On the Water

Commercial Fishers: Atlantic Cod

Two centuries before the arrival of the Pilgrims, explorers reported an abundance of enormous cod in the waters of present-day New England and Atlantic Canada. English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold was so impressed that he changed the name of Cape Saint James to Cape Cod in 1602.

Salt cod was an essential element in the web of early Atlantic commerce, but cod were not harvested on an industrial scale until the mid-1800s. As waves of immigrants reached America, the nation’s cities, industries, and population all grew. Commercial fisheries grew with them.

The Banks

Vast underwater banks stretch along the edge of the continental shelf from southern New England to Newfoundland, Canada. They provide the right combination of water temperature, currents, and food-rich shallows and ledges for Atlantic cod and other species to thrive. Two areas were especially important to commercial fishermen: George’s Bank, located about 100 miles east of Cape Cod, and the Grand Banks, 1,000 miles beyond.

Get Your Fish!

In 1876, Gloucester businesses were all about selling fish and outfitting fishermen.


From The Fisheries of Gloucester from 1623 to 1876 . . . (1876)

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Gloucester: Fishing on the Banks

The New England cod fishery grew explosively in the mid-1800s. Men of Italian, Canadian, West Indian, and especially Portuguese descent flocked to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to find work in the fisheries and escape the discrimination they encountered in other New England communities. By 1888, approximately 200 Portuguese families lived in Gloucester, making it the largest Portuguese community on the East Coast.

By the late 1880s, nearly 400 vessels fished out of Gloucester.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

Portuguese families in Gloucester have worshiped at Our Lady of Good Voyage Church since 1893. The statue on the second level shows the church’s namesake holding a boat in her left hand, symbolizing a safe voyage.

Courtesy of the Cape Ann Historical Association

Work at the Wharf

Gloucester fishermen unload, cull, weigh, and cart away Grand Bank cod at the wharf of Parmenter, Rice & Co., in Gloucester, 1882.

Drying Fish

At the height of the cod fishery in Gloucester, the waterfront was filled with fish drying racks like these at D.C. & H. Babson, in 1882.

A Terrible Mortality

Gloucester’s dependence on the North Atlantic meant a close acquaintance with tragedy and death. “The history of the Gloucester fisheries has been written in tears,” wrote an anonymous reporter in 1876.

Between 1866 and 1890, more than 380 schooners and 2,450 Gloucester men never returned from the fishing grounds. In a single storm on August 24, 1873, nine Gloucester vessels and 128 fishermen were lost. In 1865, community members formed the Gloucester Fisherman’s and Seaman’s Widows and Orphan’s Aid Society Fund to help fishermen’s families.

Widows’ Home

This house was built for fishermen’s widows in Gloucester around 1870. It had ten apartments of three rooms each. Rent for each apartment was $3 per month.

“When will the slaughter cease?”

In 1882, Capt. Joseph Collins asked this question in Gloucester’s newspaper, the Cape Ann Weekly Advertiser. Too many fishermen perished at sea, and Collins and others lobbied for new schooner designs featuring deeper, more stable hulls and sail plans that didn’t require a long bowsprit, the spar that projected forward from the bow.

Whitman Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil with Hypophosphites [ca 1910]
Whitman Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil with Hypophosphites

It’s Good for You

View Object Record

Cod liver oil was a byproduct of the cod fishery. The oil contains essential vitamins and helped prevent rickets, a common disease among malnourished children in the late 1800s. Children dreaded the taste of their daily dose, and this sample from the early 1900s recommends three doses a day.

Gift of Mario Casinelli

Gloucester Schooners

Schooners were built around Gloucester, Massachusetts, beginning about 1713. These vessels had large holds for fish and supplies, but they were also designed for speed to reach fishing grounds quickly. With fishing so profitable, owners demanded ever larger and faster vessels.

