Sunday, April 19, 2015

Appomattox at 150

I spent three days last week at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park as part of a group of volunteers demonstrating Civil War drill and discussing army life with visitors. Since getting back to the twenty-first-century, I've been thinking a lot about what drew so many people to an out-of-the-way corner of Virginia for the anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Entertaining some young visitors to Appomattox, April 2015.

The anniversary of the surrender, April 9th, was a rainy Thursday, but the park still received thousands of visitors. For some, the attraction was genetic. They had an ancestor "in the war," as they inevitably put it, maybe even one who was there at Appomattox 150 years ago. There were descendants of Ulysses S. Grant and of A.P. Hill, a Confederate general killed only a few days before the surrender. Many more visitors traced their lineage to common soldiers, North and South.

One older visitor stopped me in the street in front of the McLean house, where the surrender took place. "Are you a federal officer?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm portraying a second lieutenant." "Well," he paused, "I'd like you to fill out my parole." With shaking hands, he held out a slip of paper, one of the reproduction parole sheets the Park Service had been printing and distributing all day. I asked him to spell his name and wrote it in the blank space. The form also asked for a company and regiment affiliation. He didn't hesitate when I asked him, so deeply did he feel a connection with a particular historical unit. "Company K," he said, "47th Virginia Infantry."

Many people came not because of any particular ancestor, but because the war has exerted some longstanding hold on their psyches. One middle-aged man remembered growing up around the 100th anniversary of the war. "I've been waiting fifty years for this!" he said. I met people from Connecticut and Tennessee who had spent countless hours on the road to be at Appomattox on April 9th. I spoke with one man from Maine, where he is a docent at a museum built by Civil War veterans. For all their different reasons, people came to stand on this particular, unremarkable patch of ground on an unremarkable Thursday in 2015. And they came in far greater numbers than I expected. Thousands watched as the actor portraying Lee exited the McLean house in midafternoon.

Lee. Win McNamee/Getty Images from here.

As the Lee actor mounted his horse and rode slowly down the lane, between rows of visitors, an older woman behind me leaned forward to stare. She grabbed her husband's arm and spoke with hushed reverence. "Isn't he magnificent?"

And, as humorous as this seemed at the time, I have to admit that it was true. He was magnificent. He was everything we imagine of Lee, stately and serene, even in defeat.

It is my experience that there are two types of Civil War enthusiasts: Lee people and Grant people. Which man we find more compelling says at least as much about us as about them. The two heroes are so different, and perhaps that's what makes their meeting at Appomattox so compelling. The Southern patrician, poised and inscrutable, meets the Northern victor, mud-spattered and casual. Here we have the two great American heroic archetypes: the honorable knight and the self-made cowboy.

Grant and Lee. Autumn Parry, from here.

The reality is more complicated and wonderfully ambiguous. Was Lee such a marble man, or a base hypocrite? Was Grant a salt-of-the-earth military genius, or merely a lucky drunk?

That is, I think, why so many people find the Civil War so fascinating. Nostalgic minds can find all the honor, nobility, and grace they want. They can find stories of good and evil, the triumph of righteousness and the tragedy of the Lost Cause. And those of us more inclined to skepticism can find equally compelling complexities and contradictions at the heart of the story. The real Lee and Grant, after all, are at least as interesting as their mythological versions.

The day after the surrender anniversary, a ceremony recreated the final act of the Army of Northern Virginia, the stacking of arms. As the Confederate reenactors slowly arranged their muskets in pyramidal stacks and piled up their cartridge boxes and bayonets in heaps below, their color-bearers passed ragged banners over the ranks so that each man could grasp the flags one last time before the final surrender. As they marched away, I noticed that many had real tears streaming down their faces.

A Confederate color-bearer passes a flag over a line of troops at Appomattox. Autumn Parry, from here.

This was not melodramatic acting. I've worked with reenactors for years. Deep down and despite the name, most are terrible actors. No, these were genuine emotions, felt by men of 2015 reliving the bittersweet final moments of the war.

The Civil War is at the core of our national creation myth. But we can each make our own myth. When Americans imagine the stately Lee meeting the disheveled Grant in the McLean house, they can see it as a moment of loss or of victory. It was both, after all. And either way, it was a fork in our national road. We struggled mightily over the basic ideas of our society. Appomattox was where we finally settled, or at least began to answer, questions about democracy and slavery, merit and aristocracy, and the shape of our society and nation.

