History of the Mansfield Silk Company

Historical Article Series April 6, 2020 > History of the Mansfield Silk Company

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 37, No. 4, July 2001

Excerpt from “The Silk Industry of the United States from 1766 to 1874”, by A. T. Lilly (Bulletin of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers , vol.. 5, 1875)

The Mansfield Silk Company, founded in Gurleyville in 1829 was the first silk mill in America to achieve a modicum of success. Unfortunately the company overextended itself and was forced to dissolve in 1839. This is the fascinating story of its rise and fall. The article was written by Alfred Theodore Lilly, son of one of the original partners. (The silk mill was later operated by William E. Williams and following his death, it served as a button factory until it burned in the 1940s.) 

In 1827 or 1828, Edmund Golding, of Macclesfield, England, determined to seek his fortune in the United States. He was then seventeen years of age, and he expected to find ready employment as a “throwster” in an American silk factory. Great was his disappointment at finding there was nothing of the sort in this country; and that even at Mansfield, the head-quarters of the silk industry, no process but that of hand-spinning had been adopted. He sought employment in the town in vain; and he had reached his last sixpence, and was in threadbare garments, when Mr. William A. Fisk, a trader, offered to give him food and shelter for whatever work he could do – an offer that was gratefully accepted. A neighbor of Mr. Fisk, Mr. Alfred Lilly, a manufacturer of screw-augers and auger-bits, took an interest in the lad, and invited him to spend the evenings at his house. Golding there described his previous occupation. The mode of spinning silk by machinery, as then practiced in England, was thus in a general way explained to Mr. Lilly, – Golding made rude sketches of the winding, doubling, and spinning frames. Mr. Lilly readily comprehended the details of the manufacture, and foresaw no great difficulty in attempting it.

The three thousand pounds of raw silk which were then annually produced in Mansfield could only be disposed of when converted by hand manufacture into sewing-silk, and for the most part had to be offered in barter. Mr. Lilly hoped that by means of machinery a sewing-silk could be made equal to the Italian, and like it, capable of being sold for cash, instead of being exchanged for goods at irregular valuations. He was fully acquainted with the praiseworthy efforts which his townsmen, Messrs. Hanks, had already made in endeavoring to spin silk by machinery; he was further apprised of their utter failure… [Rodney and Horace Hanks were the first to manufacture silk by water-power in 1810]. But undiscouraged by these facts, he brought the subject before Captain Joseph Conant and Messrs. William A. Fisk, William Atwood, Storrs Hovey, and Jesse Bingham, and with them eventually formed a copartnership, under the name of the Mansfield Silk Company, for the manufacture of silk by machinery.

Mansfield Silk Company
The Mansfield Silk Company illustration from The Silk Industry in America by L. P. Brockett, 1875

The serious difficulties of manufacture soon became manifest. The machinery was very crude, and a Yankee “throwster” of seventeen to-day would scarcely recognize it as bearing any relation to the work. It was capable of doing all that Mr. Golding had claimed for it, but it proved inadequate for the manufacture of American silk as that was then reeled. Finding themselves unable to carry out their original project, since Mr. Golding could give them no hint at improving the reeling, they took his advice in importing raw silk from England… This purchase was a great curiosity in Connecticut, and the manner of working it was a mystery to outsid-ers. Mr. Golding proved competent in the art of winding the silk, and also in teach-ing it to a few girls, though they found difficulties in their work which would be laughed at by a winder of the present day. But Golding’s lack of knowledge about reeling – his chief occupation being with the business of winding and spinning organzine and tram – made their attempts to compete with the Italian sewing-silk unsatisfactory, although their product was superior to the home-made skeins.

The company were cheered by the hope of better success in weaving silk, and in this branch of business Mr. Golding was better able to encourage their hopes. In the Spring of 1829 the Mansfield Silk Company was incorporated by the legislature, — a circumstance which directed public attention to their efforts, and occasioned wide-spread interest in the growth and manufacture of silk. People made long journeys to see the machinery in operation, and letters of inquiry were numerous. Among the visitors was a Mr. Brown, by birth an Englishman, who was engaged in the tassel manufacture at Boston, and was anxious to obtain his stock as cheaply as possible. He was familiar with the true process of reeling, and explained it to the company. They had a reel constructed under his direct supervision.

