American Silk, Transnational Commerce, and Geographies of Identity

Endorsed by the Agricultural History Society (AHS), Business History Conference, Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), and the Western History Association

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Material Culture and Architecture; Nationalism and Transnationalism


An interesting cohort of investors, boosters, and workers--British colonial officials, English factory workers, early Mormons, European immigrants, Native American women and children, enslaved people, plantation owners--populates the history of American sericulture. Some raised mulberry trees and silkworms. Others read and wrote about best practices. Silk connected all of them--in great and small ways--to transnational commercial networks and swirling debates about expansion and economic development. This panel offers three histories of American silk to explore the overlapping racial, political, and economic justifications for sericulture experiments, the global context of local production, and the diverse meanings attributed to the prized commodity.

Panelists will discuss how politicians, religious leaders, slave owners, and bureaucrats in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries embraced silk production as a salve for many political, social, and economic ills. In newspaper articles, treatises, and pamphlets, supporters proclaimed the advantages of an industry that beautified and “settled” the landscape, converted “savage” peoples, required little capital outlay, attracted immigrants to the Americas, and occupied the “idle time” of dependents, namely white women, enslaved people, and children as well as the impoverished, “infirm,” and elderly. This discourse provides insight into shifting visions of and debates about settler colonialism, industrial capitalism, and international trade.

Silk boosterism inflated expectations and obscured challenges. Panelists will also explore the hard realities of silk production. Laborers often did not have the necessary skills, expertise, “free time,” or technology to create a good product. Despite the risk and failure that dogged the industry, people kept trying to make silk work. Unwavering commitment to colonial projects, religious ideals, and entrepreneurial ventures kept them motivated, as did the different values that they applied to local or domestic production. The commodity connected families, households, plantations, and communities in America to the international marketplace and transnational labor flows. The layers of meaning that people attributed to silk emerged from this global context and on-the-ground experiences with sericulture.

These three papers, arranged in chronological order, emphasize a handful of themes, namely settler colonialism, entrepreneurship, gendered work, migration, and global commerce. Danielle Skeehan’s paper explores how England’s sustained sponsorship of colonial sericulture also gave rise to the emergent discourses of colonial difference and began the work of imagining an Atlantic division of labor and resources. Ben Marsh explores the foreign species that silk helped to transplant to the Americas--including species of trees and migrant experts from Mediterranean Europe who did not always make smooth transitions into American populations--assessing to what extent silk production in the Atlantic world connected to older or emerging markets. Sasha Coles will discuss the labors of women silk producers in the nineteenth-century Great Basin and their transnational business networks to shed light on the gendered contours of the Mormon Church’s economic program, the role of fashion and desire in debates over polygamy, and the complex, at times conflicting meanings that Mormon women assigned to silk clothing.

Papers Presented

“A Gold Mine in Embryo”: Mormon Women, Silk Work, and Transnational Business in the Nineteenth-Century American West

This paper relies on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, meeting minutes, and travel writing to explore why and how white Mormon women founded a silk industry in the nineteenth-century American West. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints colonized the Great Basin in the late 1840s, the Mormons attempted to create a communitarian independent economy. Church leaders urged women to boycott non-Mormon merchants and dedicate their “free time” to silk production. This directive emerged from heated debates over plural marriage. Critics condemned polygamous patriarchs for treating their wives like “Indian squaws” and depriving them of fashionable clothing. The silk experiment responded to the intense racialized politicization of women’s bodies and desires. Beautiful, homemade fabric would allow the Latter-day Saints to shore up the community’s economic borders while still performing white, middle-class respectability.

Mormon women responded to the sericulture directive with a mix of enthusiasm and disgust. They opened rooms in their homes to silkworms and constructed cocooneries on their property. They presented their goods at fairs, formed official organizations, constructed a reeling factory in Salt Lake City, and visited silk experiments in France and Italy. They reluctantly placed silkworm eggs underneath their pillows to catalyze hatching. This venture supported the church's economic infrastructure while also expanding the church’s colonial apparatus. Women from the Pacific Islands participated in the industry as part of their “conversion.” Mormon women, typically depicted as cloistered and entirely dependent on church patriarchs, operated in a wide economic sphere that linked the Great Basin to the international marketplace and contributed to the colonization of the Great Basin. Mormon women imbued silk with complex, at times conflicting meaning and significance based on these experiences.

Presented By
Sasha Coles, University of California, Santa Barbara

New World Silk and the Natural History of Settler Colonialism

This paper explores how England’s sustained sponsorship of colonial sericulture also gave rise to the emergent discourses of colonial difference and began the work of imagining an Atlantic division of labor and resources. Promotional literature, such as Virginia Ferrar’s 1655 silk treatise The reformed Virginian silk-worm, frequently framed the phenomenon of silkworm metamorphosis as a “natural” sign for how cultivation of this insect might also transform or reform the English settler colonial project in North America. Combining elements of natural history writing and settler colonial promotional material, silk treatises endorsed “indigenizing” silk production in Virginia. Specifically, by transforming colonial Virginia’s tobacco fields into Mulberry orchards and Native American women and children into silkworm growers, New World ecologies might be interwoven into Anglo-Atlantic circuits of production that also included working-class English women and children employed as silk spinners in the Spitalfields region of London. The utopic commercial fictions produced by this literature imagined an Anglo-Atlantic economic world that weaves together Native American resources (human and animal) and emergent English forms of industrial production to bolster Britain’s commercial and imperial strength on a global scale. Reading seventeenth-century silk treatises through the lens of critical race studies, this paper explores how this writing conceived the settler colonial project and its concomitant ideas of race, gender, and geography.

