Pitchforks and pine tar

One of the more common images brought up when people are said to be fed up with the establishment and starting to revolt is when the pitchforks come out along with the tar and feathers. This image harks back to a time when most people lived on farms and most stuff was made by hand.

Pitchforks are of course farming tools, used to lift or pitch stuff like leaves, hay and rubbish into barns, wagons or composters. The number of tines on the pitchfork can vary from three or four to as many as ten depending on what it is being used for.


This is the pitchfork my late father always used. As you can see, it has had a long hard life. I can remember him using this to turn over soil in the garden when I was very little. Given his parsimonious nature, it’s very likely he got it second hand so the fork is probably close to seventy years old. It’s a bit bent and has a fine patina of rust beginning to form on it, but it still has its uses. I use it mainly to stir around stuff in my composter. Since the metal part is cast iron and the handle solid wood, it’s a bit on the hefty side. Should I be inclined to join a revolt, I will probably opt to use one of the lighter cheapie versions sold at Home Depot or Walmart, just to save some wear and tear on my shoulders.

Tar and feathering has long been a popular method of publicly humiliating troublemakers and incompetent politicians, used in conjunction with riding them out of town on a rail (fencing rail, that is). Commonly associated with colonial America, it actually dates back to medieval times as a rough and ready way to deal out justice. It’s important to point out that the tar used for this is not roofing tar which is a petroleum derived product but is actually pine tar.

Pine tar has a long history of many uses, mainly as a preservative for wood and surprisingly a treatment for various skin ailments. It was a frequent ingredient in shampoos for dandruff and soaps for eczema. What makes it as useful as a medium for punishment is the fact that it is very sticky which anyone who has come in contact with pine pitch will know. This made it a good base for the feathers to be glued onto the unfortunate victim and no doubt made it nearly impossible to scrub off afterwards. You had to wait for it to wear off, compounding the humiliation.

Making pine tar, turpentine and similar substances requires a tree which produces resin. Conifers such as cedars, hemlocks, pines and cypresses are all good sources of resin. The Eastern White pine is the most common type around where I live. The majority that I see are second or third growth pines but there are a few more venerable specimens here and there. This one is located near the local high school. It looks to be well over 50 feet tall and is probably around 80 or 90 years old. As long as lightning, high winds or an ambitious logger doesn’t take trees like this out, they can live for many centuries.

White pines provide other useful products such as wood for dwellings, barns, fencing and were once highly valued for masts on sailing ships. As already noted, it has medicinal applications, not just for dandruff but for coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis and chest congestion. The needles are a good source of vitamin C when made into a tea. Even the inner bark is edible, though it may be an acquired taste given that it comes from wood.

They are useful enough so it is worth planting a small grove of them on the back forty (if you have the land that is.) As the production of petroleum declines, resinous conifers like the white pine will regain their value as sources of tar and turpentine. Early settlers routinely made their own and there are plenty of sources both online and in books giving instructions on how to make these products.

Still there’s no beating the old-fashioned entertainment value of tar and feathering your favorite rant-and-rave target. Up until now it looked as if the Orange One was headed for a slathering. However it appears that the governor of New Jersey has now overtaken him with an approval rating already down to 15 percent and a ‘Beachgate’ scandal that is bound to make his popularity tank even further. I have no doubt the POTUS will try to top him, though with what makes me shudder to think. How low will it all go before the tar and feathers finally come out? My recommendation is to stock up on popcorn and wait.

And buy a pitchfork just in case.