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.

Date Made: 1880s

Related Event: The Development of the Industrial United States

Subject: Fishing, Fishing

See more items in: Work and Industry: Maritime, Food, Work, Natural Resources

Exhibition: On the Water

Exhibition Location: National Museum of American History

Related Web Publication:

Related Publication: On the Water online exhibition

Credit Line: U.S. Fish Commission

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: TR.029368Catalog Number: 029368Accession Number: 12679

Object Name: knife, fishOther Terms: knife, fish; Maritime

Physical Description: wood (handle material)steel (bladel material)Measurements: overall: 8 in x 1 3/4 in; x 20.32 cm x 4.445 cm


Record Id: nmah_844288

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