Monday, August 2, 2010

The American Silk Bubble

What Happened to Silk Production in America?

Although the manufacture of silk as a commodity started in America as early as 1603 when King James of England sent both mulberry tree seeds and silkworm eggs to Virginia it didn’t really take off until 1830. At that time a new species of mulberry tree was brought from China. The Chinese Mulberry grew quickly and was easier to propagate than the White Mulberry, and to make it even more attractive, worms fed on Chinese Mulberry leaves were said to produce a better quality of silk.

In 1830 the new mulberry tree also got an additional PR boost from congress. The result? Similar to the housing speculation of our own time. People rushed out to buy trees, saplings, cuttings and seeds. Naturally prices rose as demand outstripped supply. Pretty soon the price of the trees surpassed reason. In the space of just 4 years the cost of a hundred trees went from about $5.00 to $500.00. There is also the tale of just two trees that were sold for $100.00!

Obviously such outrageous prices couldn’t sustain themselves and the market for mulberry trees crashed around 1840. People lost fortunes and farmers tore out the trees to use the land for more profitable crops. I imagine people went around muttering dark things about tree sellers the same way we currently grumble about mortgage brokers and banks. Even so, silk production hung on for a few more years until, around 1844, when a blight struck down the remaining trees. And so ended the manufacture of silk in America as a cottage or home industry.

But what of the big silk mills? Names like Belding Brothers, Richardson and Corticelli? Although the local farmers couldn’t compete with overseas prices for raw silk and labor, the mills could still make a profit using raw silk imported from overseas. Another interesting parallel to our times. Although the raw materials come from overseas and America’s workforce faces increasingly fewer jobs, the large companies stay in business.

By the early 1900s the American silk industry was the largest in the word, despite having to rely on imported raw silk from Japan. In 1920 there were more than 1000 silk mills, although most were small operations with less than 300 employees.

America had succeeded in bringing within reach a product formerly considered a luxury. Unfortunately this achievement was short lived and silk gradually returned to being a luxury item. In the 1920s with the growth of rayon (the first of the synthetic imitators) contributed to that return to luxury status anlong with unstable prices for raw silk and over production . Towards the end many companies merged in an effort to remain viable. You can see evidence of this on old thread spools; the names of Belding Brothers and Corticelli can be found sharing the same spool end. Eventually space was made on the same spool for Richardson as well.

No comments: