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The raising of raw silk in the United States at the start of the nineteenth century was a local phenomenon that remained concentrated in areas that had a colonial legacy. In the context of a fast-diversifying economy and the meteoric rise of cotton occurring in the South, it gave little hint of being a branch of agriculture that had the potential to survive in the expanding United States. But sericulture experienced a nationwide rejuvenation between 1820 and 1845, as pockets of cultivation developed across the nation, from Maine to Louisiana. Most of these efforts raised small quantities which tended to be reeled locally and inexpertly, and twisted into sewing thread, though they could hold great value and meaning to individuals and households. The chapter argues that three mutually reinforcing vehicles gave particular shape to these antebellum efforts at silk production: the agricultural press, the postal service, and the agricultural society. These packaged up a nationalist rhetoric that virtuously reconciled agriculture with manufacturing, production with consumption, and progress with nostalgia. But in spite of innovative justifications and wide uptake, many of the self-same issues that had compromised earlier efforts at sericulture eventually rose to the surface. The challenge of making silk American had been accomplished, but not that of making American silk.
The sixteenth century would witness the remarkable rise of silk production in the Spanish Empire, as Iberian conquistadors and caterpillars converged upon Meso-American Indians and mountain forests. By the 1560s, amidst the brutal extraction of gold and silver, silk production had blossomed into one of the Americas’ first post-Columbian cash crops, and for a time it sustained a manufacturing industry that helped satiate the growing markets of a Latinising America. Perhaps strangely, this first colonial attempt at establishing silk cultivation across the Atlantic – rooting in Oaxaca – would prove unquestionably the most successful of all those in the Americas, linking the victims of the European Reconquista with those of the American Conquista: a Moorish speciality became a Mixtecan Indian opportunity. But it was a function of the dramatic pace of global interconnection in the sixteenth century that, within four decades of the first harvesting of American raw silk in the 1540s, the first Asian raw silk in bulk arrived from the other direction, across the Pacific. A commercial battle followed between the valuable fibrous proteins emitted by the silkworms of Granada (in Spain and New Spain), and those of their long-distant ancestors in China. Its result, the collapse of raw silk production in New Spain, was heavily influenced by the decline of Indian populations and the paranoia of the Spanish Crown in terms of protecting peninsular interests.
The prologue explains how silkworms became an object of fascination in early modern Europe, as their economic and physiological properties began to be more thoroughly understood in areas far distant from the regions in which silk raising (sericulture) originated. It outlines the book’s objective, which is to offer a deep and wide-ranging interrogation of raw silk’s failure as a commodity produced in the Atlantic world. By attending more to historical experimentation and failure, it argues that we can better understand what was distinctive about sericulture and what was particular about the Atlantic world complex: its vast distance, cultural hybridisation, colonial fragility, and manufacturing imbalances. The chapter tracks the global history of sericulture’s spread outward from Neolithic China, synthesising existing scholarship to identify certain prerequisites that accompanied its successful transplantation from one region to another, and variations in systems of production. These included availability of materials, the environmental capacity to accommodate the effective symbiosis of Bombyx mori (silkworms) and Morus (mulberry) trees on which they feed, an adequate seasonal labour pool, and migrant expertise to help establish production and instruct in more complicated processes. It closes by considering the particular opportunities and challenges presented by the Atlantic barrier and oceanic transmission.
This chapter explores how colonial authorities and settlers, in first Carolina and later Georgia, made substantial efforts to introduce silkworms to the southern boundaries of British America across the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These attempts at sericulture played a significant part in influencing schemes for and arguments about economic development in the Lower South. They generated innovation in the justification and practice of state investment; taxes paid for public enslaved labourers and their training, bounties, filatures; and the global sourcing of technical knowledge, experts, and technology. As with the French and Armenian immigrants to Virginia, stretching towards silk helped to bring Huguenots, Swiss, and Italians to the Lower South, to shape schemes for westward expansion, and to broaden the employment of enslaved people. The investment left cultural, material, and environmental legacies within many households, markets, and estates in the region, as mulberries proliferated. The depth of interest ensured that these well-supported initiatives generated noteworthy output, centralised in dedicated buildings (filatures), through which agents sought to control quality and improve proficiency. The conquest of silkworms appealed to many planters in search of metropolitan recognition, who in spite of later racialised claims, deployed their bondspeople widely in the pursuit.