That's why this place matters to so many people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sailing and Sewing aboard the Corwith Cramer

After spending six weeks aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, 23 days of which comprised our Atlantic crossing between Gran Canaria and Dominica, I've been finding it difficult to quantify all that I experienced and learned. I was aboard the Cramer as a guest "voyager," a position that combined the roles of deckhand and visiting scholar. The Cramer is one of two ships operated by the Sea Education Association, an organization that runs semester-long programs for undergraduate students. Their voyages emphasize marine science, maritime skills, and cultural studies that vary based on changing cruise tracks.

I expected to learn about sail handling, knots, celestial navigation, the physical world of shipboard life, and how it feels to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. And I did. But I also learned about meteorology, pelagic birds, and the "plastisphere" that develops around discarded plastics in the ocean. I worked on diesel engines, cooked for a crew of thirty, and examined the many tiny creatures that appeared in our net samples (including such bizarre animals as mesopelagic nudibranchs, phronima amphipods, and megalope). It was easy to get excited about such things because everyone on board was passionate about their field of study, be it engineering, history, sailing, or science. Conversations around the dinner table and on deck moved easily from tall ships to Caribbean politics to the physics of rainbows to the Lego movie. I shared a bit of my own passion in such informal conversations and in a presentation about material culture during one of our daily all-hands meetings.

Talking material culture at sea aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Jeff Schell.

I'm working on several reflective essays about my experience. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss what I worked on in spare moments between standing watch on the voyage: sewing and thinking about how and what sailors sewed at different points in history. During my time aboard the Cramer, I completed a reproduction of a sailor's jacket recovered from the wreck site of the General Carleton, a British vessel that sank in 1785. Historians Lawrence Babits and Matthew Brenckle documented the jacket in a chapter of the archaeological report available here. You'll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses in the images below.

My reproduction of the General Carleton jacket, showing the general fit and wearing options of the garment.

I wanted to sew on board the Cramer as a way of thinking about what it must have been like for sailors aboard earlier ships to make and repair their clothing amidst their many other duties. Shipboard life and labor meant sailors often wore peculiar styles of clothes, garments that distinguished them from other workers. Clothing still matters to sailors. Today's professional tall ship sailors joke about looking like "schooner bums" when in port, and they can still recognize other sailors by the sorts of things they wear.

Ships, historically and today, are cramped places, and people are amazingly creative when they are looking for a place to work. On the Cramer, people played music, wrote in journals, read books, and crafted in their bunks, at the dinner tables in the main salon, on deck, on the "elephant table" (a seven-foot-high platform behind the foremast), and wedged into impossibly small places in the metal and wooden confines of our environment.

Sewing in the fo'c's'le. Photo by Farley Miller.

Today's sailors, much like those of the past, sew out of necessity. I was surprised how often I saw people sewing on board, given that most people I meet on land are unable to sew at all. There are several explanations for why sailors sew. First, every crewmember has only a limited wardrobe and no recourse to a clothing store, so they have to repair damaged garments if they wanted to wear them again.

Sewing in a bunk aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Clothing gets dirty and wears out quickly on board a ship. My own canvas pants, for example, looked like this after only a week's wear:

A week's impact on a pair of pants.

We had no washing machines aboard the Cramer, and so crewmembers laundered clothing in the open air of the deck. On any given morning, a handful of people enjoying their time off watch could be found sitting on the foredeck around small piles of dirty clothes or pinning clean ones up to dry on a line. It's amazing what you can do with two buckets, some soap, and your hands.

A shipboard washing machine aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Drying laundry aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Laundry hanging on the forward rail of the SSV Corwith Cramer.

But there are other explanations for why people sew so much onboard ship besides functional ones. One afternoon, I watched as a sailor patched a pair of Hawaiian-print shorts on the quarterdeck. The cotton was hopelessly torn in multiple places, and several generations of stitches, sewn cloth patches, and adhesive sail patches covered portions of the seat and leg. But these were a favorite garment, and she had worn them through several voyages. Sailors often live and travel with far fewer belongings that most people on land, so some things take on substantial sentimental value.

