My latest book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History, is published by University of Manitoba Press.
Snacks is a history of Canadian snack foods, the independent producers and workers who make them, and the consumers who can’t put them down.
Janis Thiessen profiles several iconic Canadian snack food companies, including Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies, and chocolatier Ganong. These companies have developed in distinctive ways, reflecting the unique stories of their founders and their intense connection to specific places.
These stories of salty or sweet confections also reveal a history that is at odds with popular notions of ‘junk food.’ Through extensive oral history and archival research, Thiessen uncovers the roots of our deep loyalties to different snack foods, what it means to be an independent snack food producer, and the often-quirky ways snacks have been created and marketed.
Clearly written, extensively illustrated, and lavish with detail about some of Canadians’ favorite snacks, this is a lively and entertaining look at food and labour history.
My second book, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
How does one write a labour history of a people who have not been involved in the labour movement in significant numbers and, historically, have opposed union membership? While North American Mennonites have traditionally been associated with rural life, in light of the adjustments demanded by post-1945 urbanization and industrialization, they in fact became very involved in the workforce at a time of important labour foment.
Drawing on over a hundred interviews, Janis Thiessen explores Mennonite responses to labour movements such as Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, as well as Mennonite involvement in conscientious objection to unions. This innovative study of the Mennonites – a people at once united by an ethnic and religious identity, yet also shaped by differences in geography, immigration histories, denomination, and class position – provides insights into how and why they have resisted involvement in organized labour. Not Talking Union adds a unique perspective to the history of labour, exploring how people negotiate tensions between their commitments to faith and conscience and the demands of their employment.
Not Talking Union breaks new methodological ground in its close analysis of the oral narratives of North American Mennonites. Reflecting on both oral and archival sources, Thiessen shows why Mennonite labour history matters, and reveals the role of power and inequality in that history.
Manufacturing Mennonites examines the efforts of Mennonite intellectuals and business leaders to redefine the group’s ethno-religious identity in response to changing economic and social conditions after 1945. As the industrial workplace was one of the most significant venues in which competing identity claims were contested during this period, Janis Thiessen explores how Mennonite workers responded to such redefinitions and how they affected class relations.
Through unprecedented access to extensive private company records, Thiessen provides an innovative comparison of three businesses founded, owned, and originally staffed by Mennonites: the printing firm Friesens Corporation, the window manufacturer Loewen, and the furniture manufacturer Palliser. Complemented with interviews with workers, managers, and business owners, Manufacturing Mennonites pioneers two important new trajectories for scholarship – how religion can affect business history, and how class relations have influenced religious history.
Manufacturing Mennonites has been reviewed by the Canadian Historical Review, Oral History Review, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, Mennonite Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Mennonite Studies.
Other publications of mine include:
“Religious Borderlands and Transnational Networks: The North American Mennonite Student Press in the 1960s.” Chapter in Entangling Migration History: Borderlands and Transnationalism in the United States and Canada, ed. Benjamin Bryce and Alexander Freund (Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida, 2015), 181-206.
“Winnipeg’s Palliser Furniture in the Context of Mennonite Views on Industrial Relations, 1974-1996.” Chapter in Prairie Metropolis: New Essays on Winnipeg Social History, Esyllt W. Jones and Gerald Friesen, eds. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009), 200-222. Recipient of the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award 2010.
“‘It’s a hard thing to talk about’: ‘Fringe’ Mennonite Religious Beliefs and Experiences.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 33 (2015): 189-209.
“From Faith to Food: Using Oral History to Study Corporate Mythology at Canadian Manufacturing Firms.” Oral History 42 no. 2 (Spring 2014): 59-72.
“Education for Identity: A Half Century History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate.” Oral History Forum d’histoire orale Special Issue on Education (2012): 1-19.
“Communism and Labor Unions: The Changing Perspectives of Mennonites in Canada and the United States.” Direction 38 no. 1 (Spring 2009): 17-28.
“Committed to Christ or Conformed to this World? Postwar Mennonite Responses to Labour Activism.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 36 no.2 (2007): 317-338.
“Work in Mennonite Theological Perspective.” Canadian Society of Church History Historical Papers (2004): 5-14.
“Mennonite Business in Town and City.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 73 no. 3 (July 1999): 585-600.
“Business and Labour Relations at Friesens Corporation.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998): 181-202.