The Harmonists and Their Silk Experiences

Kristin B. Shutts


During the 1830's and 1840's, there was a major effort to establish a silk industry in the United States. Many Americans believed that they could become wealthy from the cultivation of silkworms and the production of silk fabrics. This optimistic and zealous attitude toward creating a silk industry in America was reflected in the publications of the time. Journals such as the The Silk Culturist and the Journal of the American Silk Society began to emerge, and other publications like the American Farmer and the Niles' Register frequently devoted a number of their articles to the topic of silk. Additionally, several organizations dedicated to promoting American industry in general found the idea of silk production to be quite appealing and began to encourage and correspond with those interested in pursuing this new venture.

Some of America's most prolific silk experiments occurred in the various communal societies that existed in this country during the nineteenth century. The Kentucky Shakers, the Northampton Association, and the Harmony Society of Economy, Pennsylvania were among those who attempted to establish silk industries. Of these communal societies, it appears that the Harmonists were the most the successful in the area of silk production. Their silk experiment, which began in 1827, produced high-quality and highly desired silk fabrics until 1852.

A Brief History

The history of the Harmonists begins in Germany with the birth of the Society's founder, George Rapp, in 1757. The son of a farmer, Rapp received a basic school education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. After completing school, Rapp helped his father on the farm and then turned to the weaving trade to earn his living. From an early age, Rapp had been a devoted student of the Bible. As he matured, he came to feel that Lutheran Church was spiritless and that it did not fulfill his desire to have a close relationship with Christ. Thus, at the age of 30, Rapp began to deliver sermons to a small group of friends in his home. He and his followers then withdrew from the Church, choosing to believe that the way they worshipped brought them closer to God. They were, of course, labeled as Separatists and suffered harassment and persecution for their dissenting religious beliefs.?

Unable to practice their religious beliefs freely in Germany, Rapp and his followers decided to move to the United States. In 1803, Rapp, his son John, and a handful of others sailed to America to purchase 5,000 acres of land twenty-five miles north of Pittsburgh. Rapp's adopted son, Frederick, stayed in Germany to organize the hundreds of people, mostly people of the peasant and mechanic class in Germany, wishing to follow Rapp to America. They soon joined Rapp in Pennsylvania and settled in the nearby lands and in 1805 they officially established the Harmony Society, agreeing to follow a communal way of life. Some descriptions of the Harmonists suggest that Rapp's followers decided prior to arriving in America that they would live as a communistic society, but other accounts either find no evidence for this assertion or believe that the decision to live the communal life was one made after their arrival in America.?

The Harmony Society was originally comprised of approximately 600 men, women, and children. The people worked together to build a settlement with log houses, a church, a schoolhouse, a saw-mill, a tannery, and a distillery. They planted corn, wheat, rye, hemp, and flax, and raised sheep for wool. Though they were successful in some agricultural endeavors, the Harmonists were disappointed by the failure of grapevines to thrive on their land, by the lack of communication they had with the outside world, and by the insufficient amount of land they owned. Thus, they decided to relocate to Indiana in 1814. They purchased 30,000 acres on the Wabash River in Indiana and called their new settlement Harmony, after their first settlement. At Harmony in Indiana, the Harmonists built larger factories, manufactured goods from cotton and wool, and planted a large vineyard. However, the Harmonists' stay in Indiana was a relatively short one. Confronted with unpleasant neighbors and diseases like malaria, the Harmonists decided to move back to Pennsylvania in 1824.?

The Harmonists chose an area of Beaver County, Pennsylvania for their greatest and final settlement and called their new settlement Economy. Economy was an ideal location. A short distance from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, Economy was an easy and popular stopping point for travelers looking to do business with the Harmonists. At Economy, the Harmonists constructed shops, mills, a church, and several large factories, including, of course, a factory devoted to silk production. Additionally, they planted a vineyard, an orchard, and a crop of mulberry trees.