Sewing on the quarterdeck aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Many of the crew and students on our voyage studied how plastics entered and impacted the world's oceans, and they were especially conscious about the wasteful nature of American consumer culture. All contemporary ships have to be careful with how much waste they generate, because they must transport inorganic trash such as plastics until they find a suitable land depository. We were very careful on the Cramer about what we used and threw away. Crewmembers carefully repaired clothing at sea when such garments might have ended up at Goodwill or the dumpster on land.

Sewing in a bunk aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Depictions of earlier sailors at work and descriptions of their personal effects often include small boxes containing sewing tools. Almost as soon as I began sewing aboard the Cramer, I wished I had brought more small containers. Sewing doesn't take many tools, but even a pair of scissors, some thread, and few needles seems like a lot to keep track of when you don't have much space your whole world is rolling back and forth. I was constantly losing pins, though thankfully all were found by eagle-eyed and patient shipmates, rather than in the soles of some poor sailor's foot late at night.

Sewing a new cover for the bench vise aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Ger Tysk.

The only sewing tool lacked aboard the Cramer was an iron. Historically, irons were just that - bars of iron heated in the coals of a fire or on a stove. I suspect most early sailing ships had one, and my inability to press sewn seams made my Carleton jacket visibly different from the original and other eighteenth-century garments I've examined. A talented shipmate was kind enough to make me a wooden seam rubber, a tool that presses linen seams using pressure rather than heat and steam, but it was ineffective in pressing woolen seamst. The most successful effort occurred when the steward, Nina, and I conspired to heat one of her cast-iron pans in our shipboard oven long enough to get it piping hot and use it as a make-do iron.

Ironing with a skillet aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Photo by Nina Murray.

I had a file of research on the Carleton jacket and brought along all the supplies I would need to recreate it. Other sewing projects on board had less planning behind them. A few hours out of Dominica, we realized that our shipboard stores lacked the flag of that country. Typically, foreign ships visiting a port fly a "courtesy flag" as a gesture of respect to their host. With a small flag identification sheet as our guide, several of us went to work cutting up spare bed sheets and old t-shirts, assembling them into a one-sided rendition of the Dominican flag.

A sewing party at work on our rendition of the flag of Dominica.

Sailing, I learned, is about teamwork. Moving a ship across an ocean requires you to work with the people who happen to be your shipmates. That was true in 1492, and it's true today. The Sea Education Association's motto reminds crewmembers how they should arrange their priorities while on board: "Ship, Shipmate, Self." You arrive on a ship as strangers, and suddenly you are surrounded by the same small group of people without interruption for weeks at a time. You learn about your shipmates' idiosyncrasies, and you put up with their flaws in part because you have no other choice. But more importantly, these people, your shipmates, put up with your own failings. You pick up each others' slack. "Every time you feel like you're pulling more than your own weight," our chief mate told us early in the voyage, "That's good. Because whenever you don't feel that way, someone else does."  

Teamwork is hard work. Working and living together aboard a ship or otherwise can leave people embittered and unfriendly. But sometimes, the unpredictable chemistry of a crew produces a splendid result. The most valuable thing I learned while sailing aboard the Corwith Cramer had less to do with history, biology, metereology, or navigation. I learned that when you surround yourself with good people, anything seems possible. I did much less sewing on personal projects than I expected. But I'm most proud of a project I hadn't planned, that Dominica flag. Where else could you find half a dozen people, most of whom had never sewn a stitch in their lives, ready to drop what they were doing, chop up old rags, and assemble a flag at a moment's notice, all the time smiling? The result, like a good crew, sometimes looks ragged up-close, but when you step back and let the wind do its work, it is something quite beautiful.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Off to Sea (Again)

I think all maritime historians have a more or less secret desire to run off to sea. Maritime history is only one of my research interests, but I'm not immune to the lure of the ocean. I've thought a lot about what it must have been like to work and live aboard a sailing ship. Now, I have the chance to put some of my ideas to the test in a voyage sponsored by the Sea Education Associaton.

Beginning on November 12, I'll be aboard the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Corwith Cramer as a guest "voyager" during the Cramer's sail from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic to Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I'll be participating in shipboard activities, working with the eight undergraduate students who are studying science and the humanities aboard the ship this semester, and conducting my own research.

SSV Corwith Cramer, a steel-hulled brigantine constructed in 1987. From SEA, here.

