Silk In Connecticut

Kim MacDonald

Silk was grown in the colonies almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on these shores. In 1620, King James commanded the culture of silk in Virginia. Premiums for raw silk were offered and the Virginia colonists attempted to produce it until about 1670 when the project was abandoned totally in favor of the more profitable tobacco. Georgia and South Carolina also attempted to raise silk from about the year 1732. Georgia was successful for some time and by 1759 managed to produce 10,000 pounds of raw silk for shipment back to England for processing. Connecticut undertook the silk challenge at nearly the same time, 1734, and was the only region where silk production was incorporated into the economy for any length of time. In one form or another, silk was produced in Connecticut for over 200 years.

Silk appealed to the Connecticut people for several reasons. Connecticut was not blessed with the type of deep productive topsoil that would be found later in the Ohio valley. By turns rocky or light and sandy, it was nevertheless sufficient for the needs of mulberry trees. The land along the Connecticut Valley was fertile but could not being relied on to provided large export crops, beyond providing for the needs of the citizens and settlers and several thousand silks worms. The networks of riverways and coastal location made Connecticut a state well suited for the growth of industry.

People in Connecticut thought that they might succeed at silk production where the Georgia production had fallen flat because of the different make-up of the population. Where Georgia and Virginia had large plantations with slave laborers, Connecticut had family farms and centralized towns. Worms required intense labor and was not found to be profitable in the southern colonies, but the work was time consuming rather than challenging and could be done in the densely populated areas by women and children. Due to the labor intensive nature of sericulture, it was not possible to take advantage of economies of scale until mechanization of silk processing, spinning and weaving came into practice in the 19th century.

Silk was also a bad candidate for the monoculture production techniques practiced in the southern colonies because of the risk of catastrophic crop failure. Success in sericulture depends on both mulberry trees and worms, each of which is highly susceptible to the adverse effects of a variety of factors including viral infections, weather fluctuations, and careless handling. When grown as a supplemental crop, financial risk is limited as the small scale producer can fall back on income from other crops or products.

Two of the key supporters of early sericulture in Connecticut were Ezra Stiles of New Haven and Dr. Jared Eliot of Guilford and Killingworth. Stiles was a Puritan minister, and President of Yale from 1778 to 1794. Eliot was also a minister as well as a physician and a proponent of sustainable agriculture. Both men wrote extensively on many topics, including silk production in the colony. Eliot was the author of "Essays Upon Field Husbandry in New England", first published in 1760, which was the first agricultural treatise printed in North America. His Sixth Essay is devoted to sericulture and in it he enumerates the reasons why mulberry trees and silkworms would be a beneficial crop for Connecticut. Ezra Stiles first experimented with silkworms in 1758 while living in Newport, RI and continued through his years at Yale.

Ezra Stiles
Silk Enthusiast and President of Yale,

He kept extensive notebooks on the subject for twenty-seven years (1763-1790) describing in minute detail every success and failure. He concluded that while silk was too labor intensive to be profitable by a single man or as a monoculture crop, it would be a good supplemental crop and well suited to the densely populated, family farm communities of Connecticut. To promote this Stiles collected mulberry seeds and distributed half an ounce to each parish in the state. This was enough seed to grow 5,000 trees and he asked that these seeds be planted and in four or five years seedlings distributed to families in the parish. Six years later silkworm eggs and instruction for their culture would be distributed to the tree holders. Stiles estimated that if even half of the population participated and successfully produced 10 pounds of raw silk per year, after 20 years New England might produce one and a half million pounds per year valued at approximately one million pounds sterling. He hoped that this would balance the trade deficit with England. While sericulture never achieved the volume Dr. Stiles had envisioned, his plan for its promotion is clearly responsible for the large number of scattered attempts (and occasional successes) of silk production in Connecticut.

Silk In Mansfield

While the seeds were distributed throughout the state, sericulture only blossomed in a few places. One of the towns that embraced silk was Mansfield in the northeastern part of the state. The area was first introduced to sericulture in 1760 by Dr. Nathan Aspinwall who brought mulberry cuttings and later eggs from Long Island. His enthusiasm, along with a premium offered by the government of 10 hillings per one hundred trees planted and 3 pence for every ounce of raw silk produced and Dr. Stiles's distribution efforts of 1787 encouraged many citizens in Mansfield to take up silk. In 1788 a group of Mansfield men petitioned the legislature to be allowed to form a corporation called the "The Director, Inspectors, and Company of Connecticut Silk Manufacturers". This was not to be a single factory, but rather a collective of producers owning contiguous plots and the corporation was designed to regulate and standardize quality of production. It is interesting to note that this was the first corporation in the US devoted to manufacturing (most other corporations in Connecticut were toll roads). Unfortunately the act of incorporation offered little benefit other than tax abatement and did not help the company in the troubling times to come.

