Monday, November 9, 2009

Gourd Water Bottles

As I've discussed previously, we participated in a "Refugee March" back in October; one of the organizer's requirements was that we carry our own water in an appropriate container.

Well, as civilians, a military canteen was certainly not appropriate, a glass bottle would be acceptable, but would be both heavy and fragile. We decided to create water bottles from gourds, they would be light weight, inexpensive, and an interesting experiment.

Here's a few period references:

"The fruit of Lagenaria vulgaris, in consequence of having a hard outer covering, is used as a vessel for containing fluid, after the pulp and seeds are removed. It is hence called Bottle Gourd."

Manual of Botany, Volume 13 of Encycl. Metrop., 2nd ed, John Hutton Balfour , 1851

"The dust rose in clouds, from my feet to my face ; and I was very thirsty, and casting about for the first brook—when I saw a traveller approaching me from the town that lay beyond the sombre olive groves. He was a poor, neat man, of stately bearing, and with a painful eye, and mien. A gourd was slung at his back.
"' You are thirsty, brother,' he said, not waiting to hear me. He unstrung the gourd, and held it prone to my lips. And he smiled, as the cold stream gurgled in my throat, and he caught my grateful eye fixed upon him. "

The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 229 , 1870

"GOURD (Lagenaria vntgarit, calabash). The gourd family flourish well in the United States in the open air, and the several varieties make up a large amount of the produce of the gardens and farms. The large bottle gourds are extremely useful among the country people, by whom they are used as dippers. Some of them are so large as to hold nearly a gallon. They are light, and with good usage may last for months and even for several years. If, after a few gourds have set, the ends are pinched off the vines, the gourds will grow larger and better. It is believed, says Dr. Darlington, that there are no native species of gourd in the United States, though the plant is said to have been cultivated by the aborigines, from time immemorial. "

The Farmer's and Planter's Encyclopedia of Rural Affairs: Embracing all the Most Recent Discoveries in Agricultural Chemistry, Suited to the Comprehension of Unscientific Readers ,
Cuthbert William Johnson, Gouverneur Emerson , 1869

"Wednesday, September 30th. This was a fine cool morning. We were on the march at an early hour. Captain Porter, being sick, rode in one of the wagons. None of our lieutenants being present, and the orderly sergeant sick, the company marched to-day under the command of the second sergeant. The country passed over was fertile, as before but continually becoming more level, and consequently having but little variety in scenery.—The sun became hot, and water being scarce on the route, our Mexican gourds came in good use. These gourds were much preferable to canteens, for carrying water on the march; for water, in these would remain cool through the day of the hottest sun ; while in the tin canteen, it became warm and unpleasant to the taste. This coolness of the gourd, is owing to the continual evaporation going on through the shell. They are convenient in shape and size, being mostly in the shape of the figure 8, and holding from one to two quarts. Round the small part of the gourd the strap is fastened, for suspending it to the side or the pommel of the saddle. Every traveler in this portion of Texas, that we met, had one. Most of our men had thrown away their canteens, and obtained one of these gourds. (Some of the regiments in the service were furnished with India rubber bags, or canteens, to carry water; but they are liable to the same objections as the tin ones, the water in them becoming warm.)"

The Twelve Months Volunteer: or, Journal of a Private, in the Tennessee Regiment of Cavalry, in the Campaign, in Mexico, 1846-7; Comprising Four General Subjects; I. A Soldier's Life in Camp; Amusements; Duties; Hardships; II. A description of Texas and Mexico, as Seen on the March: III. Manners ..., George C. Furber , 1857

So how did we do it?

Our season is far to short to grow gourds, so we purchased them online.

The gourds were perfectly dry, but covered with dirt and mold. This is a normal by product of the drying process.

First, we soaked the gourds in a dilute bleach solution for 10 minutes and scrubbed them clean.

We then allowed them to dry again and then removed the tops, well above the neck constriction.

Another option would be to remove a small circular area around the stem, however it is then more difficult to remove the "innards" and also it is more difficult to drink directly from the gourd bottle without a lip.

Cleaning out the innards is a case of using whatever works!

And wearing a mask is definitely recommended.

We did discover that once the worst of it had been removed, the interior was easily further cleaned by adding sharp gravel and rotating it repeatedly.

Those large chips are actually the seeds, each gourd contained hundreds.

We then needed to seal the interior, we chose to use food grade paraffin. Other options would be bees wax or pine pitch - I suspect that using pine pitch would provide a great deal of "flavoring".

For the first coating, we heated the gourd in the oven at 200 degrees for about 20 minutes. This allowed the paraffin to penetrate the interior more completely as well as extending the time available before the paraffin hardened. Obviously, this only works for the first coating. We did a total of three layers.

The finishing steps included a closure, we ordered corks from a laboratory science company. We drilled a small hole through the cork and added a pull string and a washer on the bottom of the cork for durability. A sling for carrying completed the bottles.

I would consider this a successful experiment. The gourds themselves are very light weight, they were easily carried, we could drink directly from the water bottle and the water had no off flavor. They were inexpensive and would be more so if you live in an area where the season is long enough to grow your own gourds.

As with any material culture item, you will need to evaluate who/where you are before deciding is this would be an appropriate item for your impression.


  1. I used to grow gourds and prepare them for use as water bottles or as dippers - I am still using one of the first dippers I ever grew! I fond that a combination of paraffin and beeswax (about 80% paraffin, 20% beeswax) was better than just paraffin. The beeswax is more pliable than paraffin and doesn't flake off like paraffin can over time. I found children to be my best helpers when it was time to add the gravel and shake shake shake the gourds. Noise making is fun!!

  2. I've made them too. The first time, without thinking, I stood on my front porch and just shook, shook, shook that gourd to get all the seeds out. I had gourds growing in my flower garden for the next few years.

  3. I've heard of using gourds to carry water, just didn't really know how one would go about making one. For some reason this is very intriguing to me. Before reading this post I'd have gone along without it even crossing my mind gourd water bottle, but now I want to make one. Now I'll just have to see if I can get my hands on a few gourds. :)

  4. Sounds great. Im working on one now..though doesnt paraffin was have mineral oil in it? As far as I know mineral oil is horrible for your body (despite being known as "Baby Oil"!). I think ill try straight beeswax and see how it works.