Cheney Brothers Silk

South Manchester, Conneticut


Cheney Brothers Silk 1916



Cheney Brothers Silk Mills from The Story of Silk and Cheney Silk, 1916

The first silk mill in the United States was begun by Rodney and Horatio Hanks, at Mansfield, Connecticut in1810. The “mill” was only 12 ft by 12 ft in size. The mill made sewing thread by adding twist on machines of their design run by water power. The mill and two others associated with this venture were abandoned in 1828 because the machinery was too crude to produce commercial sewing thread. In 1815, William H. Horstmann, built a mill in Philadelphia for production of trimmings and ribbons. He imported a Jacquard loom in 1824. The Mansfield Silk Company, begun in the center of the silk growing district, made use of water power for reeling, but was unsuccessful in attempts at weaving. The mill failed as a result of failure in the speculation with the morus multicaulis.

The first really successful manufacturers in the United States were the Cheney Brothers. The original mill was begun as the Mt. Nebo Silk Mills, South Manchester, Connecticut, in January, 1838. Although somewhat neglected during the time of the morus multicaulis speculation, it is the only mill established before that date that was permanently successful.

The story of the Cheney silk mills is typical of the growth of the industry, and, even more than that, of the development of the United States from an agricultural to a manufacturing country. One must remember that England wanted the colonies and the new States to remain suppliers of raw materials and held all mechanical developments for internal use. Samuel Slater carried the plans for his textile enterprise out of England in his head. A number of details of the crude beginnings of the factory system by the Cheney Brothers were preserved in their diaries.


Frontiers piece from The Story of Silk & Cheney Silks.  Images courtesy of Peter Metzke.










Ralph, Ward, and Frank Cheney, along with E.H. Arnold, agreed in November, 1837 to form a company for silk manufacture. Their first idea was to adapt a barn for a mill. The machinery was ordered in December, to be completed April 1. The company was formed on January 2, 1838, with a capital stock of $50,000. During the wait for equipment, it was decided not to try to use the barn, but to build a factory. The size was specified at 32 x 45 ft. A deal was made to have the timber hewn and an old­fashioned bee was held for the construction on March 31, 1838. The power for the silk factory was taken from the end of a tailrace of a mill which served at different times a paper making, grain grinding and distilling. A small undershot wheel was used with six­foot fall. When the upstream mill was not running, the water supply was denied the silk mill. It was at the end of the road so to speak.

One important feature of the mill was the use, in doubling and twisting, of the new Rixford roller made for the Cheneys. The roll turned by friction, rather than by direct drive, therefore allowing the silk to give a little and avoid breakage. The introduction of this roller proved to be a revolutionary improvement.

The first products of the factory were sewing silk, which was made almost entirely with silk imported from Asia. In 1844, Ward Cheney learned the main points of silk dyeing from a Mr. Valentine of Northampton, Massachusetts, and they were soon applied to the business, although at considerable cost due to experimentation. That same year, sewing silk was sold through their agent in Philadelphia at from $6.50 to $7.50 a pound. The first practical machine for making sewing thread was patented by Frank Cheney in 1847. The success of the machine in doubling, twisting, and winding, depended largely upon the use of moving spindles on a carriage (perhaps like a “Spinning Jenny”?) which ran back and forth on tracks in the second story of the factory. An interesting sidelight: Employees took up the track for dances at night and replaced it when the dance was over. Children were brought along and put to bed in the improvised hall. In 1848, the wages of men averaged $1.14 a day; of the women, 63 cents a day. The total average was 72 cents. Another interesting fact: the Public Library of the town developed from the books which were read to the girls in the skein room while they worked. At the time there was no machinery used in the room so the spoken word could easily be heard as the girls unreeled silk from the cocoons for hours on end.

The development of the sewing machine by Singer and others greatly increased the need for stronger sewing thread and silk was preferred. Whereas in hand sewing, the thread was twice doubled and twisted, machine sewing was improved with three thread combinations. The manufacture of sewing thread with machine twist was begun by the Cheneys in 1852.

