400 Years of Silk in America – Scruples and Scandals

Lustrous, colorful silk has beckoned to people in America over the centuries.  Some saw it as  a way to achieve self-sufficiency, others as a way to build wealth, and still others as an easy way to increase their incomes with unmarked, untraceable goods!  Currently, scientists are finding ways to use silk’s strength and flexibility in the fields of medicine and technology.  Here is a short sampling of some of the silk history I’ve been reading lately.

1623 – Bounties and Levies – King James attempts to get settlers in Virginia to raise mulberry trees and silkworms rather than tobacco, by decreeing that landowners must raise 10 mulberry trees for each hundred acres.  For the next 120 years or so, various bounties are offered to produce silk, but tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo are much more successful.

1826 – The Mulberry Bubble – a species of mulberry tree from China, morus multicaulis,  is introduced to the US.  It grows much faster than the Italian mulberry trees that had been grown in America, setting off speculation.  In 1834 the trees are available for $4 for a hundred trees.  In 1835, the price rises to $10 a hundred, then $30 a hundred in 1836, then to one or two dollars per tree in 1839.  By 1840, realization sets in that the trees are harder to raise than expected, and that Americans just won’t do the precise work needed to raise silk worms and reel silk.  The market crashes and the trees are uprooted and burned.  (This is from The Story of Silk and Cheney Silks.)

1840s – Utopian Silk – Abolitionists and “Conscience Whigs” avoid the use of cotton since it is slave-produced.  About 120 people create a a self-sufficient community of equality at Northampton, Connecticut.  Sojourner Truth and Sylvester Graham (of the graham cracker) are residents.  The community believes they can raise enough silk to barter for necessities they can’t produce themselves.  But with no knowledge of the true causes of silkworm diseases, and no experience of reeling the cocoon filaments or dyeing, the silk workers turn out an inconsistent product, and give up their experiment in 1846.

1909 – 1928 – Record-Setting Transportation – Special “silk trains” carry raw silk from the port of Seattle to Minnesota and on to New York, setting speed records in order to get the high-priced, highly-insured silk to mills in the East.  Ordinary trains have to pull onto sidings to let the silk trains pass – a single train’s cargo could be worth $5 million.  The quicker it gets to its destination, the lower the risk of damage from heat, moisture, fumes, or thieves. From a high price of $18.00 a pound in 1920, silk falls to $1.30 a pound in 1934 – as a result, slower ocean shipping through the Panama Canal dominates, but some silk is still sent by rail until 1939.

1917 – 1926 – Silk Heists– New York police record more than 1000 episodes of silk theft in 1917 and 1918.  They try to institute a “policy of silence”, feeling that continuous attention in the press just gives more ideas to would-be criminals.

In 1919, three men are arrested for the theft of $30,000 worth of silk from a loft of the E & J Weinberg Silk Waist Company.  One of the men is an employee of an electric burglar alarm company, but the windows that the men entered did not have alarms.  (“Now, Mr. Weinberg, our company can save you a considerable amount of money if you don’t place alarms on every single window.  There’s no need to put alarms on those windows on the second floor – no one will climb up there!”)

Officials of the Silk Association of America express dissatisfaction with the policy of silence, claiming to have lost $2,000,000 worth of silk in thefts over the last two years.
Criminals specialize in stealing silk, and even commit murder during robberies, at the silk vaults of Cheney Brothers in Manchester, Connecticut in 1919, and in Manhattan in 1926.

2011 – Amazing Advances – Fiorenzo Omenetto presents 20 technological advances of silk, “Nature’s Kevlar,” in a TED talk.  Uses include making vein or bone replacements, biodegradable disposable cups, fiber optics, and small cards that can transport vaccines. 

I hope to do another post soon about the actual process of getting the silk from caterpillar to cloth.