They got what they wanted—longer, wider hulls to carry more fish and immense amounts of sail to catch more wind. But safety was sacrificed for speed. Many schooners were dangerously top-heavy and prone to capsizing in storms. They were also hazardous for the men who clambered out on the long bowsprit to tend the sails. Schooner bowsprits came to be known as “widow makers.”

Drawing by H. W. Elliott and Capt. J. W. Collins, about 1882

The George’s Bank Cod Fishery

Fishermen using hand-lines stood at the rail of the schooner, each fishing a single line that had a spreader and two hooks. One fishermen is using a gaff to bring in a fish, one is cutting out the cod’s tongue—the method used to keep track of how many fish were caught by each fisherman—and the third is tending his line. George’s Bank fishermen used about 900 feet of line. Hauling in a pair of cod by hand took about thirty minutes.

Half Model, Fishing Schooner Helen B. Thomas [1901]
Half Model, Fishing Schooner Helen B. Thomas

Fishing schooner Helen B. Thomas

Built by Oxner & Story shipbuilders, Essex, Massachusetts, 1902

Gift of Thomas F. McManus

McManus Knockabouts

View Object Record

Thomas A. McManus, a Boston-born son of Irish immigrants, designed a safer fishing schooner. The hull of his vessel was short and deep, with a rockered keel for stability. McManus made this half model and displayed it for a year in his Boston shop before Capt. William Thomas of Portland, Maine, decided to have a full-sized vessel built to the lines. The Helen B. Thomas was launched in 1902 and was the first of many schooners called “knockabouts” that were built without bowsprits.

Cod Hand-line [1800s]
Cod Hand-line


View Object Record

This hand-line—a reel with fishing line, a sinker, and hooks—was the type used in the 1880s.

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

The Bank Trawl-Line Cod Fishery

In the 1850s fishermen started working from small boats called dories, using long lines baited with many hooks. Fishermen caught significantly more cod working from dories that were carried aboard schooners to the fishing grounds.

Drawing by H. W. Elliott and Capt. J. W. Collins, about 1882

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Ship Model, Fishing Schooner Dauntless [1894]
Ship Model, Fishing Schooner Dauntless

Fishing schooner Dauntless

Built in Essex, Massachusetts, 1855

Lost at sea, 1870, with 12 men aboard

Transfer from U.S. Fish Commission

The Dauntless

View Object Record

The fishing schooner Dauntless is shown equipped for dory trawling, with nests of dories stacked amidships. At the fishing grounds, the dories were lowered with two men in each, and the dory mates set their trawl line, which typically had 1,200 to 1,600 baited hooks. To haul in the catch, they had to steer the dory, lift the line into the boat, and remove the fish. The dory mates returned to the schooner to off-load the fish.


Imagine having to bait and fish 1,600 of these on a single fishing line. That was one of the jobs of a dory fisherman, day in and day out, for months at a time.

Gift of Peter Nelson, from the schooner Grace L. Fears

Gift of G. P. Foster

Fish Knife

View Object Record

Gloucester fishermen typically baited their trawl lines with small fish such as menhaden or capelin. They used knives like this to prepare slivers of bait.

Ship Model, Schooner Fredonia [1889]
Ship Model, Schooner Fredonia

Schooner Fredonia

Designed by Edward Burgess

Built by Moses Adams, Essex, Massachusetts, 1889

Transfer from U.S. Fish Commission

The Schooner Fredonia

View Object Record

The Fredonia’s deep hull, narrow beam, and fine lines represent the pinnacle of design for deepwater fishing schooners. It influenced the design of many other fishing vessels. In December 1896, while fishing on the Grand Banks, the Fredonia was hit by a heavy sea and sank. Two of its 23-man crew perished; the rest were rescued by a passing steamer.

Mackerel Plow (Knife) [1880s]
Mackerel Plow (Knife)

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Fish Plow with Pewter Inlays

View Object Record

This type of knife, also called a plow, was used to cut the flesh of a fish along the backbone to give it a thicker, fatter appearance that appealed to customers. It was used in the iced fish trade.

