Comments on the Home Silk Industry in Mansfield

Historical Article Series April 6, 2020 > Comments on the Home Silk Industry in Mansfield

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 37, No. 5, September 2001

This excerpt is from an essay written in 1830 by John D’Homergue, a French silk manufacturer, and Peter S. Duponceau, member of the American Philosophical Society. It appeared in The American Quarterly Review (Volume X, September & December, 1831). In their essay, the authors describe the silk industry in Europe and the fledgling industry in America. Their comments on the home industry in Mansfield are not especially flattering. The hand-processed silk thread produced on the local farms compared poorly with the machine-manufactured silk of Europe. With all the silk that was produced in Mansfield, why did its citizens not become wealthier? This except sheds some light on that question.

It is a fact now well ascertained, that the white Italian mulberry tree will grow and thrive in every part of the United States. Silk worms and cocoons have been successfully raised as far north as Kennebeck, in the State of Maine. In Connecticut, the mulberry trees abound, and cocoons are annually produced in great amount, which are manufactured into sewing silk by the industrious females of Tolland and Windham counties, principally – the cocoons are very fine, and some of the worms produce two crops in the year…

The silk of the United States has been judged by experienced manufacturers in England to be equal in quality to that of Bengal [India]…The great characteristics of American silk, as that of Bengal, are nerve and strength, in consequence of which it produces less waste in reeling and throwing, and the stuffs made out of it will exceed all others in durability…

Silkworms Feeding
Silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

  …in 1760,while war was still raging in America between Great Britain and France, a Mr. Nathaniel Aspinwall, who, from all accounts we have of him, was a zealous patriot, undertook to introduce the culture of silk into the colony of Connecticut. He had planted on Long Island, a large nursery of mulberry trees; he planted another at New Haven, and was very active in obtaining acts of the legislature, granting liberal bounties not only to those who should plant and raise mulberry trees, but also to those who should produce given qualities of raw silk. Neither Mr. Aspinwall, nor the legislature of Connecticut, seen to have been aware of any difficulty in the preparation of the article, of any art to be learnt by instruction and experience, or any peculiar machinery to be employed in manufactures, and thus become a source of riches to the country; on the contrary, they obtained legislative encouragement for the use of rude and imperfect methods, which it will be found hereafter difficult to eradicate.

  … Mulberry trees were planted in various parts of the colony, but chiefly in what is now the counties of Windham and Tolland. Silk-worms then were raised, and cocoons produced, and the industrious females immediately set to work, not only to spin the raw material, but to convert it into sewing-silk. For these operations they used no other machinery than their common spinning-wheels, and it is but justice to them to say, that is astonishing how well they succeeded in producing an article, which, though not merchantable in our great commercial towns, serves them for a great number of domestic purposes. But it must said also, that during seventy years, that the manufacture has been carried on among them, it has not at all improved, nor is it likely to improve, until they shall adopt different methods and different machinery.

Silk Click Reel
The household click reel used to measure out skeins of wool was also utilized to reel silk cocoons.

In fact, the making of sewing-silk, in countries where the silk manufacture are known and practiced, employs persons of two different professions, entirely distinct from each other. The reeling of the silk, as it is called, that is to say, the extracting of the raw material from the cocoons, and spinning it into hanks or skeins, is performed by women, either in large filatures, under the direction of an overseer, or on a small scale, the farmer’s houses, by females who have had long practice and experience. This art, simple as it appears, is nevertheless difficult, because of the great evenness required in the threads, and of other requisites, which demand a great deal of skill and dexterity, as well as practice. The machinery for this process, however, is simple and not very costly.

From the hands of the reelers, the silk passes into those of the throwster, who converts it into sewing silk. The machinery which he uses, is costly and complicated. His two principal operations are winding the raw silk from the skeins upon bobbins, which is done by a machine called a winder, and afterwards twisting it backwards and forwards several times, in the throwsting mill. If the threads stick too much to each other, by means of the gum which they are impregnated, (which happens from the unskillfullness or inattention of the reeler) those threads frequently break in the operation of winding, and if there is also too great a degree of inequality in the silk, the weak parts breaking in that of twisting, and from these and other defects arise what is called waste, which produces considerable loss.

It is by the degree of waste that it suffers in throwing, that its good or bad reeling is judged of, and its value chiefly estimated. We are informed by the Manual published in 1828, under the authority of Congress, that the raw silk, produced by the women of Connecticut, according to their present method, loses, on being thrown, 37 ½ per cent, a proportion of waste far beyond any experienced elsewhere.

The sewing-silk of Connecticut, is not twisted by throwsters, but by the same women, who extract it from the cocoons, and with the same domestic machinery. The operation of dyeing, which follows, wants also the perfection which it would receive from the masters of the art.

However disposed we may be, (and none, surely, are more so than ourselves) to praise the talent, ingenuity, and industry of our fair countrywomen, we cannot be so blinded by our prepossession in their favour, as to believe that they can perform impossibilities. We admire them for what they have done, which is a great deal more than could have been expected, under such circumstances. But we are bound to say, that they have been led into a wrong course, the proof of which is, that the silk districts, which ought to be the richest, are the poorest parts of the state of Connecticut.

The sewing-silk made in that state, in the manner we have described, is sold by the farmers to the country merchants or traders, who sell, or commit it to pedlars, who hawk it about the country and exchange it for all sorts of produce. Very little cash is employed in these transactions. Skeins of silk, of which the length as been fixed by an act of legislature, to prevent frauds, are taken in payment as money, in the shops or stores, at a fixed price, for the articles that the farmers stand in need of, and thus it has become a sort of currency. According to the Manual, the price of those skeins was, in 1828, at the rate of four dollars per pound.

Silk Cocoons
Silk Cocoons

We have been informed by persons who reside on the spot, that the sales of sewing silk in the two counties of Windham and Tolland, including the town of Mansfield, amount annually to $15,000 or $18,000. This is, of course, nominal, as the sales are made almost entirely by way of barter. We learn also, from the same source, that this amount is produced by 8000 pounds of raw silk, each of which is made out of 20 pounds of cocoons, and which we suppose will make in the whole, about 4000 or 4500 pounds of sewing-silk. From these data, it is easy to show how it happens that those silk districts remain so poor in the midst of their riches; and how much more they would gain, if they were only to confine themselves to the sale of their cocoons. Forty cents per pound have been given for good cocoons in the city of Philadelphia, during the last two summers, and it is probable that this price will be kept up at least for some years. But let us suppose them to be worth only 25 cents per pound; 8000 pounds of raw silk require 160,000 pounds of cocoons, which, at 25 cents, would give $40,000, and at 40 cents, $64,000. Deduct from either of these sums, $18,000 and see what a difference it will make in favour of the Connecticut farmer! And this not to be paid for in barter or on credit, but in ready money, and in good gold or silver coin, or in bank notes.

One thought on “Comments on the Home Silk Industry in Mansfield

  1. Thank you for republishing these articles–especially this one on Mansfield’s home silk industry! It appeared since I last looked at your website in mid-March.

    I am a curator at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, currently working on an updated presenter manual for the 1810 Hanks Silk Mill, which I am sure that you know was moved by Henry Ford to his historical village in the late 1920s.

    Are there other articles, not currently available on the MHS website that relate to the silk mill or the Hanks family? I am trying to update our understanding of the mill and its role in the fledgling American silk industry. Thanks so much for any assistance you can provide!

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