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 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
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
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 (www.duluthtrading.com).
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.