Cork has a large and safe harbour and is located close to the main shipping routes to America and Europe. From the 17th to 19th centuries the port played a huge role in the provisions trade. Butter, salted beef and pork were some of the main exports, with many ships provisioning at Cork on their way to America and the West Indies.
The butter trade was particularly important. Butter was brought from rural areas to Cork where it was weighed, inspected and graded. A sophisticated system of regulation built up from the 18th century which ensured that high standards were maintained in the sale of butter. Key to these standards was the Committee of Merchants which was established by butter exporters in 1769. The Committee expanded over time to include both merchants and butter buyers: in the 1820s it consisted of fourteen export merchants, seven butter buyers and three tanners. The Committee included members from most of the main merchant families in Cork and proved to be an effective and impartial body.
The results of the careful regulation of the butter trade was seen in its continued success until the late 19th century. Butter was exported all over the world, particularly to America and the West Indies but also, later, to Australia and India. In 1774 Cork controlled 88% of Irish butter exports to America.
Considerable skill was built up in Cork to ensure that butter reached its destinations in good conditions. This was a particular challenge when being sent to hot climates. Most butter was packed into firkins or casks. These, generally, were made in Cork from seasoned oak, bound together by metal hoops. The coopers who made the casks were highly regarded and usually well paid. It was a skilful craft and high standards were maintained by rigourous inspection of the casks. Equally skilful was the packing of the butter and the addition of a pickle to ensure its preservation. The content of the pickle was a closely guarded secret, but salt was essential. Cork butter was generally highly salted and this acted as an important preservative.
By the 19th century, the butter trade in Cork was firmly established on the northern side of the city, at Shandon. A weigh house was in operation by the early 18th century and butter dealers and coopers were also prominent in the area. A covered market was created by the early 19th century and improved in 1850 when a new Butter Exchange was built.
The new market, with its powerful classical portico, was a symbol of the importance of the trade. Yet, by the late 19th century Cork was losing its dominance in the export butter market. One of the main problems was that the important British market did not require the highly salted butter exported from Cork. Butter producers on the continent, particularly Denmark, began to supply the more lightly salted butter preferred by the British consumer. Combined with a fall off in standards at the Cork Butter Exchange, a reluctance to move to more modern packaging and the development of butter substitutes, the Cork butter trade began to decline. The advent of refrigeration and changes in international trade all contributed to the problems and by the mid-1920s the Cork Butter Exchange had closed.
The meat trade was another vitally important part of the provisions trade. Salted beef and pork were exported all over the world. As with butter, good packaging was essential to ensure its arrival in good condition. The skills of coopers and packers allowed the trade to expand from the 18th century.
Cork was a major centre of meat production, so it was not surprising that it also developed many trades associated with by-products of that industry. In particular, there was an active export trade in cattle skins or hides and in tallow which was used to produce candles and soap.