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Book description

One of the greatest hopes and expectations that accompanied American colonialism – from its earliest incarnation – was that Atlantic settlers would be able to locate new sources of raw silk, with which to satiate the boundless desire for luxurious fabrics in European markets. However, in spite of the great upheavals and achievements of Atlantic plantation, this ambition would never be fulfilled. By taking the commercial failure of silk seriously and examining numerous experiments across New Spain, New France, British North America and the early United States, Ben Marsh reveals new insights into aspiration, labour, environment, and economy in these societies. Each devised its own dreams and plans of cultivation, framed by the particularities of cultures and landscapes. Writ large, these dreams would unravel one by one: the attempts to introduce silkworms across the Atlantic world ultimately constituted a step too far, marking out the limits of Europeans' seemingly unbounded power.


‘Written with verve and wit, Marsh's strikingly original commodity study reshapes our understanding of the Atlantic World. Marsh masterfully employs both macro and micro history to detail the importance of silk making efforts – and its failures – to colony, empire, and nation building. Sophisticated yet accessible, Unravelled Dreams is a magisterial must read.'

Zara Anishanslin - author of Portrait of a Woman in Silk

‘A deeply researched, felicitously written, probingly analytical examination of bright promise and repeated failure. Marsh's expansive account of raw silk cultivation illuminates subjects from trade to technology, empire to environment, silks to slavery, enriching while complicating our understanding of early modern European and American textile, consumption, and economic histories.'

Robert S. DuPlessis - author of The Material Atlantic

‘Rarely has a history of ‘failure' been so skilfully evoked. Ben Marsh explores the western imperial hopes for silk production in the colonial Atlantic world – the stuff of competing politics, regional ecologies and assorted adventures. His sharp analyses reveal vital new perspectives, set within globally entangled material histories.'

Beverly Lemire - author of Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures

‘… a much-needed counterbalance to triumphalist tales of innovative success and unsettling easy assumptions of inevitable technological progress … This excellent book relies on meticulous research spanning an unusually wide range of times, places and cultures … Beautifully produced with lavish colour illustrations, Unravelled Dreams … reveals a substantial facet of imperial history that has previously been neglected.’

Patricia Fara Source: The British Journal for the History of Science

‘… Unravelled Dreams recovers the causes and consequences of a forgotten history, highlights contemporaries’ coping and compromising with contingencies, and, like all good books, inspires the readers to think and explore more into the story.’

Dan Du Source: Enterprise & Society

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