On the Water

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.

ID Number:
TR*029368
Material:
wood, metal, steel
Date:
1880s
Dimensions:
8 x 1 3/4 in.; 20.32 x 4.445 cm
Source:
U.S. Fish Commission