Silk production in Mansfield continued as a successful home based industry for many years. In 1789 it was reported that the town produced approximately 200 pounds of (raw) silk valued at $5. a pound. This was work done primarily by women and children and was a supplement to the family income, much as income could be earned by raising hens to sell eggs or taking in laundry. A woman and two or three children could make 10 or 12 pounds of silk in 5 or 6 weeks, including raising worms, reeling and spinning raw silk into skeins. The worms were generally housed in spare bedrooms or attics, often on special racks made to hold trays of worms, but several people built separate silk houses or cocooneries. Farmers raised a few bushels of cocoons and had their daughters reel the silk and then spin it into thread for sewing or embroidery.

In 1810 Rodney Hanks and his son Horatio built a mill to make silk thread and twist. The mill, now part of Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, near Detroit, measured only 12 by 15 and was powered by water. Previously silk had been twisted using a wool wheel, which was larger and required many turns. Hanks used a double -wheelhead with reduction gears which greatly speeded up the process. The 1810 mill was replaced by a larger mill in nearby Gurleyville which was in turn replaced by a still larger plant in Mansfield in 1821. The Mansfield Silk Company was formed in 1829 and these mills were the first silk factories in the US.. They continued to produce twist and thread, but were never able to succeed at weaving high consistent high quality fabrics. Specific sales figures are unavailable, but they continued until the mulberry crash of the 1840's.

Silk was often used as a medium of exchange. Skeins of silk were traded for goods to local merchants who in turn sold them in New York or Providence. The Mansfield Historical Society has account books recording transactions such as "the widow Abiah Harvey bought 5 yards of gingham and 1/4 pound of tea and gave in exchange 75 skeins of silk". This was an accepted form of exchange in other local businesses too as shown in 1825 when shoemaker Christopher Spencer made three pair of boots and mended two shoes in exchange for 494 skeins of silk.

Silk was also exchanged outside of Connecticut. In the Gurleyville district outside of Mansfield there were girls referred to as "spoolers" who made sewing silk. The silk would then be taken by peddlers, young men eager to see the world and seek their fortunes. "They set out on foot, with flowered carpetbags filled with silk, one in each hand, for neighboring towns within the state or across the borders. Their customers were housewives and small country stores." As manufacture grew the product was distributed by horse and wagon on routes stretching from Georgia to Canada. These peddlers played an important role in the Mansfield silk industry. First they helped to create (expand) the market past the town boundaries while not forcing the producers to tie up limited cash in their own distribution systems. The profit margin was not high enough for producers to support internally funded distribution systems and supply may have exceeded demand if their only market was in Tolland county. The second benefit was the spread of Connecticut's reputation as the producers of high quality silks. Connecticut's reputation as a silk state was established. The peddler's license was available for only 5 to 20 pounds sterling and with any effort at all the young man could plan to sell all he carried so this was a way for young men to become prosperous before coming home to settle down. It was said that a young man who could not make his fortune this way had to be quite lazy.

Home production continued until about 1844. It is estimated that the people of Mansfield exchanged an average $50,000 worth of silk per year between 1820 and 1830, mostly through barter. Mansfield offers as an interesting snapshot of business history at a transitional period from home production for personal use to home-based industry for profit which is the predecessor for the larger industry to come in Manchester.

Mulberry Speculation

Where there is silk there are mulberry trees, plenty of mulberry trees. Ezra Stiles reported in 1763 that his 3,000 or so silkworms hatched in May ate five bushels each day by July 5th. In 1826 a new variety of mulberry, "morus multicaulis" sometimes called black mulberry, was introduced to North America. This new species had many advantages, it was faster growing, readily propagated by cuttings, and had larger leaves. There were even claims that it was healthier and tastier for the worms than the white mulberry.

In 1832 the state had enacted a premium for the growth of mulberry trees at $1.00 per hundred trees tended for three years. That is, the state would pay farmers to grow this crop in order to support the infant industry. This incentive combined with the steady growing profits of silk encouraged farmers to shift their emphasis from raising worms to raising trees.

Everyone hoped to make his fortune through this easily propagated plant by selling trees to other would-be sericulturists. Prices shot up from $4 per hundred saplings in 1834 to $30 per hundred in 1836. Requests for trees came from all over the country. In 1839 the craze reached its pinnacle when prices in certain areas were reported to be as high as $500 per hundred trees. Unfortunately, at these prices the mulberry leaves became too valuable to feed to worms and when a drop in the national economy reduced the prices of trees back to 1834 levels the speculators were left with no raw silk and acres of worthless trees. Mulberry trees were torn out for pea brush or burnt. The mulberry blight of 1844 killed most of the remaining trees effectively ending silk production in much of Connecticut.

