far more troublesome.

That the use of cork for stoppers was not known in the sixteenth century may be proved from this circumstance, that it is mentioned neither by Ruellius 1006  nor Aldrovandi 1007 , though they describe all the other purposes to which this substance was applied. How great the consumption of it is at present, will appear from the quantity used by the directors of the springs at Niederselters alone; who in the year 1781 employed 2,208,000 stoppers, each thousand of which cost four florins, making a total of 8832 florins. They were furnished by a merchant at Strasburg, who was obliged to take back the refuse, which he then caused to be cut on his own account into smaller stoppers, and many of these could be used by the people at the springs. The experiment also was once made of causing the corks to be cut on account of the directors of the springs; but the carriage of the refuse became too dear, and there was no sale for the stoppers of the apothecary phials which were made of them.

In later times, some other vegetable productions have been found which can be employed instead of cork for the last-mentioned purpose. Among these is the wood of a tree common in South America, particularly in moist places, which is called there monbin  or monbain, and by botanists Spondias lutea. This wood was brought to England in great abundance for that use. The spongy root of a North American tree, known by the name of nyssa, is also used for the same end, as are the roots of liquorice, which on that account is much cultivated in Sclavonia, and exported to other countries, and likewise the black poplar, for its bark is employed by the Cossacks 1008  as stoppers to their flasks, and the Æschynomene lagenaria, which is used instead of cork in Cochin-China 1009.

[That most useful substance, caoutchouc, now replaces cork for numerous purposes, and is superior to it in almost every respect, especially in its greater elasticity, in being subject to less injury from the action of many substances, and but slightly affected by moisture or dryness. It also keeps better, and is not much more expensive. The quantity of stoppers now manufactured by the Patent Caoutchouc Company is perfectly astonishing.]

Footnotes

972  What is here observed in regard to the pores of cork has been stated, in general, by Lucretius, vi. 5984.

973  Duhamel, Traité des Arbres et Arbustes, Tozzetti, Viaggi, iv. p. 278.

974  [In MacCulloch's Dictionary the word every  is changed into for, and the author then proceeds to observe, that “This erroneous statement having been copied into the article Cork in Rees' Cyclopædia, has thence been transplanted into a number of other works!” The mistake, however, is wrongly attributed to Beckmann.]

975  Histor. Plantar. lib. iii. cap. 16. He repeats the same thing lib. iv. cap. 18, where he remarks as an exception, that the cork-tree does not die after it has lost its bark, but becomes more vigorous. In the southern parts of France the cork-trees are barked every eight, nine or ten years.

976  Lib. iii. cap. 4. This difficulty the commentators have endeavoured to remove by reading here φελλόδρυςinstead of the two words φελλὸς and δρῦς which are separated; and indeed φελλόδρυς occurs in other parts of the same work among the evergreens, lib. i. cap. 15.

977  Clusius in Rar. Plantar. Histor. lib. i. cap. 14, describes this tree as he found it without leaves in the month of April in the Pyrenees near Bayonne. Theophrastus, p. 234, says, “The cork-tree, φελλὸς, which drops its leaves γίνεται ἐν Τυῤῥηνίᾳ:” but the Aldine manuscript and that of Basle have Πυῤῥηνίᾳ. The latter reading is condemned by Robert Constant and others: but though the cork-tree is indeed indigenous in Tyrrhenia or Etruria, I see no reason why Πυῤῥηνίᾳ should not be retained, as it is equally certain that the tree grows in the Pyrenees, and that it there loses its leaves according to the observation of Clusius. If, on the other hand, we read Τυῤῥηνίᾳ, this is opposed by the experience of Theophrastus; for in Italy, as well as in France and Spain, the tree keeps its leaves the whole winter through. Stapel therefore has preferred the word Πυῤῥηνίᾳ. Labat, who saw the tree both in the Pyrenees and in Italy, says that in the former it drops its leaves in winter, and in the latter preserves them. According to Jaussin (Mémoires sur les évènemens, arrivés dans l'Isle de Corse. Lausanne, 1759, 8vo, ii. p. 398) it is in Corsica an evergreen; and Carter (Reise von Gibraltar nach Malaga, Leipsic, 1799, 8vo, p. 190) says that the case is the same in Spain, but he expressly adds that beyond the Alps it loses its leaves in autumn.

978  In his Gardener's Dictionary. Bauhin, in his Pinax, p. 424, mentions this species particularly.

979  Hist. Plant. lib. i. cap. 15.

980  Lib. xvi. cap. 21.

981  De Re Rustica, i. cap. 7.

982  Lib. xvi. cap. 8.

983  The botanists of the seventeenth century, who paid more attention to the names of the ancients than those of the present time, say that the cork-tree is in Greek called also ἴψος, or ἰψὸς, which word is not to be found in Ernesti's dictionary. I have found it only once in Theophrastus, Histor. Plantar. lib. iii. cap. 6, where those plants are named which blow late. Because Pliny, lib. xvi. cap. 25, says tardissimo germine suber; ἰpψὸς is considered to be the same as φελλός. Hesychius however says that ἰψὸς in some authors signifies ivy.