The unquestionable success of the new reel gave fresh life to the enterprise. The company advertised their willingness to purchase all the cocoons that might be offered, and their purchases were huge. Improvements were rapidly made, patented, and adopted, in the reels driven by power. Not only was the reeling perfectly successful, but the native silk was found to be of superior quality and strength, winding and doubling with greater facility and less waste then China or Brussia silk.

Instead of being a drug in the market, American silk now became an object of demand, and the company took measures to increase the supply. The hardy native white mulberry was the sole source of food for the silkworms. The seed of this tree was carefully gathered in Mansfield for the company, and in the spring following they took measures for extensive planting. Their agents were sent into different sections of Connecticut and neighboring States, with instructions to lease for a term of years suitable land for nurseries, and to arrange with the owners of the land for aid in planting, and for subsequent care…

In the Spring of 1832 the company appeared before the legislature to ask the State aid for encouraging the culture and manufacture of silk. The Governor, with members of a legislative committee, visited the company’s silk-mill, and took great interest in examining the materials used, and the machinery and processes of manufacture. Some specimens of the goods made – such as vest patterns and handkerchiefs – were presented to the visitors. The result was an act of the legislature containing the following provisions: Whoever shall transplant one hundred white mulberry trees of three or more year’s growth, on his, her, or their land, within this State, adapted to the growth and cultivation of the same, at such distances from each other as will best favor their full growth and the collection of their leaves, shall receive, at the end of two years next after said trees shall have been transplanted as aforesaid, one dollar…

It was also enacted that, where silk was reeled from cocoons by the improved method, fifty cents per pound should be paid to the person reeling it, or causing it to be reeled. A bounty of $1,500 was bestowed upon the Mansfield Silk Company….

From 1828 to 1844 the members of the Mansfield Silk Company passed through sixteen years of varied experience, which must remain for the most part unwritten. They were men not wanting in thrift or enthusiasm; but they lacked capital, and their ignorance of the business of manufacture frequently made them the dupes of unwise experiment. Their attempts at weaving, although they succeeded with vest patterns, handkerchiefs, and some other goods, must be pronounced a failure, both as to the quality desired, and from a pecuniary point of view…

Mr. Lilly was himself the first to sever connection with the company. He failed in his regular business in 1835, and attributed his misfortune to his interest in silk manufacture. It was, perhaps, the last straw on the camel’s back. He was past the meridian of life, and his wounded feelings never recovered from the shock of his failure. His interest in the company was appraised and sold, in the settlement of his estate, for $350. The dissolution of the company took place in 1839, – William A. Fisk, Jesse Bingham, and Storrs Hovey withdrawing altogether from the business. A small but prosperous enterprise was carried on by Captain Conant and William Atwood, associated with Harvey Crane, in the manufacture of sewing-silk and button-hole twist. About the year 1840 the New York and Northampton Silk Company employed Captain Conant as their agent. They had then been in existence since 1834, and hoped that the Captain could retrieve their waning fortunes. In this he did not succeed; but he spent several years in Northampton, principally engaged in the silk business; at last returning to Mansfield. In 1853 he built a small silk-mill and dye-house upon ground newly broken for the purpose. A few houses have gathered around this site, and it is known as Conantville. The company formed by Messrs. Atwood and Crane with Captain Conant dissolved at his departure; and Mr. Atwood built a small mill, a dye-house and other appropriate structures on Mount Hope River. His undertaking was crowned with success. Mr. Atwood was at the time of his death, in 1851, the leading silk manufacturer of the town, which still bears the name of Atwoodville.

To close this portion of our history, it is only necessary to follow the fortunes of Mr. Golding. After the dissolution of the Mansfield Silk Company he was associated with Messrs. Zalmon Storrs & Son, and in 1843 had been for some time engaged with them in the manufacture of sewing-silk. They built a small, neat mill in Mansfield Hollow… During ten years their associated efforts were prosperous. After they dissolved company, Mr. Golding bought land and water-power at a site one mile to the north-east of Mansfield Centre, and there broke ground for a new silk-mill. The canal was partly excavated, and some of the stone had been gathered for the building, when Mr. Golding was taken ill, and, after a brief illness passed away. The gathered stone and ground broken for the mill still remain untouched, – a sad monument to this pioneer of the silk manufacture of America.

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