Silk as Industry

The production of silk in Manchester, Connecticut took a different course than it did in Mansfield. There is no mention of the home-based silk production as in other parts of the state. Here, from the start, silk production was seen as a business proposition.

The majority of the silk history in this region focuses on the activities of the Cheney family. The Cheney Brothers and a friend named Edward Arnold started making sewing silk in 1838 under the name of the Mount Nebo Silk Manufacturing Company in a small wooden mill on the Hop Brook. The mill was run by a small undershot wheel operated by the tail race of the Cheney Grist and Saw Mill upstream. An undershot wheel operates on the kinetic energy of water rushing under the wheel paddles. More sophisticated water wheels maneuver water to run down over the top of the wheel and utilize both kinetic and potential energy. The disadvantage was that the silk mill could only run when the other mill was in operation. In the early stages of its life cycle, the Cheney silk business took a back seat to the family's other concerns. This would soon change.

The Cheney's participated in the mulberry fiasco and had, at the peak, orchards in Manchester, CT, Burlington, NJ and Mt. Pleasant, OH. The Cheney's were one of the few remaining silk manufacturers after the crash due in great part to an infusion of cash from brothers Seth and John, both artists. (I think this may have been the only time in US history when the arts were called upon to bail out big business.) In 1841 the Cheney's abandoned sericulture in favor of processing raw silk imported from France by brother Seth. They felt that sericulture was best left as a household industry as it required infinite amounts of patience and labor to care for and feed the worms. In China at this time silk workers were paid $.03 per day, girls in the US earned that much per hour. The Cheneys felt that by concentrating on the processes that could be undertaken by machine they would be able to increase and sustain profits.

In 1841 after returning concentration to the mill, the Cheneys employed 6 farm girls who twisted 10 pounds of sewing silk per week. By 1843 they employed 18 people who worked a standard 12 hour day/ six days per week. The wages were $3.35 weekly for men and $2.54 weekly for women. By 1870 they employed 551 people and by the end of W.W.I had over four thousand employees at three mills. Sales also grew over time; I was unable to obtain exact sales figures, but in 1860 Frank Cheney purchased almost 25,000 pounds of raw Japanese silk on one trip and profits were high enough that the company (then called Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company) offered a dividend of $50,000 in 1855.

Cheney Brothers Silks lasted as a company for over 115 years and their success was due mainly to innovations made by two of the brothers, Ward and Frank.

Frank was described by many sources as a mechanical genius. His inventions and modifications benefited the Cheneys and other textile manufacturers greatly. In 1847 Frank patented a machine (much like the cotton spinning mule or jack) to do the tasks of doubling, twisting and winding that eliminated several steps in the process. The innovation that was probably the most significant was his creation in 1855 of a method for processing waste silk. The Chinese and other cultures had used silk from damaged cocoons, such as those from which moths had emerged, ("waste silk") but in the US this waste silk was considered too tangled and difficult to process economically and was often discarded. By modifying machinery used for cotton Frank Cheney was able to use a greater proportion of imported silk in a profitable manner. Also in the 1850's he altered a spooling machine making it possible for one girl to monitor three machines at the same time.

Ward Cheney's innovations were more social in nature. For one, he built good and valuable relationships with others in the textile industry. In 1844 Edward Valentine from Northampton taught him the process of silk dyeing, allowing the Cheneys to expand their lines with brilliant colors. His main affect, though, was on the mill employees and the town of Manchester. Manchester was described as a "paternalistic industrial village". While the Cheney's did not pay the highest wages in the textile industry, they had arguably the best working conditions. The mills had functional windows and good ventilation. When the girls started the practice of inviting someone to come in and read to them as they worked, Ward Cheney encouraged this by opening a reading room which later became the South Manchester Public Library. They also built Cheney Hall where lectures, musical recitals, plays and town meetings were held. Over the years, the mill's prosperity benefited the citizens in a variety of ways including reasonable rents on Cheney- owned houses, a working grist mill, well maintained streets, a fire department, drinking water reservoir, sewers and garbage collection among other things. The most remarkable addition was the privately owned 2 mile South Manchester Railroad that linked the mill and the main line near Hartford. This rail line was necessary as the mill was not along a navigable river but it benefited the community as a means of low cost transportation to and from the mill.

The Cheney family continued in textiles in Manchester until 1954 when they were bought out by JP Stevens Company. Their mills left an indelible imprint on the town of Manchester and the silk industry in the United States.

Connecticut benefited from two main factors that led to the spread of silk in the state. The first was a population eager for success and growth of new pursuits. The second was the presence of early visionary leaders and innovators like Ezra Stiles and Jared Eliot who effectively combined scientific exploration with the desire to sustain the colony. It may seem odd that a product as exotic and luxurious as silk would find a home in practical New England, but from the start the state embraced sericulture and left a lasting legacy.

This page was last modified on Monday, August 26, 2002.