The great silkworm excitement in the Green Mountains
Vermonters have never been timid when faced with agricultural innovation. In the early 19th century, the great forests of the Green Mountains were cleared to make pastures for Merino sheep. Within 15 years the production of Vermont wool more than tripled until the limitless prairies to the west rendered our hillside farms less than thrifty. As Arthur Cole remarked in his 1926 paper “Agricultural Crazes”: “The spirit of the farmers themselves made the United States particularly susceptible to orgies of speculation when a strange plant or animal was first brought to public attention. The susceptibility was in fact so great in those days the agriculture of the period attained a distinctive character on that account.”To get more silkworm, you can visit shine news official website.
Cole called these events “crazes, manias, and fevers,” and what transpired with silkworms in the 1830s and 1840s in Vermont rivaled the 17th century Dutch tulip boom in excitement and speculation.
The prospect of producing silk in lofts filled with leaf eating caterpillars proved irresistible to many Vermonters and, throughout New England, sericulture (silkworm husbandry) became a popular endeavor. Reduced to its elementals, a silkworm farm needed a modest amount of indoor space – often an unused bedroom with shelves for the livestock; and a modest amount of outdoor acreage for the production of mulberry trees, the leaves of which comprise the sole subsistence of the larvae of bombyx mori, the most desirable of the silk worm moths. Various accounts of a room full of munching caterpillars likened the sound to a light summer rain on a leafy forest canopy.
The agricultural newspapers of the day promoted this enterprise, and printed advertisements for the sale of silk worm eggs and mulberry trees; and the State of Vermont was so excited with the prospect of the exotic crop, that the legislature passed a bill to reward producers with a bounty to encourage production. The 1835 act “to encourage the growing of silk” authorized the State Treasurer to pay “the sum of ten cents for each pound of cocoons raised or grown within this state, as a bonus or premium to the person or persons raising same.” The premiere issue of The Vermont Farmer, published in Windsor, devoted its entire first two pages to a summary of William Kenrick’s “The American Silk Growers’ Guide” (1836). By 1839 this pocket-sized manual was in its second edition and offered detailed instructions for every aspect of producing silk.
It takes about one month for the silk worms to mature and much of their care, the Silk Growers Manual insisted could be accomplished by children. “A child of from nine to twelve years of age will gather seventy-five pounds of leaves in a day, and one hundred pounds of leaves will produce one pound of reeled silk. And a child, in six weeks, will gather at this rate, leaves sufficient for twenty-seven pounds of reeled silk.”
At maturity, silk worms spin their cocoons which are collected and processed by reeling, spinning, dying, and winding on spools. These processes are labor-intensive and, therefore, expensive; but at this point the raw silk is ready to be manufactured into a finished product.
The starting point for sericulture in New England was in Connecticut, specifically the towns of Mansfield and New Haven. Nathaniel Aspinwall was joined by Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University in New Haven, in the cultivation of mulberry trees and, according to historian Bob Wyss.
Stiles experimented with silkworms and production, going so far as to name some of his worms with monikers such as General Wolfe and Oliver Cromwell. In the 1780s he formed a company that promoted silk production through churches throughout the state. He shipped seeds and planting instructions to fellow ministers at Connecticut parishes. The ministers were to plant the seeds and cultivate the young trees.
Since the days of Ethan Allen, Vermont has had a long association with settlers from Connecticut, so it did not take long for the enthusiasm for silk to manifest itself in the Green Mountains. The Vermont legislature even emulated the Nutmeg State’s financial incentive to promote the practice. As nascent entrepreneurs conjured visions of untold wealth and unregulated child labor, speculation was rampant. Fortunes were made selling mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs, but precious little wealth was accrued in the production of actual silk.
Even a staid exemplar of traditional New England values such as Daniel Webster could not resist the siren song of the silk growers as he planted thousands of mulberry trees on his Massachusetts farm. In fact, the real story of silk mania is the tale of the rise and fall of the mulberry tree. The mulberry trees which sold for $3 per hundred in 1834 were, within a few years’ time, offered for as much as $500 per hundred. By 1839, however, oversupply and the harsh realities of silk growing, drove the price down to $1 per hundred. One often told tale recounted how, after the crash, speculators “chartered a vessel notoriously unseaworthy, loaded her with mulberry shrubs and sent the vessel to Indiana by way of New Orleans, heavily insured. To their great disappointment, the cargo arrived safely.”
Perhaps no Vermont community embraced the fad more enthusiastically than Bellows Falls. One report indicates that growers produced over 2 million pounds of cocoons in 1840. Lyman Simpson Hayes’ History of Rockingham recounts the venture.