It's rather hard to do traditional historical research aboard a ship, with no archives and no internet. But so what? Historians are more versatile than you might think. While I'm aboard the Cramer, I'll be editing a couple of papers, massaging them towards their final, article forms. But I'll also be doing a lot of watching and learning, about the way a sailing ship works, about how sailors move and work aboard ships, and about what it feels like to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. This is the sort of experiential learning that makes for good historical writing, because it helps us get closer to the lifestyles and feelings of people in the past.

And I'll be sewing, working to cut and construct replicas of the undergarments Richard Henry Dana Jr. made during his two years before the mast in the 1830s. I mentioned these unique garments before in connection with my ongoing "Whalemen and Waterproofing" project, and I'll also be thinking a lot about waterproof clothing while aboard the Cramer.

I expect I'll be quite busy. I'm sure you will be, too. But if you have some spare time and you're interested in following along, tune in for regular posts on the Cramer's blog, which will soon shift to documenting our voyage, here. Check back here for a series of posts about my experience coming in early 2015.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wonderful Things of My Driving Life

I kept my minivan reasonably clean (Nicole might beg to differ on the definition of "reasonably"), but I needed to empty it entirely when I sold it last month. As I dug deeper into the various pockets and drawers of what seemed a veritable high chest on wheels, I began to realize that there were quite a lot of things in my car. Some I added over the years. Others ended up there seemingly of their own accord. I'd driven this car for five years, through three degrees, several jobs, two states of residence, and a period or two when it was the only  home base I had during short term gigs and temporary housing. I'm not saying I ever lived in it. But I probably could have.

The rear axle of my minivan took a beating during my move to Delaware, when the car was fully loaded.

I was midway through emptying the minivan when I came across two parking tickets from Tiffin, Ohio, dated 2010. I was attending Heidelberg College that year, and I lived on a street where territorial neighbors called the police on any car left parked on the curb for more than three days. Thankfully, I managed to get those tickets waived, and then I tucked them into my glove compartment and forgot about them. When I found them again, I paused.

What was I thinking? Here I was, a material culture scholar and lapsed archaeologist, about to purge a time capsule of artifacts and ephemera without even documenting it. This was practically the King Tut's tomb of twenty-first-century American automobility! Looking it over reminded me of the conversation between the two British Egyptologists who first peered into the dark sepulcher of King Tut.

"Can you see anything?" asked my inner Lord Carnarvon.

"Yes," responded my inner Howard Carter, "Wonderful things!"

Like King Tut's tomb, the contents of my car were not average or very reflective of my contemporaries. Most people I know (and I know some strange people) don't have embossed bricks, British regimental coat trim, or Sears, Roebuck catalogs in their cars. But to each his own, right?

Moreover, material culture scholars seek the unusual as often as we look for the normal and mundane. We ask how people, common or elite, strange or unremarkable, used things in their everyday lives. Wouldn't it be great to know what an eighteenth-century sailor, especially an abnormal one, carried in his sea chest? Or what a wealthy Philadelphian in the early republic stocked in her carriage? Sometimes we get glimpses of these accoutrements in historical documents such as probate inventories taken upon death, advertisements seeking the return of stolen goods, and insurance settlements. But most often, we have to fit together bits and pieces from archaeologists, archivists, and curators to guess what such people lived with and what these things meant.

Besides, even though the individual objects in my car were quite peculiar, I suspect that most of my contemporaries own many things (in their cars and their homes) that fall into the same basic categories. So I went about taking an inventory of just what sorts of things I had in my car and what these objects meant to me.

The complete contents my minivan at the time I sold it.

I had functional things and some things now obsolete. Road maps for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states and cities seemed pitiably defunct next to the Garman GPS I acquired a couple of years ago. I had a little bit of cash and a fair amount of coins, not to mention some Chinese money and a fake $20 bill from a board game. I had an EZ-Pass, an expired parking pass, a Mackinac Bridge commuter card, and gift cards for Starbucks, Panera Bread, and an oil change. Moisturizer, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, sunglasses, and spare glasses. A CD player with a cassette converter for the minivan's stereo system, a phone charger, and a set of spark plugs for a different car.

