Some Notes about the History of Fishing Hooks
Fish hooks have evolved many times in numerous cultures. The earliest known examples of bent barbless hooks are from the First Egyptian Dynasty (~ 3000 B.C.) and by ~1200 B.C. barbed hooks were in use in Ancient Egypt. We have to reach farther back into more primitive cultures to trace how the fish hook was born.
The first direct antecedent of our fish hook was a device that archeologists call a gorge. These were bits of spindle shaped bone or wood that was notched in the center so a line could be tied to it. A gorge was shoved into a chunk of bait, the fish was allowed to swallow it, and when the line was yanked, the gorge set cross-wise inside the fish and he was hauled in. One of the earliest types of gorge was unearthed 22 feet below the surface in a peat bed in the valley of the Somme in France. It is believed to be about 7000 years ago.
Turning to more modern times we find many examples where native peoples recently used relative primitive fishing equipment. The Eskimos and the bushmen of South Africa were using the gorge even in very recent times. In 1846 Canadian Ojibway people were still known to be using gorges. In fact, there are contemporary examples of all stages of the development of the hook scattered over the earth. South Sea Islanders were making hooks from bits of common wire that were in use when our armed forces visited the Islands while fighting World War II. These are as crude as the earliest single barbless wire hooks unearthed by archaeologists. In some localities a modified gorge had been used to catch eels in the twentieth century.
The progressive development of the hook is seen in artifacts left by the cultures that lived in the Swiss Lakes country. Once this culture began to work with bronze they designed a metal gorge. It was a wire, straight on either side, but with a little hump in the middle where the line was attached, and merely another gorge. This is known as a bricole.
The next change was to give a slight curve to the wire arms of the gorge. This is the beginnings of the curve that was later to shape into a hook. Then some ancient artisan twisted the wire so an eye was formed in the center. It was just a step from that to lengthening the two arms of the gorge, making the curve greater, and the shaping of a definite hook on either side of the central eyelet.
Archeologists believe that the idea for making a barb on the hooks was derived from the spear. Barbs gave the hooks more holding power just as a barbed point was harder for an animal to dislodge. The ancient bronze hook, single and barbed, is in its shape and design the same that we use today. The people who built their houses on pilings above waters of the Swiss lakes and fashioned hooks from bronze are believed to have lived there at least twenty centuries ago. The Egyptian barbed hook was in use before this time but the artifacts from the Swiss lake dwellings present a nicely documented series of changes from gorge to single hook. This process was likely repeated in other cultures, with development of the various next-steps dependent on factors like contemporary technological development, lifestyle, and interactions with other societies.
In ancient times hooks were made individually by local artisans. Since there was no method of mass production they were likely made to order or made in small lots for later sale or barter.
Sport angling in England began to take hold after Dame Juliana wrote "The Bake of St. Albans" in 1486. We can speculate that with increased interest in sport angling there was a greater demand for a supply of hooks to meet the developing market. The craftsmen best able to produce quantities of hooks at that time were needle makers. Hooks are essentially bent needles fitted with a barb.
Large scale mass production of fish hooks was first began and then dominated by England and Scandinavia manufacturers. This started when the first stamping machine that drilled eyes in needles was put in operation in England in 1826. Norwegian and Swedish fish hook makers, working in England around that time, then returned to their native lands with their skills. In 1832 the famous Mustad Company was founded at Oslo. Many of the processes that had been done by hand in the English factories began to be performed by machines that were later developed in Scandinavia.
Mass Production of Hooks
Many years ago making fish hooks was a labor intensive, multi-step process. The old hand-process served as the foundation for modern hook production but never approached the consistently high quality (and cheap cost) hooks we use today.
Here is a little step through the process of how hooks were once produced.
It began with round steel wire being fed through a hole in a metal block and the to-be-cut end set upon the top of a second block. The distance between the two blocks determined the length of hook from eye to point and could be varied to produce longer or shorter hooks. A blade was used to sheared off the measured length of wire.
The second step involved making the barb. The cut length of wire was laid on a steel block, a chisel-edged tool was applied to the wire at a fixed point, and a sharp blow on the chisel nicked into the wire to make the barb.
The wire now was annealed, so it would be soft, by heating it to a low redness and allowing it to cool slowly. The barbed but blunt end of the hook was then laid on a small anvil and another blow with a die split it into two points. The one on the barb side was ground or filed off. Then the easily-bent hook was laid on a block that had a raised form around which the hook could be bent to shape it. Different blocks were used to produce a definite type of bend, such as a Sneck or Sproat hook. The eye or other method of attachment was then formed on the blunt end of the shank.
The metal, still relatively soft, was then hardened. The hooks were put in heavy sheet iron dishes, thrust into ovens, brought to a cherry-red heat, and dumped into oil. At this stage they were hard but brittle. The hooks then were heated in sand in a heavy iron, skillet-like utensil. When they reached what was believed to be the right temperature to combine toughness with hardness, they were removed and cooled. If the hardening process was carried too far, the steel burned and all hooks in the batch would be brittle. If not heated enough the steel would be soft and easily straightened.
The tempered hooks were placed in a revolving drum that tumbled them about to remove scale from the surface. The hooks were then given their final touches and lacquered.
As a check on their quality the hooks were placed on a block fitted with little pegs that held the point and bend tightly. An inspector would take hold of the shank and spring it to a given angle marked on the block. If the shank or any part of the hook broke it was done. If the shank did not have the resilience to spring back in line because the tempering had left the metal too soft it was also discarded.
Reading old fishing literature one can encounter references to hooks that broke because they were too brittle. Other hooks straightened out because they were too soft. The old hand-workmen hadn't judged the tempering color just right, or the inspector had allowed poor hooks to pass the final test.
Fishermen are a finicky lot. Enthusiasts will trim the wings or hackles of a certain fly, add or subtract some shred of colored feather, or tie a pattern that has some infinitesimal variation from an existing pattern. Anglers once used to work over the shape and design of hooks in a similar way. The curvature in the bend, length of the barb, or shape of the point of a barb were altered and combined in various ways. There were many, many styles of hooks made. Some of those that became standards still exist even today.