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.