Mackerel Plow (Knife)

Used by New England fishermen aboard mackerel schooners in the 19th century, this unusual tool converted poor “leather-bellies” to fat “Number 1” fish with a few short strokes. Mackerel caught in seines at the beginning of the season—in spring and early summer—were generally lean, dry, and tough, and not worth much at market. But fishermen found a way to plump them up to command a higher price. After splitting a scrawny mackerel down its back with a larger knife, a fisherman would make several slashes parallel to the backbone with the small blade of the plow. Like plowing furrows on land, the slashes opened the flesh, causing the fish to swell and look fat, which could bring a higher price.
Fishermen typically had their own mackerel plows, which were widely variable in size and design. All were handmade of wood and had very small metal blades. Many, like this one, had an open handle that fit the hand of its user. This example is embellished with pewter inlays, including five-pointed stars and the initials “EB,” presumably to identify its owner.
Object Name
knife, fish
Date made
Physical Description
wood (handle material)
steel (bladel material)
overall: 8 in x 1 3/4 in; x 20.32 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Natural Resources
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
U.S. Fish Commission
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

Visitor Comments

Add a comment about this object

**Please read before submitting the form**

Have a comment or question about this object to share with the community? Please use the form below. Selected comments will appear on this page and may receive a museum response (but we can't promise). Please note that we generally cannot answer questions about the history, rarity, or value of your personal artifacts.

Have a question about anything else, or would you prefer a personal response? Please visit our FAQ or contact page.

Personal information will not be shared or result in unsolicited e-mail. See our privacy policy.

Enter the characters shown in the image.