984  Our German word Kork, as well as the substance itself, came to us from Spain, where the latter is called chorcha de alcornoque. It is, without doubt, originally derived from cortex  of the Latins, who gave that appellation to cork without any addition. Horace says, Od. iii. 9, “Tu levior cortice;” and Pliny tells us, “Non infacete Græci (suberem) corticis arborem appellant.” These last words are quoted by C. Stephanus in his Prædium Rusticum, p. 578, and Ruellius De Natura Stirpium, p. 174, and again p. 256, as if the Greeks called the women, on account of their cork soles, of which I shall speak hereafter, cortices arborum. This gives me reason to conjecture a different reading in Pliny, and indeed I find in the same edition already quoted, the words cortices arborum. This variation ought to have been remarked by Hardouin.

985  Plin. p. 7.

986  Mosella, 246.

987  Linnæi Flora Suec. p. 358. Gmelin's Reise durch Russland, i. p. 138. It is a mistake in Duroi, Harbkescher Baumzucht, ii. p. 141, that ropes for fishing-nets are prepared from this bark.

988  Parkinson's Voyage to the South Seas, 1773, 4to.

989  De Militia Navali Veterum. Upsaliæ, 1654, 4to, lib. ii. cap. 5.

990  In Stephens's Thesaurus he says, “Usus ancoralibus navium; int. sustinendis, et minuendo pondere ancorarum.”

991  Pausanias, viii. 12, p. 623, where he speaks of the different kinds of oak in Arcadia. When any one had the misfortune to fall into the sea, the cork affixed to the anchor, ancoralia, was thrown overboard, in order that the person in danger might catch hold of it. This we learn from the account of Lucian (Epist. i. 1, p. 7), when two men, one of whom had fallen into the sea and another who jumped after him to afford him assistance, were both saved by these means.

992  And to conceal contraband goods in them, of which I have seen instances during my travels.

993  Xenophon De Tuenda Re Famil. and Clemens Alexand. lib. iii. Pæda.

994  Plutarchus in Vita Camilli.

995  De Re Rustica, cap. 120.

996  Lib. iii. od. 8, 10.

997  Before cork came to be used for this purpose pitching was more necessary, and therefore mention of pitch occurs so often in the Roman writers on agriculture. When the farmer, says Virgil (Georg. i. 275), has brought his productions to the city, he carries back articles of every kind, such, for example, as pitch. On such occasions our poets would have mentioned articles entirely different. Strabo (lib. v. p. 334) also extols Italy, because together with wine it had a sufficiency of pitch, so that the price of wine was not rendered dearer.

998  As proofs of this may everywhere be found, it is hardly worth while to quote them. Columella, xii. 12, teaches the manner of preparing cement for stopping up wine-casks. The earthen wine-jars found at Pompeii appear to have had oil poured over them, and to have had no other care bestowed upon them. In Italy, even at present, large flasks have no stoppers, but are filled up with oil.

999  Alexand. ab Alex. Dier. Gen. v. 21, p. 302. When the Romans went out to the chase, they carried with them some wine in a laguncula.—Plin. Epist. i. 6. p. 22. I do not know however that these flasks were of glass; all those I have seen were made of clay or wood. See Pompa De Instrum. Fundi, cap. 17, in the end of Gesner's edition of Scriptores Rei Rust. ii. p. 1187.

1000  Le Grand d'Aussy, Histoire de la Vie Privée des François, ii. p. 367.

1001  Petron. Sat. cap. xxxiv. p. 86. In the paintings of Herculaneum I find many wide-mouthed pitchers, with handles, like decanters, but no figure that resembles our flasks.

1002  Aringhi Roma Subterranea. Romæ, 1651. fol. i. p. 502, where may be seen an account of a flask with a round body and a very long neck.

1003  Glossarium Novum, i. p. 1182: “le dit Jaquet print un conouffle de voirre, ou il avoit du vin ... et de fait en but.”

1004  Grand d'Aussy quotes from Chronique Scandaleuse de Louis XI. “Des bouteilles de cuyr.” That word however is of German extraction, though we have received it back from the French somewhat changed, like many other German things. It is evidently derived from buttebottebutabuticulabuticella, which occur in the middle ages. See C. G. Schwarzii Exercitat. de Butigulariis. Altorfii, 1723, 4to, p. 5.

1005  See his Observations on Petronius, p. 259.

1006  De Natura Stirpium, p. 256.

1007  Dendrologia, p. 194.

1008  Gmelin's Reise durch Russland, i. p. 138. Pallas, Flora Russica, i. p. 66.

1009  Loureiro Flora Cochin-Chin. p. 447.