My minivan contained quite a few sentimental relics. I had the box of cassette tapes my father assembled about a quarter century ago that is a time capsule in itself. I had a small stuffed Santa Claus doll that my mom bought as a pity purchase at a yard sale (the sort of sale where the only way you can escape with your conscience intact is to spend a dollar on something) that had been with me through two cars (since he was left in the car we drove to that yard sale). I had a small strip of regimental "lace" trim from the uniform of the King's/8th Regiment, which we portrayed when I was a historical interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac. I had a strange faux-ivory hair comb and a bag of airline peanuts related to jokes I only hazily remember from college. I had an embossed brick I stole from the firepit behind that house in Tiffin. Wedged deep in a crack in the floor were a few antique buttons from a memorable trip to a country auction where I bought a box of buttons, put them on the backseat of the minivan, and later watched and listened as they flew everywhere when I slammed on my brakes to avoid a collision.

I had some things that even I will admit were quite weird. The canvas portion of a reproduction Civil War wall tent. The bases to a metal display system for art and antiques. Two strange wrought-iron hooks that were my first attempts at blacksmithing. A killer little piece of folk art a friend made back when Bluetooth phones first appeared that he dubbed a "fork phone." Thanks to the addition of a small wire loop, you could wear your fork around your ear and eat with it!

I had clothes. Hats, gloves, pants, t-shirts. And other essentials. Toilet paper, a towel, drop cloths, and plastic sheeting. Ropes, bungee cords, zip-ties, WD-40, tape. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I still carry far more snow emergency equipment out here in Delaware than necessary. Two folding shovels, two ice scrapers, candles, and hand warmers.

In case I got stuck somewhere in that rather unlikely mid-Atlantic blizzard, I carried a veritable toolbox: a hammer, a saw, knives, pliers, flashlights, and a roll-up first aid kit full enough to handle just about any emergency and including, among other things, fishing equipment, an outdoor thermometer, and a compass.

What did all these things mean?

On one hand, maybe I was just a slovenly car owner. But there was hardly any outright trash in my car. Most everything had a reason for being there, arcane though these reasons were.

The truth is, these things probably say even more about me than I can say about them. And the beauty of material culture is that you can come to your own conclusions about my things.

Here's one version, the scenario as I imagined it. My trusty minivan had finally found a snowbank too high to overcome. But not to worry. While I was eating my candle-roasted trout with my fork/phone and checking the temperature outside, I would be considering my next order from Sears, Roebuck, circa 1902. I could recline in one of two collapsible chairs under the canvas of a reproduction Civil War tent. Who cared when the snow cleared? I had a few granola bars, a wildflower identification book, and enough vintage Meat Loaf cassettes to last quite some time...

Wonderful things, indeed.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part III

"To know when your Flax is fit to gather," recommended John Wily of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, "you must observe the Leaves turning yellow, and the lower Ones dropping off the Stalks..." (33, Colonial Williamsburg reprint of John Wily's Treatise)

Sure enough, my flax showed signed of being "fit to gather" by early July, just about three months after I planted it and after a good growing season. So out Nicole and I went, on July 11th, to harvest the flax.

"The Method to gather your Flax is to pull it up by the Roots with one hand." (33)

"If the Seed is not full ripe, as it seldom all ripens together, you may let it lie in the Field two or three Days." (33)

Once farmers removed flax from the earth, the first step in harvesting every bit of useful material from the plants was to remove the seeds, which they could sell to special processors who extracted linseed (think linen+seed) oil, used for a variety or purposes including as a paint medium, from the seeds.

Flax Seeds

In order to remove the seeds from my flax plants, I needed a "Rippling Comb," for which Wily provides instructions: "Get a Piece of Plank about eighteen Inches long, three broad, and one thick; then have fourteen or fifteen teeth made of iron or steel, about six Inches long, in the Shape of a flooring Brad; then bore as many Holes lengthwise in the Plank as you have Teeth to put in it, letting the Teeth stand about a Quarter of an Inch apart." (33)

Someday, I'll get a truly authentic Rippling Comb. For now, lacking either a local blacksmith or my own forge, I went to my local hardware store and bought a box of the largest flooring brads I could find (essentially unchanged since 1765), a bit shorter than Wily's recommendation. Wily's directions seem almost foolproof, but I soon discovered two problems. First, my plank was inclined to split down the line of the brads even when I bored holes in advance of driving the brads in. I stopped short of Wily's fifteen teeth to prevent totally cracking my plank.

