Review of MacFadyen, Flax Americana

"Gathering Flax," Autumn Time in Canada. Postcard by Warick Bros. and Rutter, Toronto, ca.1910.

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Joshua MacFadyen, Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil That Covered a Continent (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018). 368 pgs, ISBN 9780773553477.

Reviewed by Joe Anderson.

Flax Americana is an ambitious story of farm and factory, laboratory and research station, legislature and the farm press, as well as East and West. Author Joshua MacFadyen, NiCHE veteran and currently Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities and Associate Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, shows how place mattered in the growth of North American capitalism, demonstrating the ways the flax industry grew in the Great Lakes region, the fields of Palliser’s Triangle, and the Dakotas. The author connects this geography with the productive labour of First Nations people as well as the schemes of promoters from Minneapolis to Ottawa. Rejecting the linear nature of commodity chain analysis as a useful framework, MacFadyen employs the concept of commodity webs in order to more accurately reflect the multiple and layered connections between people and places, most notably the connections between people, places, production, and processing across time and space.      

MacFadyen’s thorough and meticulously researched account focuses on the Great Lakes region and the Great Plains from the mid-nineteenth century through 1930, shedding light on the contours of the labour, consumer demand, and, most importantly for the author, geography of flax for fiber and seed. Flax was a marginal crop in Ontario and the eastern U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, in part because flax raising was more labour intensive than other crops and the North American fibre was less desirable than imported linen. Much of the mid-nineteenth century production was used for coarse fabric and cordage that was manufactured in the region’s small cities such as St. Thomas, Ontario. Furthermore, processors relied less on the region’s small farmers than they did on the factor system, in which the the factory owner contracted for the cultivation and harvesting of the crop. Meanwhile, promoters advocated for greater flax production, frequently misrepresenting the realities and challenges of production and markets.

It was linseed oil, not fibre, that opened the door to increased flax production in both Canada and the United States. While linseed oil had been used for generations in making paint, varnish, and as an industrial lubricant, the mid-nineteenth century brought big changes in the use of linseed oil. During these years, linoleum and ready-mixed paints derived from linseed oil gained popularity for the interior and exterior finishes of houses and outbuildings in urban areas. Rural people, by contrast, often hesitated to paint buildings well into the twentieth century, despite appeals by rural reformers to do so. But people in the rapidly growing cities turned to paint and floor coverings as a means of expressing middle-class domesticity. The growth of these cities coincided with the opening of new states and territories in the American Northwest and Canada’s Palliser’s Triangle, making it (sometimes) profitable for farmers in these areas to raise flax.

Dominion Oilcloth and Linoleum Company, “Dominion Linoleum: Bright Home Interiors Add Warmth to Your Welcome.” Canadian Home Journal, February 1922.

Indeed, the role of flax in Great Plains agriculture is one of MacFadyen’s main concerns. Many contemporary commentators explained that flax was an ideal crop for newly broken ground, with better yields in the first one to two years of cultivation than in subsequent years. Ultimately, however, MacFadyen concludes that flax did not disappear after the pioneer period passed. Yes, it was most frequently grown on new breaking as a high yielding crop. Subsequent cropping on the same ground resulted in declining yields, but the environment did not dictate such a decline. MacFadyen points out that in other parts of the world such as Argentina farmers made flax a part of successful rotations and North American farmers could have done the same. On the Great Plains, however, farmers had many choices for crops that would thrive on new breaking as well as old ground. The determining factor, in the author’s telling, was price. As long as flax commanded a favourable price, farmers raised it. When the price was not favourable they chose other crops. 

Farmerettes with harvested flax, ca.1917. Photographer: William James. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 640A.

The depth of research is one of the great strengths of Flax Americana. MacFadyen successfully mined census data and company records to map the changing physical landscape of production without neglecting the social and business networks that made that landscape possible. The maps show the relative importance of flax across time and space, not just complementing the narrative but helping move the account forward.

For all its many strengths, there are times when Flax Americana feels somewhat disjointed or forced, more comprehensive than coherent. The emphasis on production for fiber in the first two chapters, including interesting discussions of the factor system and the importance of First Nations peoples, is somewhat disconnected from the next five chapters. The link between the story of flax for fibre of those early chapters and the balance of the book is James Livingston, who promoted the expansion of flax culture from Ontario into Manitoba in the 1870s and 1880s, but the reader is left wondering about why Livingston expected to find a favorable reception for flax among the Mennonite population of Manitoba. Yes, Livingston was familiar with Mennonites in Ontario, but it would be instructive to know more about the tradition of flax growing among the Mennonites who actually settled in the West. Was Livingston’s outreach effort low-risk based on Mennonite agricultural traditions in Ontario or was he simply speculating on the willingness of new Mennonite arrivals to experiment with a new crop? Furthermore, were native-born farmers more or less likely to grow flax on new ground? A bit more explanation on this cultural dimension of agriculture might actually strengthen the author’s conclusions about the discourse over flax and its role in prairie agriculture.

Flax puller, western Ontario. Library and Archives Canada, Dept. of Interior photographic records (Ontario), PA-048028.

MacFadyen could also provide the reader with a clearer explanation of the argument. The author makes several statements in the introduction regarding what the book is about, but it is difficult to find the one place where he clearly states the unifying idea. By my reckoning, the author concludes that the producers, scientists, policy makers, and processors engaged in a complicated and constantly shifting relationship that provided an ecological opening for flax in the east and west of North America. While the reader learns a great deal about flax and that ever-changing relationship, it would be useful to have a bolder, or at least clearer, statement of the argument.

These criticisms aside, Flax Americana is a laudable work that contributes to environmental history as well as many other subfields of history. Readers will understand the complicated and constantly shifting web of connections that provided such a significant opening for flax. Furthermore, readers will see how that plant and the fibre and oil derived from it did, indeed, cover a continent.

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Joe Anderson

Joe is Professor of History and Associate Dean of Arts at Mount Royal University. He is interested in the intersections of environment, technology, and agriculture.

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