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York County’s Silk Boom and Bust

Mulberry leaves
Mulberry leaves

(Illustrations from A Treatise on the Mulberry Tree and Silkworm and on the Manufacture and Production of Silk, 1839. Courtesy of York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives)

Silk has been prized for as long as 5,000 years, since the fibers spun by silkworms were discovered in China and spun into luxurious fabric. In the 1830s it was touted to be next big money maker in the northeastern United States. York countians were just as eager as everyone else to get in on the profits.

Silk manufacture starts with the hatching of eggs from a moth, Bombyx mori. The larvae, or silkworms, are fed mulberry leaves, and they spin cocoons that are eventually harvested for their fine fibers.

Silk moth and eggs
Silk moth and eggs

King James I sent silkworm eggs and white mulberry trees to colonists in Virginia as early as the 1620s. The planters were encouraged by bounties for raw silk production and faced with fines if they didn’t plant mulberry trees. It wasn’t profitable and they soon concentrated on growing tobacco. Some success in raw silk production was attained in Georgia and the Carolinas from about 1735 to 1760, but then also declined.

In the 1760s until the Revolutionary War, some silk for sewing thread and home woven fabric was produced in the northeast, especially Connecticut, but given up during the war and not revived until the 1820s.

In 1826 Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore and William Prince & Son of Long Island introduced Morus multicaulis, a mulberry tree that served better than the previously used Morus alba. M. multicaulis was easy to propagate, and it grew rapidly and produced larger leaves. This was important since one ounce of tiny silkworm eggs (30-40,000) produces silkworms that eat well over a ton of mulberry leaves to produce 12-18 pounds of raw silk.

The newspapers helped fuel “easy money” through speculation on mulberry trees. During the 1830s thousands of acres were planted and farms mortgaged to buy more small trees. These were propagated for pennies by nurserymen and sold for $2 to $5 each. Local lawyers, businessmen, laborers, craftsmen and farmers were all caught up in the craze.

Silk worm
Silk worm

Buildings were erected for cocooneries. Years later, carpet weaver John Schwartz of York claimed that he had been the first person in Pennsylvania, perhaps in the country, to complete the whole process himself of hatching the eggs, feeding the silkworms, spinning and reeling the fibers and weaving and dying silk cloth that was made into underskirts for his wife and mother. Schwartz raised his 80,000 worms in “a large two-story cocoonery, 80 by 40 feet” that local bank cashier and newspaper publisher Samuel Wagner built on Webb’s Hill (now Reservoir Hill). Schwartz related that Wagner already had his own million and a half silkworms in the building.

Silk cocoon
Silk cocoon

Joel Fisher, wool carder, fuller and dyer on Newberry Street advertised in July 1839:
“The subscriber has a quantity of Silk Worm Eggs from worms of his own raising, of very superior quality, of two different varieties—the dark worm producing a Sulphur colored silk, and the mammoth white, which he offers for sale by the ounce or thousand.”

Henry Doll of Shrewsbury was one of the York County delegates to the Pennsylvania Silk Convention held at Harrisburg in February 1839. Doll also shared, in the Journal of the American Silk Society, his process of constructing a frame filled with wood shavings to facilitate the silkworms spinning cocoons.

An article in the same journal, “The Mulberry a Substitute for the Still,” might also have had a local author, as it declared: “…It is a source of gratulation, that in York County, Pa. and the neighbouring counties of that state, and Maryland, the farmers are planting multicaulis trees, with the intention of making silk a part of their produce instead of whiskey. There is probably no section of the Union where whiskey-making is made a business of more generality than in that part of the country.”

By the fall of 1839 the bottom was dropping out of the silk mania. There were several contributing factors. Picking the leaves and keeping the voracious silkworms fed was labor intensive, as was harvesting the threads and creating the yarn. The women and children who were suggested to perform these “few hours of pleasant recreation each week at home” in their “spare time,” had many other chores to do, and there was no real pool of cheap labor. The high producing Morus multicaulis mulberry trees also were too tender for cold-wintered years. Mainly, though, the bubble burst occurred because speculators were growing far too many mulberry trees to supply the limited market of silkworm cultivators.

In a few years the only traces left were occasional newspaper articles looking back to the days when silk production was king. A May 1902 clipping in the York County Heritage Trust files tells of Yorker Hiram Hause’s ball of silk. It had been woven by his mother in 1833 when he was a boy growing up at Two Taverns, Adams County. He estimated that in the 1830s silkworms were “raised on one-third of the farms of York, Adams and other Southern Pennsylvania counties.” He recalled that the “silkworms in the garret ate the mulberry leaves that were given them with a noise like horses crunching oats.”

The same article relates the story of Mrs. Mary Sherfey of the Gettysburg area. In 1835 she sent President Andrew Jackson a ball of sewing silk, accompanied by a “patriotic letter.” “Old Hickory” was said to have replied on Executive Mansion letterhead, sending her a copper bowl and a silk reel. These relics were lost in 1863 when their house and peach orchard became the center of fierce fighting on July 2.

Silk production returned to York County near the end of the 19th century, but it was a very different industry. The 1876 Centennial Exposition raised interest in silk manufacturing once again. New machinery had been invented to weave vast quantities of imported raw silk, easily obtainable from countries with abundant cheap labor. Local businessmen built and outfitted huge plants which operated under the names of York Silk Company, York Silk Manufacturing, Diamond Silk Company and Windsor Weaving Mills. Later came Ashley and Bailey, Blue Bird and Tioga. Some of the factories continued production into the latter half of the 20th century, before finally falling victim to the cheap offshore labor that not only raised the silkworms and spun the thread, but now also produced the fabric.

(York Sunday News column, originally published April 24, 2016)