Description of Religious Beliefs and Lifestyle

Before discussing the Harmonists' experience with silk, it seems important to outline the major beliefs of the Society, as these beliefs influenced how the Harmonists approached their lives and their industries. One of the major tenets of the Harmonist religion was that the second coming of Christ was very near. They believed that Christ would return to earth to rule during the millennium and that they would join Christ during his one thousand year reign on earth. George Rapp firmly believed Christ would return during his lifetime. In fact, Rapp's last words to his people were, "If I did not so fully believe, that the Lord has designated me to place our Society before his presence in the land of Canaan, I would consider this my last".?

Another major belief of the Harmonists was the importance of celibacy. The practice of celibacy was adopted by the Harmonists in 1807. After this date, all married couples lived as brother and sister. According to Everett Webber, the Harmonists believed that the original Adam was celibate before Eve was removed from him. They reasoned that since Adam was in the image of God, that God must be celibate. Therefore, they concluded that they should also be celibate. About the same time they adopted celibacy, the Harmonists banned tobacco for reasons that are not altogether apparent.?

Of course, an additional major doctrine of the Harmonists, which has already been mentioned, was the belief in the necessity of living the communal life. They wished to model the way of the first Christians as indicated by Acts 2:44-45: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." George Rapp himself often preached about the importance of self-sacrifice and labor for the common good. Under George 's religious leadership and Frederick Rapp's business leadership, the Harmonists worked diligently for eight to ten hours a day to produce items to feed and clothe members of the Society and to sell for money to those outside Economy. After a day's work was through, the night-watch would call, "A day is past, and a step made nearer our end -- our time runs away, and the joys of heaven are our reward".

The Silk Industry

The Harmonists began to experiment with raising silkworms and manufacturing silk fabrics shortly after they moved to Economy. Most historians indicate that it was Gertrude Rapp, the granddaughter of George Rapp, who proposed the idea of producing silk at Economy in 1827 (when she was just 19 years old!) and who directed the Harmony Society's efforts to establish a silk industry. Gertrude gathered publications from England, Germany, and France and invited silk specialists from Europe to her community in order to learn the process of silk production. Additionally, she learned about caring for silkworms and about effective techniques for reeling silk by conducting careful experiments. It seems most likely that the Harmonists imported their first cocoons from France, but Aaron Williams s contends that the Society started its silk industry with silkworms sent by an unidentified friend of George Rapp's in the East.

At first, the Harmonists produced only enough silk for a small amount of apparel and for one hundred handkerchiefs. These first pieces of silk were distributed among members of the community in order to generate enthusiasm for the new industry. Within a few years, however, the Harmonists were able to produce five to six thousand pounds of cocoons annually. From the fibers of these cocoons, the Harmonists manufactured silk, ribbon, brocade, velvet, and satin. Before weaving the silk, the Harmonists dyed the fibers with natural dyes of green, red, purple, and blue; these colors were obtained from indigo, logwood, and cochineal. The Harmonists were very eager to show and to sell their brightly colored silks to those outside the community at Economy. Reports from 1836 and 1839 indicate that the Harmonists produced somewhere between 90 and 151 pounds of silk each year.

The silk products produced by the Harmonists were of very high quality and quickly attracted national fame and recognition. Harmonist silk won awards at the Franklin institute of Philadelphia in 1838, at the Boston Fair in 1844, and at the American Institute in New York in 1844. The Society received letters from all over the United States requesting information about their techniques and experiences with silk. Their successful silk experience was the subject of many articles appearing in various journals of the time, including The Silk Culturist and the Journal of the American Silk Society. Additionally, the Harmonists (namely, Frederick Rapp) communicated with several of the organizations interested in promoting silk manufacture in the United States during the 1930's and 1940's. Gideon Smith, who was the corresponding secretary of the National Silk Society in Baltimore, corresponded with Frederick Rapp and wrote glowing accounts of Harmonist silk. Smith believed that the Harmonists had "brought the art to a state of perfection equal to any establishment in Europe, and in some respects [had] gone beyond any thing of the kind in any other country".

The Harmonists raised their silkworms and engaged in silk manufacturing in a two-story factory building (above). An article written by F. G. Comstock in 1836 for The Silk Culturist reported that the Society had a Jacquard loom and several hand looms for weaving silk fabrics. The Harmonists operated their reels by steam and used steam to heat their factory. It is difficult to determine when the Harmonists first began to use steam and whether they used steam to operate their Jacquard loom, however. A letter written by Frederick Rapp for Gideon Smith in 1830 indicates that young children gathered mulberry leaves for the silkworms after school and that girls of 12 to 15 years were the primary caretakers of worms in the factory . It seems that the job of reeling (and perhaps weaving -- although it is a bit unclear) was also delegated to young girls.

The silk industry of Economy, which began in 1827 and reached its peak during the early 1840's, was abandoned by the Harmonists in 1952 for financial reasons. The Harmonist had come to feel threatened by foreign competition and requested in 1846 that Congress place a protective tariff on silk. Despite sending letters and samples of their fine silk to government officials, the Society failed to obtain the protection it desired. Thus, the silk industry at Economy was deserted because, as Gideon Smith once wrote, "these people never pursue any branch of business that they do not find profitable".

Though most historians and writers on the Harmonists seem reluctant to commit to precise explanations regarding why the Harmonists decided to try producing silk in 1826 (besides stating that it was Gertrude's idea), it seems important to try to address this question. First of all, as stated early, many people in America were interested in promoting a silk industry in the United States during the 1830's and 1840's and, as a result, several journals and societies for silk production were formed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Gertrude Rapp was an avid reader of many of these silk journals and we know that Frederick Rapp communicated with several of the silk societies. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the Harmonists' decision to begin to produce silk was partially born out of a desire to try their own hand at doing what so many others were attempting to do at the time and a desire to support American industry. Gertrude Rapp was a firm believer in importance of establishing a silk industry in America. She said that the silk industry was a "new and most important branch of National Industry, convince every Patriot, that our own and our own peoples hands themselves can produce and manufacture this so highly beloved article of luxury, with which we are so fond to adorn ourselves, and in a garment of which if thus obtained, one may justly feel a noble pride, but if the product of foreign hands, we have the best reason in the world, to feel a noble shame, when we reflect, that by the way of obtaining it, we have so much and so unpatriotically contributed to squander our national treasure, burden, our country with enormous debt, and there by lay the sure foundation of ruin and misery...".

Additionally, the Harmonists presumably viewed silk as a very feasible industry for them to establish in Economy. They had a good deal of land on which they could easily plant rows of mulberry trees. Also, the Harmonists were already experienced and successful in the manufacturing of two other types of fabrics: cotton and wool. Besides having land and a good deal of experience with textiles, the Harmonists had another important commodity -- a large labor force. At times, there were nearly seven hundred men, women, and children living, and therefore working together in agriculture and manufacturing at Economy.

It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the Harmonists were interested in becoming involved in the silk industry for monetary reasons, too. Though Charles Nordhoff and other sources believe that George Rapp taught his followers not to care about accumulating wealth, Everett Webber writes that "money making was their exhilaration". Historians may disagree over the Harmonists' general philosophy of wealth, but it is very clear and well-documented that Harmonists believed that a large sum of money would be needed for the second coming of Christ. They apparently needed money in order to rebuild the temple in New Jerusalem or to simply have a generous gift to place at the feet of Jesus when he returned to Earth.

The End of Harmony Industry

George Rapp passed away in 1847 at the age of ninety. Though the Harmony Society continued without Rapp, they never found another spiritual and political leader of his commitment and leadership. John Duss notes that in 1866, just two decades after Rapp's death, production at Economy began to decline. In 1862, there were only 200 Harmonists. Their commitment to celibacy prevented them from replacing members who had passed away and they did not believe in trying to gain converts. Thus, the labor force was greatly reduced and the Harmonists were forced to close many of their formerly great factories. By the time Charles Nordhoff visited the Harmonists in 1874 in order to gather information for his book about communistic societies in America, all of Economy's factories had closed. Nordhoff wrote, "Once it was a busy place, for it had cotton, silk, and woolen factories, a brewery, and other industries; but the most important of these have now ceased". The number of Harmonists living at Economy gradually decreased until the Society was officially dissolved in 1905.

The site of the Harmony Society at Economy is currently maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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