Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies
12. Ropemaking in Literature
String, cordage, or something that ties things together is such a fundamental part of everyday
life that it is taken completely for granted.
"Prehistoric string theory. How twisted fibres helped to shape the world"
Karen Hardy 2008
Despite rope's ubiquitous place in people's lives, rope only rarely appears in literature.
"Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" (1905)
has surprisingly few quotes about rope.
A Colonial ropemaker, assuming he could read at all, would have few books to choose from. Publishers
began selling books about hemp, rope, knots, or rigging after the American Revolution.
Only fifteen of the over three hundred titles in
"A Bibliography of Cordage and Cordage Making"
were printed in the 1700s. And many of those texts weren't in English.
Colonial Era Texts
The King James version of the Bible
specifically mentions ropes several times.
In Judges 16:11, Samson lies to Delilah.
"And he said unto her, If they bind me fast with new ropes that never were occupied,
then shall I be weak, and be as another man."
2 Samuel 17:13 has an interesting vision.
"Moreover, if he be gotten into a city, then shall all Israel bring ropes to that city,
and we will draw it into the river, until there be not one small stone found there."
The ropes of the Israelites must have been very long and strong to pull a city into the river.
A verse that many people quote, when talking of twisting rope, is Ecclesiastes 4:12.
"And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
The King James Version of the Bible talks about cords more often than ropes. There are 32 mentions of cord,
compared to seven for rope.
William Shakespeare barely
mentions rope at all. In the
"Comedy of Errors", there is
some business about whether or not Dromio has purchased a rope's end so Antipholus can punish
his wife, but really not much else.
"Cord" is Shakespeare's most often used term:
Cords frequently refer to the hangman's noose, but sometimes the ladder to
- But he, I thank him, gnaw’d in two my cords.
Dromio Comedy of Errors
- O, the charity of a penny cord!
- O, give me cord, or knife, or poison, ...
- The cords, the ladder, or the hangman rather?
Hotspur Henry IV, Part 1
- And let not Bardolph’s vital thread be cut
With edge of penny cord and vile reproach.
Pistol Henry V
- Thou hast not left the value of a cord;
Therefore thou must be hang’d at the state’s charge.
Gratiano Merchant of Venice
- If there be cords or knives,
Poison or fire, or suffocating streams, ...
- Within this hour my man shall be with thee,
And bring thee cords made like a tackled stair,
Which to the high topgallant of my joy
Must be my convoy in the secret night.
Romeo Romeo and Juliet
- ... how I must climb her window,
The ladder made of cords, and all the means
Plotted and 'greed on for my happiness.
Valentine Two Gentlemen of Verona
Shakespeare was writing from about 1592 until maybe 1614, and the King James Version
came out in 1611.
The cord versus rope numbers show how the English language was used at the end
of the Elizabethan era. By the middle 1700s, "rope" had become more fashionable.
Shakespeare uses "twine" as a verb more than a noun, and "string" most often in relation
to a musical instrument.
Daniel Defoe's popular "The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe"
(1719) shows Robinson was thinking ahead when he salvaged his wrecked ship.
"particularly the third time I went I brought away as much of the rigging as I could,
as also all the small ropes and rope-twine I could get."
Like any sensible person, he never went out without some string in his pocket.
When his dog caught a young goat, for example, he was prepared.
"I made a collar for this little creature, and with a string, which I made of some rope-yarn, which I always carried about me."
The French writer Louise Labé (1524 - 1566)
was known as La Belle Cordière (The Beautiful Ropemaker). She was the daughter of a ropemaker in
She also married a Lyon ropemaker. But rope was not something she wrote about.
On the other hand, "to marry the ropemaker's daughter" means to be hung at the gallows.
William Butler Yeats' story of
The Twisting of the Rope"
(1897) tells the tale of making a long rope in a small building as a way to get rid of an unwanted guest.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem,
"The Ropewalk" begins with
an obsevation of the "Human spiders spin and spin, Backward down their threads so thin..."
then goes on to ponder many uses of the twines being made.
Hilaire Belloc, in a work titled,
(1923), meditates on a piece of rope.
"I further considered how strange it was that ropes had never been worshipped.
Men have worshipped the wall, and the post, and the sun, and the house.
They have worshipped their food and their drink. ...
But I never heard of any one worshipping a rope."
He goes on to note that ropes do not figure in heraldry, and the only time a rope is used
as a unit of measurement is the cable. The US Navy cable length is 720 feet. But the British
cable varied from 554 feet to 707 feet. Not a very good unit of measure with such a wide difference
in meaning. (660 +/- 75)
Norman Cousins (1915 - 1990) said
"A book is like a piece of rope; it takes on meaning only in connection with the things it holds together."
But rope can also keep things apart. Like the rope barriers in an airport ticket line. Ship's bumpers
are made of rope to protect the hull from rubbing against the dock.
Rope can be used for gaskets and caulking to fill joints and cracks.
On sailing ships, rope provides stiffness and strength in the form of grommets and bolt ropes.
Rope is much more than just a binding tool.
Peter Dickinson's "The Ropemaker" (2001) is an
amusing fantasy / adventure novel, but absolutely no help if you are trying to make rope in the real world.
Japanese manga artist Sakura Tsukuba's
"Good luck and bad luck are strands of the same rope."
echos Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well"
"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our
virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes
would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues."
The End of This Yarn
Truly, Karen Hardy was right. Something as useful as rope, that has been around for far longer than the English language,
has been neglected by our poets and authors.