In the colonial era linen and flaxseed were fundamental to the mercantile life of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia’s linen and flaxseed market extended from the farthest point of settlement, Fort Pitt, to the fields of England and Ireland. Traveling in a circle of trade across the north Atlantic, these goods forged relationships among colonial farmers, backcountry shopkeepers, and British mercantile credit systems.
Flaxseed agriculture and flaxseed exporting began in the 1730s, a relatively late but very important colonial export. It was a key supplement to flour as farmers could diversify their crops and use the residual useful elements such as linseed oil, flaxseed cake, and the remaining plant fiber to make rough linen for home use. Colonists sent flaxseed to the north of Ireland, where farmers then grew the fibrous plant essential in weaving linen, which was then was traded back to Philadelphia. In Ireland, when farmers cultivated flax, they pulled the entire two-to-three-foot high, green, slim plants from the ground by the roots before seeds developed. This created the softest, highest quality fibers as well as a need to import seed for the next crop.
The flaxseed trade dominated the port of Philadelphia’s exports to Ireland from November to February. Flaxseed shipments were in the hands of many small traders and farmers who sold other grains, such as clover, timothy seed, and wheat. Linen importers were general dry goods traders, not specialists in linen. Direct linen exports from Ireland to North America were small in the early years, but by the 1740s textiles were half of all imports from England into Pennsylvania.
Raw Materials in Short Supply
From the earliest years of colonization, Philadelphia imported linen from Europe because local production could never fill the Delaware Valley’s needs. Raw materials were always in short supply, and less than ten percent of the population had weaving equipment. Spun linen thread and textiles produced in the region were always rough, and workers did not improve the quality over time. Despite rhetoric promoting domestic manufacturing, most factory plans failed because they lacked funding and labor was too expensive. The Philadelphia region was artisanal, with small batch production well into the late-nineteenth century. Philadelphians manufactured coarse linen mostly in private homes from a patch of hemp or flax. The majority of people in the Delaware Valley wore this common, rough linen (also known as tow) created in the region. Domestically made linen was also versatile for durable household and sail use. Retail shops had a mix of domestically made everyday linen and imported textiles.
The beginning of a shift in trade from linen to cotton occurred after the American Revolution. As speed and volume of production increased with industrialization in the early nineteenth century, cotton became much less expensive. Philadelphians still used Irish linen for shirting, table linen, sailcloth and grain bags, but cotton rivaled the stylings and functionality of linen for dresses, handkerchiefs, and shirts and signaled a new era for textile manufacturing.
Michelle Mormul received her Ph.D. in history at the University of Delaware in 2010. Her research focuses on trade and commerce in the eighteenth century and textile history.