October 18, 2019 by freemexy
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.
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.