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Flax Breaks, Hackles, and Stilliards: The Early 19th Century American Homestead, Part 2

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
April 11th, 2016

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.


Two centuries ago in western Virginia, if you were a settler, your way of life would be very different when compared to the standards of today.  That is definitely the impression one receives when browsing lists of personal property in the Harrison County Court records, as we have recently in the course of our work at the History Center.  Such an impression is, of course, not unexpected for an encounter with records two hundred years old. 


In addition to discovering unfamiliar words for items that are obsolete or no longer in general use, one also discovers evidence for a DIY or do it yourself culture, again as one would expect from a recently settled region, as western Virginia was at that time.  For this blog, the second installment on this topic, we can only briefly touch on these matters.


For one thing, many citizens were making their own linen cloth from flax for clothes and other purposes.  In addition to the spinning wheels and looms that appear in the appraisals, thus providing obvious evidence for this activity, there are also names for tools, unfamiliar to most contemporary Americans, that are also a part of the laborious linen making process, including “flax break” and “flax hackle.”


Piece of manuscript showing "Flax break" in the appraisal list for William Hall, 1829

“Flax break” in the appraisal list for William Hall, 1829.


 Sketch of a flax break

flax break

A flax break is a tool for smashing the woody core of flax stalks into tiny pieces.


Piece of manuscript mentioning "Hackle" in the appraisal list for Richard Bond, 1820

“Hackle” in the appraisal list for Richard Bond, 1820.

 Sketch of flax hackle

flax hackle

A flax hackle is like a comb for separating flax strands.

For a short video of this technology in action, you could view:
Making Linen from Flax.


Another unfamiliar word that appears in the appraisals is “stilliard.”  This word is an alternative form of the word “steelyard,” which denotes a portable scale.

Manuscript showing "Stilliards" in the property inventory for John Bonnell, 1823

“Stilliards” in the property inventory for John Bonnell, 1823.

 sketch of a steelyard


A steelyard is a portable scale.


Steelyards were apparently a necessary device to conduct business.  Their accuracy was called into question by George Washington, in pre-revolutionary days, when discussing wheat sales in a letter to Alexandria merchants on 9 March 1765:  “The wheat from some of my plantations, by one pair of steelyards, will weigh upwards of sixty pounds, by another pair less than sixty pounds; and from some other places it does not weigh fifty-eight pounds.”


Researching this old technology can make one appreciative of modern conveniences.  It’s an enlightening encounter, facilitated by the understanding gained through juxtaposing historical fact with contemporary experience.


For Part 1 of this series, see

Piggins, Plunder, and Swingle Trees: The Early 19th Century American Homestead, Part 1



Images of the flax break and flax hackle are from the Richters Herbs website.

The image of the steelyard is from the Clip Art website.


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