Saturday, March 1, 2014

A History of the Fish Hook by Hans Jorgen Hurum

Why I Read It: Why not? Any marine theme is in bounds, and this microhistory seemed about as interesting as anything else I had on the shelf at the moment.

Summary: The history of the hook as seen through the story of the Norwegain hook-making firm O. Mustad & Son.

My Thoughts: As with anything in the history of our planet, it turns out there's a lot more than meets the eye when one delves deeply into the story of the fish hook.

The author, an avid fisherman, does an excellent job at cataloguing for us the ancient hooks of the world's archaeological collections, showing us that they have been made from all sorts of materials, including plants. Perhaps the most harrowing fish hook tale comes from Easter Island. The people who lived there with little at their disposal used human bone for their hooks. Conjecture has even arisen that some of the human sacrifices that took place on the island may have been because the current stock of hooks was low and that the community needed it replenished for survivial. (To which, of course, I respond, "Hey, I know a few fishermen today who would go that route...").

While the book eventually trails into the history of the Mustad family and its super-secret hook-making operation - hidden rooms in factories like those with Mustad just complete the circuit; fishermen don't like to tell you where they fish, what bait they use, etc. - it covers as well some interesting generalities about the history of the endeavor. For instance, although he only hints at this idea, it's pretty easy to see that Mustad knows one thing we don't. Fishermen the world over are highly superstitious. Okay, we know that, but what they know is that fishermen in Cuba may order hooks with a specific barb tip and those in Florida may order them with a different tip because they know that it works better to catch the same fish. He describes international fishing tournaments in which fishermen are lined up along the banks of a river all using different hooks to catch the same fish. So what does Mustad do? It caters. At one point (the book was published in 1976) the company manufactured 108,000 varieties of hooks. How do you get rich in this industry? Listen to your clients.

There are other strange theories out there. The author proposes the notion that if the reversal of the trend of the decline in whales is not possible then we should consider a silver lining. More krill for human consumption! Of course, though, forty years later, krill are dying out, too. And then there's the story of the British gentleman who lined his clothing with fish hooks so that pickpockets would either get ripped or caught while attempting to get at him in London.

Off the beaten path, yes, but a fun read nonetheless, highly illustrated and with that twist of being of Norwegian origin, and not American.


  1. John,
    Didn't think I was going to leave a comment on this, but then I looked at the name Mustad and realized there was a company with that name in the nearby town of Bloomfield, CT. According to their history, the Bloomfield Mustad is part of the larger Mustad company. The part of the company in Bloomfield focuses on Equine Hoofcare (I guess it follows - you do use a kind of hook to clean hooves).

    The part of the history that I found particularly interesting was that after WWII, 2/3 of the company "disappeared behind the Iron Curtain".

    Don't know if you saw my email, but you have to read the book I recommended, "Unbroken". The movie is coming out in December.


  2. They manufactured many different products, but oddly enough, the book tells a story about a salesman giving out free samples to people in Africa who then fight over them so that they may be used to pull out sand worms from under their toenails!

    Got your email - I've been on several book deadlines at once, and neglecting my correspondence - sorry! Thanks so much for the suggestion.

  3. Ick!

    No worries about the email. I just hope that when you get to it that you find the book as interesting as I did.