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Bucket Brigade

Sometimes it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, but rather what is not on the inside. For at least one valuable tool around my house, its ability to contain emptiness is its greatest asset. It is when I fill that emptiness that this tool provides its greatest assistance in getting work done. The tool to which I am referring is the simple bucket.

The bucket’s main value is in the contained space it provides for us humans to fill with liquids or other material that we want to move from one place to another. It is cylindrical, with one end closed and a handle attached to the open end that makes it easy to lift and move. Despite their low rank among tools, buckets have provided invaluable service over the years.

The early history of buckets is shrouded in mystery and speculation. While contemporary humans may envision buckets as made out of plastic or metal, it is likely that the earliest buckets were made out of animal tissue. The Plains Indians used buffalo bladders and stomachs as “buckets,” while early Europeans made buckets out of similar animal parts and leather. Early peoples probably noticed that the tissues of certain animal organs functioned well in holding liquids through the butchering process. Perhaps this knowledge was put to the test by applying the elastic tissue of removed organs to other tasks, like holding water.

The history of the word “bucket” also lends some insight into the animal tissue origins of the tool. The word’s linguistic ancestors (tracing it back through Old English to the Old Norse language) referred to containers that held water, the belly and the body. Perhaps this body definition is part of the etymological roots contributing to the phrase “kicked the bucket,” which means to die.

While buckets for hauling and holding water were important, the bucket is a generalized container that can be adapted to a wide range of human needs requiring the movement of fluids and other things from place to place. Wooden buckets emerged as woodworking technology advanced, while pottery and (in the New World) gourds probably shouldered some bucket functions. Later, as the industrial revolution made factory production feasible, metal buckets entered the market.

Well into the 19th century, leather buckets continued to be important. They served a vital function in fire fighting in this country’s growing cities. The earliest fire departments were little more than bucket brigades where community members joined together to pass buckets of water from hand to hand along a human chain from a water source to a flaming fire. In the early days of Albany, residents kept one or more fire buckets at the ready in their home, and volunteering for bucket brigades was an expected community activity. During the 19th century, many U.S. cities passed local ordinances that required residents to keep fire buckets in their homes.

According to the Plastic Shipping Container Institute, the earliest plastic buckets were not mass-produced until 1967. They quickly displaced the metal, wood and glass containers used for packaging and shipping. They also provided new opportunities for reuse. Most of the buckets around my house are made of plastic, are recycled following other uses and are put to work recycling household wastes.

The bucket I use most is a white five-gallon plastic container originally used to ship food. I picked it up at the Honest Weight Food Co-op for a dollar a number of years ago. I use this bucket to collect household waste fit for composting. The bucket has a lid that fits securely in place and it has a strong handle. I drilled a hole in the center of the top and screwed a piece of wood in place as a crude handle to make the lid easier to open and close. Its capacity is just about right for once-a-week dumping, and it can be easily rinsed out. I’ve been using this bucket for more than five years and figure it has carried thousands of pounds of kitchen waste, lint, dust, cat hair, coffee grounds and other materials to my backyard composters.

My recycling of yard waste also relies heavily on buckets. I have two black five-gallon plastic buckets, which once contained driveway sealer, that I use to collect plant debris. These are particularly strong containers with handles that have been designed to lift weight far heavier than anything I’ll fill them with. As I go about spring planting, I keep one of these buckets close at hand to collect compostable waste. I also use this pair of buckets when I sift and screen compost. In one, I sort out stones that are added to the splash zone around my garden sheds, while in the other I collect bits of plastic and other items to be tossed into the general trash. These buckets can also be turned over and used as crude seats if needed.

There are, of course, many other uses for the five-gallon plastic bucket. A humorous source of inspiration for additional applications can be found in Jim McKenzie’s book, The Five-Gallon Bucket Book, 105 Uses and Abuses for the Ultimate Recyclable. And for those looking to accessorize their buckets with such hot fashion items as padded seats, rain covers and storage pockets, check out the Bucket Boss products offered by the Duluth Trading Company (

The fourth bucket I use for recycling is an empty metal paint can I use to collect dead batteries. I saved one emptied can from a past house-painting adventure for this purpose. Batteries should not be tossed into the general trash, and are often included in the special collections of toxic household waste carried out annually by localities (contact your sanitation department for dates and details). The paint bucket provides safe storage space and a convenient container for transferring batteries to waste handlers.

So, the next time you call upon a bucket for assistance, appreciate its long service to humanity, its empty space and its vast potential for use.

—Tom Nattell

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