The Future of Object-ivity

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).

One of the talks that I’m using now, these many months later, was McCalla’s paper, “Iron in a ‘wooden age’: Hardware purchases by some Upper Canadian country buyers, 1808-1861.”  His recent material is built around the purchases of 750 people who bought over 400 different commodities in country stores, and it corrects the oft-told story of self-sufficiency in pre-Confederation Canada. People bought a surprising amount of what they used, and they changed their buying patterns very little over this period.

Of all the hardware and chemical items discussed, the most important to my thinking was paint, and the linseed oil, lead, and colours used to make it. It seems these commodities were actually rare in all but the richest urban homes, as mixing and applying paint was a skilled trade and pre-mixed paint was unavailable before mid century. Even linseed oil was sold in surprisingly low quantities and suggests that wooden age’s wood was rarely painted or protected. The consumption talk quite coincidentally fell on Buy Nothing Day 2007, an event that I find a welcome protest to consumer excess but one sometimes built on historical misconceptions of a time when people bought nothing.

If people didn’t buy much colour, or at least not in the way paint is selected and applied today, it wasn’t because they were mixing it up at home.  My research has found that even in the late nineteenth century, mixing and applying paint from linseed oil and pigments was beyond what the average farm family had time, skill, or money to afford.  If they did spend money on coverings it was probably for small or high traffic surfaces such as window sashes, doors, and floors, and for expensive vehicles exposed to the weather like carriages and sleighs.

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