The Nonotuck Silk Company and the Invention of Machine-Twist
Textile Society of America 2002 Symposium Abstract
The Nonotuck story begins in the early 1830’s when one Samuel Whitmarsh moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, built a cocoonery on his estate, planted mulberry trees, and set up a silk mill. Vistors flocked to see the miracle but, according to one eyewitness,”the mills were kept running in order to increase the sale of mulberry trees.” By the end of the decade, the mulberry speculation had crashed, and Whitmarsh went with it. But his silk company was reborn in 1842 as the main enterprise of an abolitionist utopian community, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry. Its dissolution in 1846 ended sericulture in Northampton–but not the manufacture of products from imported raw silk. Some of its members remained in the area and continued their efforts to create a humane industrial society.
One of them was Samuel Lapham Hill. The recently invented sewing machine was plagued with problems, not least the uneven quality of the available thread. Hill seized the challenge to devise a stronger, smoother filament. The judges at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition tell the story: Hill ” . . . submitted it, in 1852, to Mr. Singer . . . [who] put a spool on his machine, threaded it up, and commenced sewing. After sewing sufficiently to enable him to judge of its merit, he [exclaimed ], ‘I shall want all you can make,’–a prophecy literally fulfilled. The new fabric assumed the name of ‘machine twist,’ and from that time to the present the amount of silk consumed upon sewing-machines is marvelous.” Machine twist put Hill’s company on the Silk Map: in just over two decades it was the largest silk thread manufacturer in the country. Yet, it seems, no one has studied the development of this marvelous invention! This paper seeks to fill that gap.
Marjorie Senechal is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, where she has taught since 1966, and is also Director of the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute there. In Smith’s History of Science and Technology program, her courses include “Ancient Inventions” (about a third of which is devoted to textiles — see http://www.smith.edu/hsc/museum and “Science, Technology, and Silk.” Her current research includes the silk industries of Albania and of Northampton, Massachusetts, with particular emphasis on their scientific and technological contexts and challenges. She is a co-founder and director of the Northampton Silk Project.
Recently (2009), a book “Silk – Its Origin, Culture, and Manufacture” published 1895 and 1902 by the Nonotuck Silk Company has been made available on the web. This is a thorough discussion of the silk industry and The Corticelli Silk Mills, which acted in concert with the Nonotuck Silk Company beginning in 1838. A digital version made available by N C State University can be downloaded from:
http://www.archive.org/details/silkitsorigincul00nono. The pictures in the text and advertisements at the end are worth a download.
The history of the silk industry in and around Northampton, MA has been studied and preserved by Smith College. A beautiful silk quilt is on display in the Nielson Library. You can follow each step of the silk manufacturing process on the quilt itself.