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What is a Pitchfork?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A pitchfork is an agricultural implement which is used to handle materials such as hay, straw, and manure. The implement consists of a series of forked tines on the end of a long handle, with the number of tines varying, depending on the use the pitchfork is designed for. One of the classic uses of the pitchfork is in throwing (or pitching) hay, but these tools can be used for a variety of purposes, and they are a common sight around farms and large gardens.

This tool appears to have its origins in the Middle Ages. The term “pitchfork” appeared around the 1300s, and is derived from the Middle English pichen, which means “to throw.” Pitchforks rapidly became a popular tool among farmers, and this implement came to be associated with farming and hand labor. Images of this tool in art are often used as a reference to hard work and farming, taking advantage of its iconic status.

The pitchfork is also associated with angry mobs. Some historians surmise that since farmers were not allowed to own weapons in some eras or couldn't afford weapons in others, they had to use whichever farming implements were handy, and the pitchfork could stand in as a very effective weapon. When defending their lands, a mob of farmers with pitchforks could be as effective as armed men. Likewise, rioting farmers protesting living or working conditions could have carried the pitchfork as a reminder of the type of work that they do, and as a form of self protection.

The number of tines on a pitchfork can vary from two to six, and the spacing may be variable as well. The tines can be straight to slightly curved, and they are typically thick so that they can withstand heavy use. Like many farm implements, a pitchfork is designed with a detachable head so that as the handle wears down, a new handle can be fitted to the head of the implement. This can also be used to attach longer or shorter handles for varying uses. Changing the handle length can greatly increase the ergonomics, making it safer, easier, and more comfortable to use.

The design of the pitchfork looks superficially similar to that of the trident, a type of spear used historically for fishing and associated with the Greek Gods. However, pitchforks and tridents are designed for different uses, with the format of the tines being slightly different to reflect this.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By everetra — On Aug 09, 2011

@allenJo - Yeah, those images have become stapes in popular culture. I actually think the idea was influenced by the Greek gods and goddesses using pitchforks, like the article says. Sometimes you find that a lot of religious imagery is blend of religious and mythological ideas tossed together.

By allenJo — On Aug 08, 2011

@sherlock87 - I know next to nothing about farm life, but have often seen depictions of the devil with a pitchfork.

These images have become iconic and have woven themselves into popular culture. I am not sure where the idea originated; I don’t think it’s in the Bible. I am guessing that it arose out of the Medieval Ages where a lot of religious and iconic images and themes were developed.

I suppose the pitchfork is a symbol of torture in this regard and therefore appropriate to the depiction of the devil and his minions. Perhaps if the images were being created today some other more modern implement might be the chosen symbol.

By sherlock87 — On Aug 08, 2011

I like the mention of pitchforks as weapons. The idea of the angry mob going against a monster or vampire comes to mind. While most people probably don't believe those sorts of legends, I bet it really happened to some people even if they were just ordinary people who were outcasts.

I certainly would not want to mess with a bunch of people with pitchforks.

By afterall — On Aug 07, 2011

Pitchforks are such weirdly iconic instruments. I had some friends in college who took a bunch of goofy pictures with one, trying to imitate Grant Wood's American Gothic painting, and doing other things. It just seems to be such a symbol of "farm life", I guess.

My parents have one, but when I was little I didn't think it was that interesting at the time, we just used it to garden.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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