Farmers feed cities, but starting in the nineteenth century they painted them too. Flax from Canada and the northern United States produced fibre for textiles and linseed oil for paint – critical commodities in a century when wars were fought over fibre and when increased urbanization demanded expanded paint markets. Flax Americana re-examines the changing relationships between farmers, urban consumers, and the land through a narrative of Canada's first and most important industrial crop.
Initially a specialty crop grown by Mennonites and other communities on contracts for small-town mill complexes, flax became big business in the late nineteenth century as multinational linseed oil companies quickly displaced rural mills. Flax cultivation spread across the northern plains and prairies, particularly along the edges of dryland settlement, and then into similar ecosystems in South America's Pampas. Joshua MacFadyen's detailed examination of archival records reveals the complexity of a global commodity and its impact on the eastern Great Lakes and northern Great Plains. He demonstrates how international networks of scientists, businesses, and regulators attempted to predict and control the crop's frontier geography, how evolving consumer concerns about product quality and safety shaped the market and its regulations, and how the nature of each region encouraged some forms of business and limited others.
The northern flax industry emerged because of border-crossing communities. By following the plant across countries and over time Flax Americana sheds new light on the ways that commodities, frontiers, and industrial capitalism shaped the modern world.
Tables and Figures vii
Chapter One. The Edge of Industrialization: Finding a Northern Fibre 32
Chapter Two. Everyday Exchanges: Growing and Harvesting Flax in Ontario 65
Chapter Three. Flax Fabrications: Selling the Promoter’s Plant 107
Chapter Four. Covering the Earth: North American Flax and Paint to 1878 139
Chapter Five. Saving the Surface: Flax in the Urban Industrial Complex 162
Chapter Six. Cover Crop: Growing Flax for Linseed Oil and Paint 206
Chapter Seven. Saving Flax: Industry, Science, and the Tariff 244
Joshua MacFadyen in an assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.
"This is an impressive study of an important shift in the North American agrarian economy between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1920s. Readers will appreciate the care with which Joshua MacFadyen presents the environmental, economic and labour implications of this transnational agricultural sector and explores issues with novel methodologies."
– Colin Coates, Glendon College, York University