Abstract: Threads in a Web of Trade: Reciprocity and Flax in the United States and Canada

Joshua D. MacFadyen


In the mid-nineteenth century a small but elaborate flax fibre industry connected Ontario farmers and textile and cordage mills in Massachusetts and New York state. The first Canadian flax mills appeared just as the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty eliminated the U.S. tariff on their products. Flax milling expanded during the American Civil War, but Reciprocity and the War fail to explain why the largest mill's output moved away from the fibre that would supposedly replace southern cotton and toward a manufacturing business that began to prepare flax goods prohibited by American tariffs and suitable only for local markets. Ontario's flax fibre industry continued to expand, despite the abrogation of Reciprocity in 1866 and a steadily increasing American tariff on unmanufactured flax. This study of business account books and trade journals shows that a better explanation for the early success of Canadian flax milling includes transnational networks of trade and industrial knowledge and the growing market for intermediate flax products in the Canadian manufacturing sector.