Flaxen: From Flax to Linen in the Willamette Valley, Oregon

Caterpillar-drawn flax puller, head on, 1930s, OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection

  • Family-friendly
  • Researchers
  • Teachers
  • Hearing-impaired Friendly

This photography exhibit features reproductions of hand-tinted glass lantern slides from the Oregon Historical Society’s Portland Public School (PPS) Collection. From harvesting and retting to combing and weaving, the images — all dating from the early 1930s — document how flax was grown and processed to make fabric. The slides were shown to schoolchildren to illustrate various Oregon industries and, in this case, children learned about making towels and napkins at the Oregon Linen Mill in Salem.

A direct descendant of magic lantern programs of the mid 1800s, the 4” x 3” slides consist of a black and white positive image sandwiched between two pieces of glass. Color was applied manually or using a stencil directly on the emulsion. Eventually replaced by Eastman slide film by the 1940s, these slides were used in classrooms, lecture halls, and theaters around the country through most of the first half of the twentieth century.

When PPS originally produced the slides, farmers had hoped that flax would become a cornerstone crop of Oregon’s agricultural industry. Despite a fertile growing area and government support — including a flax processing plant built at the state penitentiary in 1915 — the industry collapsed after World War II. Since that time, there has been continued interest and excitement in reviving the crop in Oregon.

Field of flax being pulled. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Field of flax being pulled. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Caterpillar drawn flax puller, head on. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Caterpillar drawn flax puller, head on. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Model flax puller. Detail of how flax is steered to slots gripped by belts and pulled up incline to binder. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Model flax puller. Detail of how flax is steered to slots gripped by belts and pulled up incline to binder. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Pulling and binding flax into bundles to send to mill. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Pulling and binding flax into bundles to send to mill. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Pulled flax in shocks for drying and curing, 1930s. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection

Pulled flax in shocks for drying and curing, 1930s.

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Large load of flax in field ready to go to factory in Salem. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Large load of flax in field ready to go to factory in Salem. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Sheds for storing flax, state flax industry. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Sheds for storing flax, state flax industry. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Flax brought to be deseeded and bundled for retting vat. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Flax brought to be deseeded and bundled for retting vat. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Deseeding machines separate seed from straw and bird straw for retting vats. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Deseeding machines separate seed from straw and bird straw for retting vats. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retting vats. Bacterial action neutralizes gum and permits separation of fiber from straw. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retting vats. Bacterial action neutralizes gum and permits separation of fiber from straw. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Loading retting vats before filling with water. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Loading retting vats before filling with water. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retting vats filled with straw and water and covered with timbers. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retting vats filled with straw and water and covered with timbers. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retted flax straw wigwamed for drying. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Retted flax straw wigwamed for drying. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Close up of automatic scotching machine which separates straw from fiber. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Close up of automatic scotching machine which separates straw from fiber. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Sorting and grading before sending to spinning mill, 1930s, OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection

Sorting and grading before sending to spinning mill, 1930s.

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Mechanical dryer for shorn fiber. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Mechanical dryer for shorn fiber. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Hackling machine combs fiber, taking out tangles. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Hackling machine combs fiber, taking out tangles. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Winding flax and preparing for the looms. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Winding flax and preparing for the looms. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Beaming machine preparing yarn for warps for loom. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Beaming machine preparing yarn for warps for loom. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Weaving towels and napkins, Oregon Linen Mills. OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859

Weaving towels and napkins, Oregon Linen Mills. 

OHS Research Library, Portland Public School Collection, Org. Lot 859