Short-Handled Hoe, 1950s and 1960s

Short-Handled Hoe, 1950s and 1960s

Usage conditions apply
Migrant farm workers had to use the short-handled hoe or el cortito for thinning and weeding. Because it required them to stoop during long hours in the fields, the hoe became a symbol of the exploitive working conditions. Campaigns by the United Farm Workers and others helped outlaw use of the hoe in 1975.
American agriculture’s dependence on Mexican labor has always been a source of great conflict and great opportunity for field workers and the agriculture industry. In the U.S., agricultural labor was overwhelmingly Mexican and Mexican American. Issues of legal status, workers rights, and use of domestic workers are issues the unions, agricultural producers, and the federal government have been struggling with since the 1920’s.
Object Name
short handled hoe
Physical Description
iron (overall: blade material)
wood (overall: handle material)
iron (overall: handle material)
overall: 12.3 cm x 15.3 cm x 42 cm; 4 13/16 in x 6 in x 16 9/16 in
blade: 9.2 cm x 15.3 cm; 3 5/8 in x 6 in
handle: iron portion: 20.3 cm; 8 in
handle: wooden portion: 21.7 cm; 8 9/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Luis Diaz Zavala
See more items in
Work and Industry: Agriculture
Cultures & Communities
FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000
Food: Transforming the American Table
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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I am a 70 year old Mexican- American whose parents worked the sugar beet fields in Colorado back in the 1950’s. “El Cortito”, or the short handle hoe was the tool that was used to space out the sugar beet plants from each other to help the plants grow. I was 4-5 years old helping my parents work. My memories of the field workers working on their knees all day long brings anger and resentment toward the farmers who subjected these people unnecessarily. The same work could have been done with regular handled hoes that would have allowed workers to stand up on their feet. My parents would spend entire days on their knees in order to make a better life for for myself and my siblings. When I tell my friends about this experience with the “cortito”, they just cannot wrap their minds on understanding what life was like for migrant workers back in the 50’s!
My grandparents used to hire migrant Mexican workers in the 1950s and 60s. Short handled hoes were issued, and it was called “Stoop Labor” because you hand to stoop over to use the hoe. If you were standing, you weren’t working. This is understandable when involved in agriculture where you buy at retail and sell your product at below wholesale.
Check out --El cortito banned, TX State Legislature 1981. * Priority at Ist UFW-TX Convention 1979 ( other UFW legislative priorities included: Workers Comp, Unemployment Comp; Minimum Wage increase; toilets and water in the fields-- see subsequent campaigns, bill filings, court cases-- 1981, '83, '85;and continuing) ** 1981 TX Legislative session --United Farm Workers (UFW) & National Farm Worker Ministry staff : Sisters Marie-Thérèse "Tess" Browne, OSF & Carol Anne Messina, SCN ( deceased Jan 1984) principal lobbyists with TRLA ( Texas Rural Legal Aid) staff. ** UFW-TX Director: Rebecca Flores Harrington ** UFW-TX Farmworkers giving testimony included Juanita Valdez Cox, former child farmworker; currently Executive Director LUPE, San Juan, TX ** Medical expert testimony included Dr David Kibbe, M.D., McAllen TX ** Critical statewide support organizations and groups included: TX Catholic Conference; TX Conference if Churches- Farm Worker Working Group/ Committee; Las Hermanas; PADRES; MACC; UT-Austin Catholic Campus Ministry; Dominican Sisters, Houston;; UFW Support Committees in Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, San Antonio and others. From :Tess Browne ( Marie-Thérèse Browne, SCN) 69 Post Island Rd Quincy MA 02169a4
I was told by former farm laborers who grew up in the fields that the purpose of "do cortito" was to prevent workers from leaning on the one for rest.
The short handle hoe is common to other continents. My analysis is that the commonness in the size of the handle is out of necessity to thin excess the crops and sort the weeds with the free hand as one weeds with the other.
Hello, This article-link below may to some extent help you understand the use of the Short-Handled Hoe as per comments by Rodrigo Silva. I am not a Farmer, but have done extensive gardening, and actually made myself a Short-Handled Hoe which was unavailable for sale in Southern California when I lived and worked there. For me, it worked very well for close-in cultivation in crowded flower-gardens without problem; although I have never been able to work bent over (serious pain), and have to work on my knees, which I can do all day long. Frankly, I conjecture that the Farm-Owners simply wanted to save money by using short handles. This sound a little absurd, but that's my opinion.
My family worked the beet fields in Montana.. I would like to share the wonderful poem my grandfather wrote about that in 1920 .. my Spanish translation might not be exact but you can see the meaning. 'aye Longmont Tredor tu me tumbas tu me matas. No nececcitas liquor para hacar me andar agatas. Antes the que salga el sol me Veran en cuatro patas antes the que salga el sol me veran en cuatro patas. Yo Sali de mi poblado par este pais del resorte a cultivar El sembrado predoname mi mal reported. Ando sin estar nojado impinando par El Norte. Yo me impeno par El Norte yo me impeno par El oriente Yo me impeno par El sur Yo me impeno par El ponente como se fuera su fool oh diversion de la hente. En sombras de vetabel travajo todo los dias. Tengo cayos en las manos, y conchas en las rodillas. Y greta's en los talones de tonto andar en culquiyas. En estos dias tan largos de tan emenso calor ay me veran en pinado resistendo El calor. Con las narizes par el suelo y la colita at el sol me decian que en la futura que me vendra la gananza. A mi me questa siguero y no piedro la esperanza. Pedro esto de betabel hasta me duele la panca. un viejo llego en casa en una burra cambuya. Y mi dice no seas salvaja que no te hagan borrus los betabeles son buenos pero asado en la stufa. El que compuso estos versos no es hombre de mucho esmero su primero nombre es Ambroso su apelativo Deaguero
I am unable to find any information as to why the short handed hoe was ever used. Its reduced size does not make sense as an effective tool. I hope you can provide me with some of the history of how the "cortito" became the tool of choice for many agricultural workers. Thank you!

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