In his diary George Washington shares stories of several great catches that include a dolphin and shark in Barbados, a legendary catfish in the Ohio Country, and trout and perch during the recess of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.
It seems as though America’s first president was a commendable angler.
When Washington practiced fishing as a leisure activity or means of sustenance on the frontier (as opposed to the large-scale, commercial fishing practice he established at Mount Vernon on the banks of the Potomac), a few trusty tools were always tucked inside his tackle box.
These included the hand-wrought hooks, horsehair and silk fishing lines, and wax that can be found in the Washington kit that is in Mount Vernon’s possession today. It’s unknown whether the “Fishing Case for the Pocket – properly furnished with Line &ca” that Washington ordered from London in 1762, is the same kit. Even if it is, it’s extremely unlikely that all of its content is original, as hooks were often lost and lines broken in pursuit of a catch. Washington would have replaced the components over time.
The tackle box and content from London is described in Washington’s invoices as “1 fishing Reel compleat,” which suggests that it came with several hooks already hung on lines. Hooks were typically purchased already attached, or snelled, to the line, and were described as “ready hung” in period advertisements. It’s unlikely that Washington would have known how, or taken the time to snell his own hooks. Once they came undone, they would no longer have been usable to the novice and would have been set aside.
These hooks were made of iron or steel and were protected from corrosion by bluing (a process that creates a thin, blue-colored finish on the surface of the metal) or japanning (a process in which the metal is coated with varnish and paint). The tackle box and lid were made from tinned sheet iron that had been japanned as well, and the black fishing line was made of horsehair, the green one of silk.
The materials that constituted Washington’s fishing gear may be different from those used today, but the ultimate outcome of their use — a productive or relaxing fishing trip — has remained the same throughout centuries.
On June 12, 1790, the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper reported on the president’s fishing expedition near Sandy Hook, New Jersey “where he had been for the benefit of the sea air and to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass and black fish.”
Washington’s fishing tackle box and accompanying hooks and line can be viewed in the Elizabeth and Stanley DeForest Scott Gallery in Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.
Object Spotlight is a regular feature on George Washington Wired that highlights some of the household belongings that Washington came into contact with. Curatorial research associate Amanda Isaac contributed to this report. Check out Mount Vernon’s eMuseum to find more of Washington’s belongings.
Tackle box and tackle: Gift of Camille E. Bryan, 1958; W-2201/A-Y.