What is the significance of the short-handled hoe and how did people use it?
Hoes, of course, are used for cultivation, for getting rid of weeds, for thinning crops, working in the fields. The short-handled hoe is sort of an interesting story. Usually hoes have handles that are about four or five feet long and you can stand up and use the hoe without bending over. The short-handled hoe has an 18-inch long handle and people theorized that they started to arrive in the United States around 1880 or 1890. It's a little unclear but possibly coming into California with Chinese or Japanese agricultural workers.
The short-handled hoe in terms of American history has its real importance as really a tool of oppression, that the owners of row crops, so things like lettuce, sugar beets, celery would demand in California that their workers use a short-handled hoe. This meant that the workers had to stoop over, bending their back working in the field. The one idea was that by being closer to plants, they would be more accurate in their cultivation. It pretty clearly was a means of exercising control, that by forcing them to stoop over, it showed who was really in control. It also became a tradition and traditions are very difficult to break and it becomes a question of who has the power to break the tradition, but short-handled hoes were not in use all across the country. You don't see them on the east coast. You don't see them throughout most of the south. You don't see them in Michigan even for same crops like sugar beets that are grown in Colorado, in Michigan and California. Only in California did you see people using the short-handled hoe.
The short-handled hoe is used primarily by people in California, a little bit in Arizona, not to any degree that I'm aware of in Texas, and it would be used for crops where you need to do cultivation, so sugar beets and row crops would be where you'd be doing it. Cotton needs to be cultivated, but not to the same degree. Fruit, pruning of fruit trees, picking up citrus, and fruit, you, of course, wouldn't need a hoe, so there are a variety of different tools for different areas. We have a little machete that was used to harvest broccoli. We have a short knife used by a bracero that was for cutting grapes in the wine industry, but literally hundreds of thousands of braceros worked in the row crops, worked in Salinas, worked in the San Joaquin Valley and row crops were tremendously important and as such, the short-handled hoe started to have this iconic status that made it a symbol that really stands for their experience.
Interview with Peter Liebhold, National Museum of American History, May 31, 2006.