The independence of the United States blew apart the projected formula that had held sway for over 150 years in British regions persisting with sericulture – namely, that raw silk might be produced on the western side of the Atlantic and then manufactured on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Opportunistic schemes were proposed to create silk manufactures and to reorganise trade in silks, as American and European merchants and entrepreneurs sought to take advantage of the fraying of Anglo-American links, and to create new systems of production and distribution. Their earnest efforts revealed that there remained a lively appetite for silk goods amongst American consumers that soon re-emerged in the early 1780s: self-denial had been a means of revolution, but it was not an end. In the final quarter of the eighteenth century, political economists and silk producers alike made important strides towards ensuring a future for silk production, and they largely did so by linking it to American manufacturing. In contrast to the imperial regression in Atlantic domains, new expectations and new pressures developed among those regions of Europe that continued to fulfil sericulture’s prerequisites in the early nineteenth century.
France’s introduction of mulberries and silkworms originated in the pincer-like arrival of resources and expertise across both its Spanish and Italian borders, and production would last through to the end of the nineteenth century, concentrated in southern regions. This chapter considers the moments of acceleration in the seventeenth century when French schemes (pushed by agronomists and political economists) sought to carry production to new regions. The fact that French domestic production of raw silk never came close to the quantity or quality required by its silk industry encouraged new ambitions overseas. The chapter tracks in turn the idiosyncratic projects in the French Caribbean in the late seventeenth century, and the more concerted ambitions and undertakings in Louisiana in the early eighteenth century – in both of which cases, enslaved labourers were mobilised for a time to nurture silkworms and reel silk, and women played prominent roles. French efforts around the Caribbean basin were compromised by competition with other crops, by the instability of the region’s geopolitics, and by a host of commodity-specific threats which showed up the fragility of silkworms. Even while French New World prospects of sericulture retreated, however, production was consolidated and deepened at home, thanks to environmental and labour advantages.
This chapter explores the convergence of colonial political protests with the worlds of textile production and textile consumption. In the decades that preceded the American Revolution, Atlantic purchases of European-made silks and of Asian-made silks transported by European trading companies and merchants had reached new heights. But long-held sensibilities and systems were about to be thrown into disarray by the enveloping imperial crisis, with which the rapidly increasing American outlay on finished silks coincided. As fibres and fabrics accrued new moral and commercial values during the Age of Revolution, silk was initially selected as a salient, bellwether commodity inimical to republicanism. In the heated debates about dependency, representation, and identity that followed, the place of silk in American life and the potential of raw silk in an American economy would both be repositioned. Disrupted patterns of imperial consumption encouraged both the pursuit of new sites of raw silk production and the pursuit of new trade and manufacturing opportunities. These possessed a different character to the dutiful imperial projects that had preceded them, as once-separate colonies and colonists increasingly came together, and began to articulate homespun silken ambitions in new ways.
This chapter demonstrates how New England – an Atlantic region that differed greatly from the Lower South in its origins, climatic characteristics, and demographic make-up – nonetheless found ways to embrace sericulture. The pursuit figured little in corporate or imperial plans, arrived late, and was never really oriented towards export, growing out of the particular preoccupations of a small number of local promoters. But by drawing on the region’s distinctive organisation and networks, considerable progress was made in planting mulberries, and a foundation was laid that would bring rich engagement with silk culture. Through a case study of one particular household’s pursuit of raw silk – that of Rev. Ezra Stiles – we gain access into what Atlantic silk experimentation meant for the many thousands of families who undertook it at one stage or another across the Atlantic world, and the ways in which it affected their domestic spaces and routines. Lastly, although New England silk trials differed in so many respects from others, it was apparent that they nonetheless shared in common an overriding emphasis on the contribution of female labour – something that their more balanced demographics were better able to support than many outposts in the early South.
Between the late sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries, England’s dramatic enlargement in commerce, manufacturing, and territory encouraged this peripheral north-western European power to view it as not only desirable but practicable to secure to itself a silk industry and to supply itself with homegrown silk. This chapter considers firstly the increasing familiarity with silk within the British Isles, and the motivations and incentives that followed for producing silk domestically – paying close attention to the experimentation and measures introduced under James I, who offered particular patronage to sericulture. While novel initiatives and flagship projects brought some attention and investment, low temperatures and issues with expertise compromised production in England. The trials did constitute a breakthrough in understanding however, and stimulated extensive projection in new colonies under the auspices of the Virginia Company in North America. The goal of silk production prompted Virginians to introduce international experts, new buildings and literature, and new policy initiatives – albeit in the face of the dramatic and all-consuming rise of tobacco culture. The final part of the chapter highlights how a second wave of Virginian experimentation in the 1650s and 1660s brought more focus to women’s roles and embedded sericulture within economic and scientific ideas about English colonialism.