A new comment on an old post says:

I have run across the occupation “pail turner” I can’t find this on any lists of obsolete occupations so I’m hoping you might either know the answer or have an idea where I might look.

Sure enough, if you google the phrase you get a number of old census records resembling “Newcomb Lewis 23 M Pail Turner NH” and lists of occupations like “151 Packer 2. 152 Pail turner 1. 153 Paint store 2,” but no explanation of what a pail turner does (or rather did). Anybody know?


  1. A guess is that a “pail turner” is someone who makes pails, or buckets. I’m thinking that the pails in question are wooden and that “turner” comes from “to turn” as in “turning on a lathe”. But that’s just a guess.

  2. But a good one. Makes sense to me.

  3. jean-pierre says

    This is one for the nursing homes, and maybe old books on employment, manufacturing, and so forth. I’ve started a contest in our little rural Georgia town, to see who knows the history behind a local street name and memorial, in the “Black part of town.” So far, have quizzed a couple dozen people of varying age, gender, and race, and have found only one person who knows the answer to “Who is Tom Shine?” This respondant is a Gujarati immigrant who manages a gas station and convenience store.
    But, back to ‘pail turner,’ I’m going to start asking the elder folk here. I’m with the first response, but am interested in getting confirmation.

  4. Pails are not made on a lathe, at least in my limited knowledge of woodworking they are put together like barrels, by a cooper.

  5. Some pails are indeed made of multiple pieces of wood by a cooper, but I have seen old pails hollowed
    out of a single piece of wood. I’m not sure how they were made, but they might have been turned on a lathe.

  6. Might it not be a homophonic error for a horror movie actor: someone who turns people pale?

  7. On further reflection, could you make a living exclusively by turning pails? Wouldn’t it have been something done as part of general work as a turner? It seems like shoeing only Percherons or cooking only potatoes.

  8. It does seems to have something to do with making pails, I googled ‘pail turning’ and got this story which mentions that G.H. Albee learned pail turning, and part of the article discusses a pail factory. Even though the factory seemed to make pails like barrels, it seems that there was some portion of the process that needed (turned on?) a pail turner.

  9. Well googled, sir! Here’s the relevant sentence about the pail factory: “The woodenware making machinery first installed in the factory consisted of one tub stave saw, two pail stave saws (the heading was sawed upon the 40-inch bench saw), one tub turning lathe and matcher, three pail lathes and matchers, one heading planer, one bottom jointer, one pair of hoop rolls, one pail and one tub hoop punch, one tub bottom cutter, one pail bottom cutter, one pail ear cutter, and one paint grinding mill.” That one factory probably used a dozen specialists whose occupations are now forgotten.

  10. The staves and bottoms of pails made like barrels would not require turning on a lathe as far as I can see, but some pails of this type, which I think are the nicer and sturdier ones, do not have just an iron band holding them together near the top. Rather, they have a wooden piece that both binds the staves and forms the rim. This has “ears” in which holes are drilled to hold the bail. This piece looks to me as if it must be turned on a lathe. Perhaps it is the turning of this part that “pail turner” refers to.

  11. ‘The turner’s art was an ancient one, but never very prosperous or prestigious .. Turning, making articles of wood on a lathe, requires considerable skill, but the articles made were by and large humble household or industrial goods .. Turners produced chairs, wooden bowls, shovels, scoops, bushel measures, washing tubs, wheels, pails, trays, spools, pulleys, blocks, sheaves, deadeyes and other maritime tackle, wooden bandoliers for muskets, and other such commodities.’ (Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985).
    On the question of “could you make a living exclusively by turning pails?” it’s worth having a look at George Sturt’s classic book The Wheelwright’s Shop, about – well, about a wheelwright’s shop, in late nineteenth-century England, just before the coming of the motor car put the wheelwrights out of business. Sturt doesn’t say anything about pail turners, but his book illustrates the extraordinarily specialised nature of the woodworking craft. I don’t find it at all hard to believe that a large workshop might have had a craftsman exclusively employed in turning pails.
    I recommend The Wheelwright’s Shop, a remarkable book, first published in 1923 and continuously in print ever since.

  12. Here is a possibility: has a listing for Bucket Turner:

    Operates bucket-turning machine to smooth and finish outer surfaces of wooden buckets: Clamps bucket between chucks of machine and removes assembling ring from bucket with hammer. Starts machine to rotate bucket. Pushes lever on tool carriage to feed tool along surface of bucket, finishing bucket surface. Smooths surface of bucket, using block covered with sandpaper. Places temporary hoop on bucket and removes it from machine.

    Thom Trail pointed this out to me, here is the discussion thread from WoodCentral which included a couple other pointers:;read=27054

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