New book follows the role and history of flax in a rapidly industrializing North America

Flax Americana, by UPEI’s Dr. Joshua MacFadyen, is published by McGill Queen’s University Press
Thursday, November 1, 2018
Flax Americana is published by McGill Queen’s University Press

A new book by Dr. Joshua MacFadyen, an associate professor in the Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture program in the Faculty of Arts at UPEI, examines the story of flax, a plant that went in a few decades from a specialty crop to one of the most commercially important farming products in a rapidly industrializing North America. Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil that Covered a Continent is published by McGill Queen’s University Press.

Flax Americana touches on topics as diverse as Canadian Mennonites making homespun linen, escaped slaves and First Nations labourers participating in Ontario’s industrial transformation, and oilseed empires driving precarious agriculture into North and South American grasslands for the production of a luxury good—paint,” explained Dr. MacFadyen. “However, the book is really about what a deep dive into a single plant and the places that produced it can tell us about the emergence of commodity frontiers, industrial capitalism, and the modern world itself.”

From the publisher’s website:

“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 dry-land 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.”

Congratulations, Dr. MacFadyen!

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