Presented By
Danielle Skeehan, Oberlin College

Accidental Agents of Global Empire: Silkworms’ Impact on Eighteenth-Century British Colonialism

Attempts to introduce sericulture (silk production) to eighteenth-century American colonies have generally been viewed as a commercial failure, generating far less output than proponents hoped or anticipated. This paper explores some of the ways experimentation nonetheless left important legacies for colonial American communities and for the British Empire’s trading and manufacturing systems. The paper begins by considering conceptions of the silkworm and its relationship to Atlantic empire, linking the promotional literature considered in the first paper to the direction of development in the eighteenth century, as British demand and processing of silk increased substantially. It draws on primary sources from a series of American regions (from Florida to New England) in which official schemes to introduce silkworms were launched, arguing that one of the upshots of projection was to diversify populations, as silkworms and their travails unwittingly justified targeted recruitment of American settlers from Mediterranean localesincluding Greeks, Italians, French, and Spanish experts. Beyond the demographic and environmental legacies in North America, the paper argues that American production was more intimately connected to metropolitan debates in Britain about protectionism and trade than has heretofore been acknowledged. The prospect and then foreclosure of adequate raw silk production in the Atlantic world encouraged more systematic attention to silkworms’ product and its acquisition in Asia. Silkworms may never have been the transformative agents they were intended to be, but their peculiar needs and limitations nonetheless diversified the multicultural basis of labor in the New World and encouraged new kinds of imperial production in the Indian Ocean world.

Presented By
Benjamin Marsh, University of Kent

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Marina Moskowitz, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Prof. Marina Moskowitz is the Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture, and Design, and Full Professor in Design Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to starting this post in 2018, she was a Reader in History and American Studies at the University of Glasgow; she also has a background in public history, having worked as a museum curator prior to her academic career, and continues to be engaged in a variety of public humanities projects. In her current post she is a Faculty Director for the Center for Design and Material Culture at UW-M, with particular oversight of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

Prof. Moskowitz is the author of Standard of Living: The Measure of the Middle-Class in Modern America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and the forthcoming Seed Money: The Value of Horticulture in Nineteenth-Century America. She has also co-edited Testimonial Advertising and the American Marketplace: Emulation, Identity, Community (with Marlis Schweitzer; Palgrave, 2009) and Cultures of Commerce: Representations and American Business Culture (with Elspeth Brown and Catherine Gudis; Palgrave, 2006). She is currently the co-editor of the journal Textile History, published by Taylor and Francis on behalf of the Pasold Research Fund.

Prof. Moskowitz has held numerous grants and fellowships to support both her individual research and collaborative projects, from institutions such as the American Antiquarian Society, the Library of Congress, and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. She worked with colleagues at the University of Glasgow on a series of research and public humanities projects around the history of knitting, with funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh and remains involved in those projects.

Presenter: Sasha Coles, University of California, Santa Barbara
Bio: Sasha Coles is a PhD Candidate in US history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation, "Homespun Respectability: Silk Worlds, Women’s Work, and Mormon Identity, 1850-1910s,” traces the history of silk production in the American West to illustrate how early Mormons used labor, commerce, and commodities to negotiate their identities as religious outsiders and respectable American citizens. Sasha teaches nineteenth-century US women's history and public history at UCSB. She recently completed a research fellowship at The Huntington Library. She also manages an online public history project, This mobile-friendly website uses the food, design, and technologies at Disneyland to teach historical lessons. While waiting in line, theme park visitors can learn about enslavement in the antebellum South, pirates in the 1700s, the global history of gumbo, and other fun topics.

Presenter: Benjamin Marsh, University of Kent
Ben Marsh is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Kent (Canterbury, UK), where he is Deputy Head of the School of History and Director of Graduate Studies within the cross-faculty Centre for American Studies. His main research interests are in the social and economic history of the Atlantic world c.1500-1820 and the settlement of early America, including gender and race history, the US South and slave societies, demography, the American Revolution, and textile history. His first monograph, Georgia’s Frontier Women: Female Fortunes in a Southern Colony was published in 2008 (University of Georgia Press), and he has published articles in Agricultural History, The Journal of Southern History, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, and recently completed a co-edited volume on Understanding and Teaching the Age of Revolutions (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). He is currently completing a longstanding research project on attempts to cultivate silk in the Atlantic world, which explores the intersections between political economy, utopianism, textile and commodity history, migration, and colonialism – entitled Unravelled Dreams: Silk and the Atlantic World, c.1500-1840. Supported by an AHRC Research Fellowship in 2013 as well as smaller grants and fellowships from the Pasold Textile Research Fund, the Carnegie Trust, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the project addresses why, how, and with what success different regions of the Americas took on the challenge of sericulture. Aspects of the research have been published in article form and recognised with the award of the Natalie Rothstein Prize by the Textile Society (2014), and Ben was featured as a consultant and guest on the BBC Radio 4 series presented by Steph McGovern in October 2013, “Silk”. Ben's work on the topic also featured in the international Enlightened Princesses exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art and Kensington Palace in 2017-18. Marsh is a past programme committee member of the Southern Historical Association, and is currently a board member of the European Early American Studies Association, the European Summer Academy in Atlantic History, and active in UK-based American history organisations including the British Group in Early American History and the British Association of American Studies. He currently supervises a number of postgraduate students working on textile exchange, facial ornamentation, loyalists in the Age of Revolution, fugitive slaves, migration into southern territories.

Presenter: Danielle Skeehan, Oberlin College
Danielle Skeehan is an Assistant Professor in the English Department and the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College where she specializes in early and nineteenth-century American culture. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, The Appendix, The Journal of the Early Republic, and Early American Studies. Her book manuscript, The Fabric of Empire: Material and Literary Cultures of the Global Atlantic, 1650-1850, offers a material history of global modernity and racial capitalism that centers the woven stories of textile workers from around the world.