What to do with Waste Silk? Previously, the greater part of the cocoons, from which the moth had emerged, and of the raw silk which was too tangled to reeled, had been practically wasted. Attempts had been made to spin it, using the woolen or cotton systems, but without notable success. In 1855, however, the Cheney brothers began the spinning of such waste silk in an important way. The woolen and cotton spinning machines required modification and the expenditure of some $30,000 before they could be adapted for silk. By utilizing this waste stream, the Cheneys again pioneered an entirely new branch of this industry in the United States, although this had been crudely done previously in Europe. In order to supply the growing business, another mill had already been built in South Manchester, and in 1854, mills were established in Hartford, which were chiefly used for ribbon making. The name of the firm was changed in 1854 to the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company, and the capital stock increased in 1855 to $400,000. The 1850s In the cornerstone of the office building built in 1857; papers were deposited with a brief description of the business and industrial procedures of the times. The buildings were still constructed of wood. Power came chiefly from the small brook and was furnished by two turbine wheels of 20­horsepowewr, each 26 inches in diameter. Steam for the dye house was supplied by two locomotive boilers. The efficiency per worker also was improved. Previously, one girl operated one spooling machine. Frank Cheney and Grant evolved a spooling machine which enabled one girl to attend to three machines.

The 1860s The Civil War intervened; progress and ingenuity in silk processing was shelved. The Cheney firm was asked what they could contribute to the war effort. C. M. Spencer, who had been employed at the mills since 1847, had, even before the war began, developed a repeating carbine. The carbine patent was filed on March 6, 1860. The Cheneys produced the carbine with the aid of the Chickering Piano Company factory of Boston. After manufacturing some 200,000 carbines by the end of the war (and losing money), the plant was sold to the Winchester Arms Company.







Effect of Tariffs The tariff that was put on silk goods during the war made it possible to develop the weaving of silk far more extensively in this country. Cheney Brothers began the weaving of ribbons on a large scale in 1861 and of grosgrains in 1866. In manufacturing industries, it is indisputable that while inventions have multiplied wages, these same inventions and competition have lowered prices, in spite of the tariff. In many cases it is only that tariff that made the development of the industry possible at all in this country. The company prospered. Additional spinning mills were built in 1872. In 1873, the name of the company was changed from Chaney Brothers Manufacturing Company to simply Cheney Brothers. In 1880, the company began weaving plush and velvet extensively. Looms were imported from Europe. By 1892, Richard Monners developed new velvet looms for the company.

Growth in the silk industry and at Cheney Brothers continued for the next twenty plus years following 1892. In 1916, the size of the Cheney mills included over 36 acres of floor space. No specific details of the layout or ensuing events are recorded in the text.







Under the tariff system the value of manufacturing grew from almost nothing to tremendous numbers. In England, just the opposite occurred. In the United States the value of manufacturing increased from $6,600,000 in 1860 to $197,000,000 in 1910, while the number of employees rose from 5,000 to 120,000. Imports of manufactured silk amounted to about $33,000,000 in 1861 and remained about constant through the ensuing years to 1910. In 1913, the United States consumed as much silk in manufactured goods (10,700,000 kilograms) as France, Germany, Italy, and England combined.

Production, 1913

Japan, Export 11,000,000 kilo
Shanghai and Canton, Export 8,750,000
Europe 4,000,000
Levant and Central Asia 2,250,000

Consumption, 1913

United States 10,700,000 kilo
France 4,400,000
Germany 3,600,000
Switzerland 1,700,000
Russia 1,700,000
Italy 1,700,000
Austria-­Hungary 1,100,000
England 800,000
Other Countries 600,000

Source:   Manchester, H. H., The Story of Silk and Cheney Silk, Cheney Brothers, South Manchester, Connecticut, 1916.