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Rope and ropemaking might seem like unpromising subjects for a historical study. While rope certainly figures in the story of ships and sail, it remains a minor character in that drama. Anv nonsoecialist asked to name a use for rope might rummage through remembered images of TV cowboys lassoing a calf or recall clotheslines and rope swings. Rope is ordinary and common stuff; even most sailors take its variety and easy availability for granted. But the evolution, history, and even romance of ropemaking is a story that begins before the Egyptian laborer dragging the stones of the pyramids and continues to the astronaut tethered to an orbiting module.

We get only glimpses of the earliest ropemaking. In the Orient shoots of bamboo and smaller grasses, or even the hairy outer covering of coconuts, provided a strong and flexible raw material. The Persians under Xerxes were able to spin huge ropes a mile long and more than two feet in circumference in order to rig an invasion bridge across the Hellespont to Greece. Ancient cordage of plant fiber and, often as not, animal hide was also used for more mundane purposes.

The development of cordage begins with a basic principle that is as elegant as it is simple: Groups of individually twisted strands are themselves twisted around one another in the opposite direction. The finished product is a bundle of interlocked tensions, each holding the other in check and keeping the entire rope from unraveling. This was the structure of rope long before Columbus set sail.

The Santa Maria and her sister ships were rigged with a divided sail plan, carrying as many as six or seven smaller sails rather than the one or two large sails seen on earlier vessels. This enabled the crew to set or take in different combinations of sails, making it easier to vary the amount of canvas exposed to the wind. All of this was controlled by a complicated cat’scradle of ropes (or lines, as ropes are always called aboard ship).

By 1794 fourteen ropewalks were humming in Boston alone, and they would soon be a fixture in almost any seaside town.

The cordage used on these ships was twisted and plaited by hand, rough to the touch, and made from locally grown European sisal plants. Long before ropemaking became an important trade linked to the shipyards, it was a home industry, an extension of yarn making and spinning, domestic crafts that were already thousands of years old in Columbus’s time. It was only when thicker rope was needed that machinery would become central to the procss. Ropemaking was spinning writ large, and women and children both had their parts to play.

More than a hundred years after Columbus, when the Mayflower worked her way across to the New World, rope technology was essentially unchanged. A decade after the Pilgrims landed, the colonies were stirring with the beginnings of commercial and industrial activity. Though they were largely self-sufficient, the colonists did import some things from England, and the most significant import of 1630 was one John Harrison, master ropemaker, of Salisbury. Harrison was persuaded to come to America by the promise of a legal monopoly on his trade. As long as he lived, no one else was allowed to practice ropemaking in the Massachusetts colony, so he enjoyed thirty years of freedom from bothersome competitors and established two ropeworks in Boston.

In that building, long and low, With its windows all a-row, Like the portholes of a hulk, Human spiders spin and spin, Backward down their threads so thin Dropping, each a hempen bulk.


Behind the poetic image was, of course, the reality of factory work: long hours, child labor, and drearily repetitive chores, along with the gradually accelerating pace of what we now call research and development.

In colonial times ropemaking, like many other trades, relied on a system of indentureship, which bound young apprentices to a sort of limited-term paid slavery. The indenture document, once signed, bound the teen-age trainee to “well and faithfully serve [his master], his secrets to keep, his lawful commands duly to obey.” He was further forbidden to play cards and dice, frequent alehouses, marry, or commit “acts of vice or immorality.” Even with these conditions, and despite the ever-present temptation of going away to sea, enough people were willing to work at rope manufacturing that by 1794 fourteen ropewalks were humming in Boston alone, and they would soon be a fixture in almost any seaside town on the Atlantic coast.