The blog includes notes and notions on everything from the people, places, and ideas I came across in the course of my research to the objects and actors in my study of industrialized flax production. Focusing on the ‘microhistory’ of flax and its producers and consumers is a useful way to tell meaningful stories and rethink our models for understanding commodity chains and everyday productive processes.

At this point I have limited my focus to flax’s two commodity chains (fibre and linseed oil) between the mid 19th Century and the Great Depression. Even so, it is impossible to find all of the ways even such a small commodity fit into ordinary people’s lives, and I would love to hear your flax stories from all periods and places.

Flax History

Flax is a useful device for examining people’s relationships with objects at various stages of a product’s commodity chain. The plant has come to represent a world in which people made their own consumer goods apart from the inputs of Pulling Flax for Fibre, Ontario, 1919marketplaces. Yeomen farmers, passionate about their independence and ability, planted flax and had their wives and children spin it into linen for use in the home. To the extent that this was true it was only a reality in the Thirteen Colonies and perhaps in New France. By the nineteenth century, flax was seldom used for homespun. When flax fibre was grown in large amounts it was in a few concentrated places and for industrial products that seldom returned to the same farms. Yet the mechanization of flax processing was far from a simple transition from home to factory production and farmers did not lack an intimate knowledge of the objectPulling Flax for Fibre, Ontario, 1910 or the commodity it became at the mill. The finished goods made from local flax were goods for rural consumers. Millers possessed the knowledge that made the flax industry work, but they relied on the experience of local and itinerant work gangs for efficient harvesting. Farmers participated in the commodity chain in several ways: some helped process the flax before selling it to the mill whereas others rented their land and labour to flax millers. Government and farm experts promoted the industry, especially during the American Civil War, but had little influence.

Farmers’ connection to the object looked much different in the flax seed commodity chain. Here the finished good was an oil used in surface coverings. The major differences were that manufacturers followed flax Dominion Linseed Oil Company, Baden, early 20th centuryproduction instead of directing it, and the farmers were now extensive seed producers rather than intensive fibre growers. Demand for a new commodity, ready mixed paint, created a new agri-commodity chain. Linseed oil corporations grew in scale and scope along with most other business structures of the late nineteenth century. Farmers had nothing to do with the crop after selling it to grain merchants and may not have know much about its final destination, but this had been the case since the first industrial linseed oil production and long before the rise of corporate capitalism. If we examine what ordinary producers knew about flax seed production we see two different areas of knowledge, one that required a quick response to market prices and another tied closely to land use patterns and environmental adaptation.Flax (standing) at Joe Bellas’ homestead shack, Alderson, Alberta, 1911

By studying flax’s commodity chain, I have found that there was no simple transition from a period when producers had intimate knowledge of their material to a time when people stood aloof from the commodities they created and consumed. Colonial flax growers relied on many commercial inputs of goods and labour to create linen and cordage. Later, when an industrial system for flax manufacturing appeared in the mid 19th Century, farmers were involved in some advanced stages of the commodity chain. They took some of their processed flax home from the mill as payment for their crops, and they changed their cultivation patterns to reflect the changing market and growing demand for seed over fibre. The final strands of the fibre industry changed very little in the twentieth century, and flax’s new commodity chain, linseed oil, shows that the farmer was market responsive from the beginning and a complex agent of environmental change.


Websites: Flax and GIS: A Case Study of Waterloo County

Tell Your Flax Stories