Six thousand years ago, a woman heavy with child straightened up from yanking out weeds in an onion patch. She massaged her back and gazed speculatively at a nearby tree branch, then back at the weeds sprouting beneath her feet in the rich soil of the Fertile Crescent. A moment later, she broke off the branch, stripped away twigs and leaves, and with the forked end began to scrape out the weeds one by one.
Thus, or maybe somewhat thus, was born the hoe, the world’s earliest agricultural tool.
Various reference works say the hoe is a hand tool used in gardening or a weeding tool consisting of a long pole with a small flat metal blade set into one end at a right angle to the pole. Though accurate, these definitions are woefully incomplete. Throughout history, the hoe has been much more.
The hoe had a positive impact on quality of life. Anthropologists say because hoes were custom-made and hard to come by in early agrarian societies where food supplies were inconsistent, a broken, lost or stolen hoe could result in enough missed time planting, cultivating or harvesting to endanger a family’s food supply, making the difference between starvation, mere survival or plenty.
The hoe was a valuable tool. The hoe was highly prized by owners as well as thieves. In 1763, Adam Reed of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, accompanied his local constable to Reed's stolen property "hid in the ground," according to the Pennsylvania Gazette of the time. Among the articles unearthed were four grubbing hoes.
During the Revolutionary War, “at the time of the approach of the enemy” to Philadelphia, another article in the Pennsylvania Gazette said John Jones of Southwark left his personal tools in the care of Capt. Christian Grover. In 1778, Jones advertised that whoever returned his belongings would be "rewarded in proportion to their trouble or expense." His missing tools included two spades, five garden hoes, one grubbing hoe and two dung forks.
The hoe was a multiuse tool. Workers wielding a hoe didn’t need to change tools to perform such diverse garden chores as agitating soil around plants, removing weeds, piling soil about roots, creating furrows and trenches for planting seeds and bulbs, digging and moving soil, chopping weeds, roots and old crop residue, digging rocks, and even dispatching unwanted rodents. They needed only one tool, and that was the hoe.
The hoe provided – and still provides – a direct link to one’s ancestors. A hoe handle worn smooth from years of callused hands or a blade nicked, scored and dented is a constant warm reminder of those who came before, father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, even great-grandfather or great-grandmother, who tilled and toiled the soil years ago with that same tool.
The hoe was the parent of many other valuable agricultural tools. J.C.L. Loudon’s 1835 Encyclopedia of Gardening says, “Variations on the hoe, such as the pick, the adz and the plow, appeared as the blade progressed from stone and bone to copper, bronze, iron and steel.”
Early hoes were fashioned of the finest materials available. “Elementary hoes with a triangular flaked-stone head, mounted on a handle with thongs fixed with bitumen, are known from the fifth millennium BC in Mesopotamia,” wrote Anthony Huxley in Illustrated History of Gardening.
For millennia, hoe blades were also fashioned out of animal antlers and shoulder blades. By the mid-14th century, iron smelting made it possible to create more precisely-shaped hoes. Until the 16th century, hoes were simple, basic and, for the most part, made of heavy metals like iron or copper. However, New World settlers noted that a large clam shell attached to a pole created the perfect hoe. In 1634, William Wood said in New England’s Prospect that Connecticut Indians “exceed our English husbandmen, keeping (the soil) as clear with their Clamme-shell hoe as if it were a garden rather than a cornfield.”
The industrial revolution ushered in steel and alloys leading to hoes that were lighter and far more durable. In colonial America, hoes were painstakingly handcrafted from local materials and carefully maintained. Local blacksmiths routinely made as many tools as they made horseshoes. Evan Truman and Thomas Goucher of the Sign of the Scythe and Sickle advertised “all kinds of edge tools and all sorts of hoes.”
Barring local availability, hoes were imported because people’s livelihoods depended on their garden tools. On the same ships that brought silk, ivory combs and women’s gloves to America, for example, Thomas, Samuel and Miers Fisher advertised “Buenos Aires Spanish dry hides, superior sherry wine, almonds, London bottled porter,” as well as weeding hoes from Europe.
Despite the changes in materials out of which the hoe is made, and the evolution of modern hoes for specialized uses – wheel hoe, thrust hoe, digging hoe, drill hoe, pronged hoe, crane-necked hoe, shifting-blade hoe, draw hoe, grubbing hoe, weeding hoe, rotary hoe, electric hoe – 6,000 years ago or today, the humble hoe is still that most simple, and most useful, of all garden tools.
Bill Vossler has published 2,800 magazine articles and begins his 28th year of freelance writing from his home in Rockville, Minnesota, where he lives with his writer-wife Nikki Rajala, and their nervous cat, Duchess.
Quotes on the Hoe
“To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds, and watch the renewal of life – this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do.”
— Charles Dudley Warner (American editor and author, 1829-1900)
“Once while St. Francis of Assisi was hoeing his garden, he was asked, ‘What would you do if you were suddenly to learn that you were to die at sunset today?’ He replied, ‘I would finish hoeing my garden.’”
“The neighbor’s field is easy to hoe.”
— African proverb
“Earth is here so kind (Australia), that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.”
— Douglas Jerrold (English humorist, playwright and journalist, 1803-1857)
“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”— Henry David Thoreau (American author, poet and philosopher, 1817-1862)