Planting Paint: A history of Canada’s other oil
For my recent publications on flax history including new pieces on oilseed agribusiness in the Great Plains and flax fibre in Upper Canada see Research & Publications.
Ecologists argue that everything is connected to everything else, and environmental history tells us that this is true over time as well as across space. Your morning margarine comes to you not just from the Canola fields of the Northern Great Plains and Prairies, but from the choices consumers made in the past. My first book manuscript (in press at McGill-Queen’s University Press) is a study of flax in North America, a plant closely connected to Eastern manufacturing and western agriculture.
In the early twentieth century the country’s most important oilseed was flax, but when Canadian linseed oil declined it laid a foundation for one of the largest agri-industries in Canada and the largest oilseed industry in the world – Canola and other edible triglycerides. Thus, the margarine and canola oil we consume everyday exists because — through a long and complex process of commodity history — urban middle class consumers decided they would like to paint their houses and Prairie farmers decided to plough a few million acres of grasslands to produce flax seed for that paint. The Canadian oilseed sector was made possible in part by the early flax industry and the urban consumption of colour. Everything is connected, and the story of flax shows some of the ways industrial commodities connected people across the concession road, over the Canadian-American border, and around the world of global industrial commodities.
An industrial commodity web
Flax is a useful device for examining people’s relationships with industrial commodities. The plant has come to represent a world in which people made their own consumer goods apart from the inputs of marketplaces. 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 object 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 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 web. Here the most important product was linseed oil, an oil used in surface coverings such as paint and linoleum. The major differences were that manufacturers followed flax production 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 thirst for flax seed from the newly ploughed grasslands of the West. 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.
By studying flax’s commodity web, 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 took some of their processed flax home from the mill as payment for their crops. 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 most important new product, linseed oil, shows that the farmer was market responsive from the beginning and a complex agent of environmental change.
Just the flax, dot com
My first blog, FlaxHistory.com, included 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.
My book manuscript examines the two sides of the commodity web (fibre and linseed oil) emerging from the flax plant between the mid 19th Century and the 1950s when synthetics began to replace both fibre and oil. 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.
Tell Your Flax Stories