Rippling Comb

Second problem: teeth with spaces between them of 1/4" allowed my flax seeds to generally pass right through without pulling the seeds off the stalks when I did as Wily recommended: "take a Handful and strike it on the Teeth, and draw it through," (34). Either Wily meant that the teeth should be driven into the plank at 1/4" intervals (leaving only a narrow slit between the actual edges of each tooth) or flax plants in 1765 had slightly larger or more compact seed heads. This seems plausible, given that the flax I grew, marketed for flowers and seeds more than fiber, probably included more of these elements than you'd want if you were growing and breeding plants with an eye towards those that devoted the most energy to stalk (and thus fiber) production.

To counteract this problem, I had placed several of my teeth closer together, which allowed Nicole and I to quickly pull the seeds away from small handfuls of flax.

I'll get back to these seeds later. For now, it was time to ret my flax. Retting involves getting the flax plants wet for an extended period in order to break down the gummy substance that adheres the exterior bark (to be used for fiber) from the woody core of each stalk. You can discern the difference between the two parts when the flax is unretted, but you can't easily separate them.

Broken green flax

Although Wily provided instructions for retting flax by leaving it lying in dewy fields for several days or submerging it in standing water, he favored retting it in "a Stream of fresh running Water" for better cleansing the flax at a cool temperature (reducing the danger of over-retting and thus ruining your crop). Wily said to tie up your flax in "Sheaves, about the Size of a Sheaf of Wheat... with some good strong Bark, or Withe, for fear of its breaking loose in the Water," (35). The total product of my flax patch came out to something like as much as your typical wheat sheaf.

Tying a sheaf of flax with bark

I'm lucky enough to live near a "Stream of fresh running Water" as Wily suggested, and retting flax this way involves only two other tools: strong twine and a weight, in my case some rocks tied up in old stockings.

John Wily wanted to sound authoritative when he wrote his book, enough so that skeptical farmers might adopt flax for the potential cash crop he believed it was. But even Wily had to admit that "it is out of the Power of any Man to tell the exact Number of Days it will take to water or dew-rot Flax," (35). This was the riskiest part of flax production. A few hours too long in the water and you would overdo it, ending up with flax plants that, instead of producing long fibers suitable for spinning into fine and sturdy thread, had deteriorated too much and would produce only inferior, short, coarse fibers. 

Wily offered general instructions for how to tell if your flax had retted enough, and I dutifully walked down to the creek once or twice a day to remove a stalk or two, breaking them to see if they appeared "very rotten and tender" (35), as Wily described the finished goal. 

24 hours after retting began

48 hours after retting began

72 hours after retting began

Sure enough, after 72 hours in the river, the flax seemed to be quite rotten and, even more convincing given the interpretive room within Wily's description, I could see the long bark fibers easily sloughing off from the core of each stalk.

The real test will come later, when I move on to "breaking" the plants as the next step in processing the flax. Stay tuned for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part II

In 1765, John Wily recommended planting tobacco or another weed-discouraging crop the year before you planted your flax field. Any weeds that "come up with the Flax," he said, "will be very hurtful to it, unless picked out, which is very troublesome," (31). Luckily, after I planted my flax patch in April, I could afford to weed it by hand in lieu of any tobacco crop last year. I weeded my patch every couple weeks or so, but for the most part weeds didn't seem to be a big problem. To mimic eighteenth-century reliance on natural rainfall, I didn't water my patch at all. 

The images below give you a sense of what a flax season might have looked like two hundred years ago. You'll note that, initially, the plants actually didn't end up that thick and that there were a number of disconcerting blank patches of soil. This seemed less of a problem as the plants got taller and appeared crowded enough to encourage thin stems, as Wily recommended.

April 16th, plants 0.5-0.75" tall.

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May 5th, plants 1.5-3" tall.

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May 23rd, majority of plants 11.5-15" tall. I initially thought the plants were bent over because of a heavy storm the day before, but over the next month they seemed to do this regularly. I suspect it has to do with moisture content.

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June 7th, majority of plants 25-30" tall. I noticed the first blooms on the 6th, exactly two months after planting.

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June 9th, now in full bloom.

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June 28th, plants ranging between 26" and 37", with the majority around 35" tall. Notice that those on the edges of the patch, lacking the support of neighboring plants, are inclined to fall over.

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Here's the patch the day we harvested it, July 11th.

A few days before harvesting, I noticed half a dozen inch-long, fuzzy caterpillars in the patch. They seemed to only be eating the leaves. From what I can tell, they're Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillars. They got to my flax late enough that it didn't matter, but I wonder how much damage a large number might do if they hit the plants early in the season.