Fisherman’s Oilskin Hat [early 1880s]
Fisherman’s Oilskin Hat

Gift of A. J. Tower

Oilskin Hat

View Object Record

Grand Banks fishermen toiled in all kinds of weather. To protect themselves from the icy winds and spray, they wore felt-lined rubber boots and jackets and hats made of oiled canvas. This flannel-lined oilskin hat was new when it was displayed in an exhibit of fishermen’s clothing in London in 1883.

Fishermen’s Woolen Nippers [1880s]
Fishermen’s Woolen Nippers

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission


View Object Record

The fishermen’s nippers were knit of woolen yarn and stuffed with woolen cloth. Fishermen were able to grasp and hold a fishing line better if they wore woolen nippers on their hands.

Cook’s Clothing

In the summer, cooks aboard Gloucester fishing schooners wore cotton trousers and plaid shirts like these. In the era of dory fishing, the cook was one of the most important men on board. He prepared four or five meals a day, fished if needed, and assisted the captain when the men were out in the dories.

Man's Trousers, 1878-88 [1878-1888]
Man's Trousers, 1878-88
View Object Record

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Schooner Cook's Bell [1883]
Schooner Cook's Bell

Cook’s Bell

View Object Record

This bell was used aboard a Gloucester schooner to summon fishermen to their meals. Daily meals started with breakfast before dawn, dinner as the main meal, and a hearty supper. Frequent “mug-ups,” or coffee breaks, usually consisted of coffee or tea and leftover snacks. On larger schooners, the cook served meals in two shifts.

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Feeding the Crew

Cook George W. Scott kept a journal on the fishing schooner Ocean King during a voyage out of Gloucester to the Grand Banks in 1879. Among the provisions brought aboard for a four-month voyage were:

  • 210 Hogsheads of salt (for salting the cod)
  • 5 Barrels beef
  • 1 Barrel pork
  • 1 Barrel hams
  • 10 Barrels flour
  • 330 Pounds of sugar
  • 50 Gallons molasses
  • 15 Bushels potatoes
  • 200 pounds butter
  • and including all other things usuly [sic] found in a grocery store
Fox and Geese Game Board [1883]
Fox and Geese Game Board

Gift of Capt. George Merchant Jr.

Fox & Geese Board, 1880s

View Object Record

Fishermen passed the time on long voyages playing Fox & Geese and other simple board games. This game requires two players. The fox (a single token) has to remove the geese (multiple tokens) before they surround him.

Gift of Wilcox, Crittenden & Co.

Foghorn, 1880s

View Object Record

Getting lost in the fog was a dory man’s nightmare. Dories were equipped with foghorns that the dory mates used to signal their location. In foggy weather, men aboard the schooner would sound a more powerful fog horn operated with a pump or bellows to let the dory men know the vessel’s location.

What Happened to Cod?

After the peak catches of the 1880s, Gloucester fishermen continued to work coastal and offshore waters. In the 20th century, they typically used diesel- and gasoline-powered vessels called trawlers that pulled large nets to catch cod, haddock, flounder, and other fish.

Foreign trawlers began to appear in the 1950s, and a decade later huge factory trawlers from nations around the globe were capturing tons of fish. In 1977, the United States and Canada banned foreign trawlers from the fishing grounds. With foreign competition gone, the American and Canadian fleets soon expanded and the stocks of cod declined further. In the 1990s, both nations agreed to close much of George’s Bank to fishing for bottom-dwelling species like cod. Today, most cod at supermarkets was not caught in the North Atlantic.

Carved Cod-in-a-Coffin [1994]
Carved Cod-in-a-Coffin

Cod Coffin

View Object Record

In 1992, Canada declared a moratorium on cod fishing in its Atlantic coastal waters. Fisherman Dan Murphy of Dunville, Newfoundland, made this cod-in-a-coffin to express his view of the decision and its impact on his livelihood. He sold these coffins at a local flea market.