Monday, March 18, 2013

American Silk by Jacqueline Field, Marjorie Senechal and Madelyn Shaw.

I bought this book a few years ago, but only over the last few days managed to get round to reading it.  I wasn't particularly certain I really needed to read it, but now I'm pretty glad I did.  It is a series of three cases studies about the growth and ultimate decline of slk manufacturing in the United States.  I realise this might not sound a particularly scintillating topic, but to me it is.  There was the best description of the process of silkworm to silk cloth by Marjorie Senechal that I've ever read.  Many times I have read about this and I don't think I've ever readan account that is quite as clear and succinct.

Senechal goes on to describe how silk was first introduced to the Americas.  James I (of England) loved silk and silkworms, and he tried very hard to get the colonists in Jamestown to cultivate it.  He sent them his own personal silkworm eggs, ensured each family had a booklet on how to go about silkworm husbandry, and even tried to bribe them into concentrating on the crop, but each time tobacco won out.

The book then moves on then a couple of centuries to the mid-nineteenth century and  Northampton, Massachusetts, and it is here that things get really interesting.  A man called Samuel Windmarsh shares James's enthusiasm for the industry and succeeds in provoking a sort of silk fever throughout the region.  When this eventually leads to failure a group of abolitionists establish their own commune on the site.  It lasted for just four years, but it started with inspiring ideals.  Everyone was equal.  They lived, ate and worked communally, and that work was silk and attracted some famous people to the colony including Sojourner Truth.  They fed and raised the silkworms, reeled, twisted and doubled their silk, and then sent it on to market.  There is more information about the Northampton Association of Education  and Industry in a hugely impressive website.  I spent hours there this weekend working out the site of the mill, and working out what still remains - before coming on a fascinating video tour of the area.

But the Institution finally failed, and when it did, one of the instigators, William Hill, who seemed to be an incredibly principled man, took on all their debts and worked for five years to repay them.  This impressed a local industrialist so much that he was taken on as manager at another silk factory.  This one used steam to process the silk and this was successful thanks to the involvement of Isaac Singer.  Singer used to be to sewing machines as Hoovers used to be to vacuum cleaning - and silk was essential to the initial success to Singer sewing machines because it was the only thread strong enough to take the machine's tension.  Isaac Singer himself is a very interesting character.  As Senechal points out, he had families to support, and a quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that he was t an incorrigible polygamist.

The other two sections - by Jacqueline Field and Madelyn Shaw - are interesting too.  The second section concerns a silk mill in Maine and the third continues the silk story into the twentieth century with the story H R Mallinson and Company.  They were manufacturers based in New York who deliberately targeted an upmarket clientele.  H R Mallinson and Company were among the first to establish branding and catch phrases and advertised widely - using a wide range media to establish their product as something of quality and desirability.  For years their share of the market grew - until the Depression of 1930 brought it crashing down.  The demise seems to have been swift and absolute.  American silk manufacturing seems to have made little recovery since.


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