The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) has recorded several talks from the Canadian Historical Association’s 2009 annual meeting at Carleton University and made them available as podcasts.  My paper was titled “Mennonites and Mixed Paint: Canada’s Flax Commodity Chain, 1850-1900.”  It examined how the image of flax production as a Mennonite folkway and quest for self sufficiency was created in the late nineteenth century, and how participation in markets for luxury goods like linseed oil and paint allowed Mennonites to maintain a distinct culture.

A direct link to the audio file (.mp3) is available here.


This website has been dormant since the summer of 2008, due to some sudden family expansion, but now it’s time to revive historical object-ivity with updates from my travels and recent work in the flax-paint commodity chain.  A good prompt was a recent comment recieved here from a woman who found a “mastere oljeslagaren” in her family history.  Sounds mysterious, but the occupation was named something similar in North America: linseed oil crusher.  I also kept quite busy last year with conferences around Guelph and abroad, and this semester kicks off a new series of the rural history roundtable.

The roundtable is a florescent discussion of historical objects and rural history at the University of Guelph.  In the first talk of 2009, Dr. Catharine Wilson introduced the plow as an object valued for its function more than its fashioning; its main role might have been turning sod for commodity production, but it was also used to create and perpetuate rural masculinity.  Plowing matches became a celebration of a man’s physical strength and agricultural skill, and a way to teach boys what Wilson calls a gendered art form.

The series in 2007-2008 included talks by Guelph professors Dr. Doug McCalla and Dr. Susan Nance, visiting scholar and PhD candidate Claiton de Silva, and professors of history Dr. Ruth Sandwell (OISE/Toronto), Dr. Joy Parr (UWO), Dr. Royden Loewen (U Winnipeg), and finall Dr. Marvin McInnis (Queens). Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday I received an interesting question from someone in New York City. She came across a reference to a “flaxwife” in The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh (2008), and asked if I knew what it meant.

The word is pretty rare, and I hadn’t come across it before now.  It’s not in the OED, but I notice that Words, Names, and History by Cecily Clark (1995, 66) includes it in a list of medieval English surnames based on female trades. Perhaps Linebaugh’s reference is to a rather fun Elizabethan story of community vigilantism, where a “flaxwife” and sixteen of her female friends cudgel a cozening collier (see Alexander Smith, Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727, 2002, pp. 146-148).

Presumably a flaxwife was any woman who was skilled in linen making, i.e. scutching, hackling, and spinning flax, and who did it for a living. The word likely took other meanings, and may even have been connected to the word “flaxen” which meant blond or white. Thanks for the question, and I would be happy to get any suggestions for additional meanings or references.  Feel free to add a comment to this post or send me an email.

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