Silk in America

The story of the silk industry in America dates to the earliest English settlers in Virginia. James I tried to compel Virginia tobacco planters to stop cultivating tobacco, plant mulberry trees and sustain silk worms to supply raw silk to English factories.  As early as 1623, he decreed that a planter would be fined £10 if he did not cultivate at least ten mulberry trees for every 100 acres of his plantation.  Bounties were extended in 1657: 10,000 pounds of tobacco for every £200 worth of silk or cocoons in a single year.  The bounty was extended, dropped, extended again and abandoned.  No one wanted to “farm” silk when they could grow tobacco.  Silk was too labor-intensive.

Silk culture was tried again in Georgia in 1732.  In 1759, 10,000 pounds of cocoons were received at the processor or filature in Savannah, but eventually silk culture gave way to cotton.  Chalk up another failure for silk cultivation.

South Carolina was the next colony to attempt the raising of the mulberry tree and silk culture.  In 1755, a Mrs. Pinckney carried with her to England, enough silk of her own raising to weave three dresses, one of which was presented to the Princess Dowager of Wales.  Never the less, silk from South Carolina was very much a novelty.  Strike three for silk culture in the South.

In New England, Governor Leete, of Connecticut who died in 1683, had raised silk and had a suit made from this silk.  The mulberry was mentioned in legislation in Connecticut in 1732.  Dr. N. Aspinwall sent trees to New Haven and Mansfield, along with the eggs of the silkworm, in 1762.  The Connecticut Assembly offered a bounty for mulberry trees planted and another cash bounty for silk produced.  Cultivation increased.  Dr. Stiles, the president of Yale, grew silk from 1758 to 1790.  A woman and three children could make ten pounds of raw silk worth $50 in five weeks.  Silk processing was spreading throughout the state.  As late as 1810 the three chief silk counties produced $28,5000 worth of raw and sewing silk, plus half of that value in waste silk for spinning.

Dr. Aspinwall also introduced silk culture into Pennsylvania in 1767 or 1768.  A filature was built in Philadelphia about 1770.

In the early decades of the 19th century, silk culture continued to entice investment.  No one hit it big but people kept trying.  There was tremendous speculation in the 1830s.  A new variety of mulberry was introduced from China by way of the Philippines, then France and into Baltimore.  Gideon B. Smith planted the first trees there in 1826. Growth was more rapid and the leaved were several times larger.  When news spread, nurserymen were inundated.  The demand soon exceeded supply and a wild rush took place.

Copied from The Story of Silk and Cheney Silk.  Image courtesy of Peter Metzke.

Several of the Cheney brothers of South Manchester, Connecticut began experimenting with sericulture around 1833.  The first nursery was established in South Manchester, Connecticut.  Records of the time show that moris multicaulis, seedlings of the new species, sold for about $4 a hundred in 1834 rose to $10 in 1835 and to $30 a hundred seedlings in 1836.  A shipment from Marseilles arrived in April 1836. Only 15,000 of the original 70,000 shipped survived.  No more would arrive until the autumn.  The Cheney brothers planted in May and the shoots shot forth in great abundance.  Some 6,000 silkworms were fed beginning in June and yielded three bushels of cocoons.  The boom was on.  In November 1836, the Cheney brothers leased land in Burlington, New Jersey, and started a nursery and cocoonery.  Another was started in Cincinnati, Ohio.  1837 was a bountiful year.  The Cheney brothers sold about $14,000 worth of trees from Burlington and had about 50,000 on hand.  A man from nearby Monmouth, New Jersey made a clean profit of $3,000 from a $400 investment.    The rage continued unabated through the Panic of 1837.  Investment in silk was solid.  By January 1839, the price of a mulberry tree ranged from a dollar to five dollars.  At the same time it became apparent that the mulberry was not hardy enough to be raised in the North and hard times spread to silk.  By 1840, the crash was complete.  No one wanted the trees at any price.  Importers could not even pay the freight on shipments from abroad.  See also the page devoted to Nonotuck.

In 1844, a fatal blight affected almost all the trees in the country.  Growers were driven out of business.  Even in Mansfield, Connecticut, where it had been most prosperous, the culture was finally abandoned.  Writing in 1916, Manchester said,” The fundamental reason for this is, not that mulberry trees and silkworms cannot, though with difficulty, be raised in this country, but that the production of raw silk (cocoons) is essentially a household and hand process, still requiring, as in the days of ancient China, infinite patience and an disproportionate amount of human labor.  Even in Italy, during the silkworm season, the whole house including the bedrooms and beds, is given over to the worms, upon which the women lavish every attention from daylight until late at night, – and for all this trouble and work, they net only six or seven cents a day.  In Japan and China such household labor may bring as low as two or three cents a day.”

“Silk cannot be grown by the highly paid labor of the United States in competition with such meagrely  (sic) rewarded Oriental drudgery, nor can household hand labor compete here with other industries in which most of the energy is furnished by power and most of the work done by machinery.”

In Colonial days, whatever silk was manufactured here, was made entirely in the home.  It was reeled by hand, thrown or twisted and doubled by hand, and woven on the crude foot-powered loom of that period by the women of the family.  All early attempts in the 18th century at silk manufacture using the factory system were failures.

Rodney and Horatio Hanks began the first silk mill in the United States at Mansfield, Connecticut in 1810.  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.

Silk also came to Paterson, New Jersey.  With a powerful source of water provided by the Passaic River and the great waterfall, many silk manufacturers settled in.  Paterson was also close to New York City which provided a steady stream of immigrant labor in the late 19th century.  A survey of companies in Davison’s listed 28 pages of silk companies doing business in 1927.  The nearby town of Passaic by contrast had few silk processors and concentrated on worsted wool instead.  Production dwindled steadily as companies moved south and synthetics took over much of America’s needs.  The number of companies doing business in Paterson declined to 7 1/2 pages in 1950.

View of the skein winding room in a silk mill in Paterson. Date posted 1906
Courtesy Bill Wornall Textile Postcard Collection

In 2012, American Silk Mills of Plains, Pennsylvania is one of the few survivors and traces its beginnings to the Gerli family in northern Italy.  The company merged with Cheney Bros. in the 1970s.  

 

Sources:  

  1. Manchester, H. H., The Story of Silk and Cheney Silk, Cheney Brothers, South Manchester, Connecticut, 1916.
  2. Davison’s Textile Blue Book, 40th Annual July 1927. TS1312 D3 1927