Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.



Cocoons and raw silk; thrown silk and dyed silk; spun silk yarns and fabrics; plain woven silks; lutestrings, sarsenets, satins, serges, foulards, tissues for hat and millinery purposes; figured silk piece goods, woven or printed, upholstery silks; crapes, velvets, gauzes; cravats, handkerchiefs, hosiery, knit goods, laces, scarves, ties, veils, all descriptions of cut and made-up silks; ribbons, plan fancy, and velvet; bindings, braids, cords, galloons, ladies' dress trimmings, upholsters', tailors', military and miscellaneous; machines for the manufacture of silk goods: the American silk industry's proud display "had the post of honor at the east end of the Main Building, on the central aisle" at the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The industry had burgeoned after the Civil War: only four of the thirty four silk exhibitors (representing America's two hundred twenty four silk manufacturers and dealers) could trace their origins to the "times which tried the souls of the silk producers and manufacturers." The Nonotuck Silk Company, the unlikely descendant of the 1830's moth-to-cloth Northampton Silk Company, was one that could and did.

After falling twice from the rickety carousel of early nineteenth century enterprises, it seized the brass ring and held on. The key to its success was its manufacture of the first usable "machine twist," a silk thread strong and smooth enough to withstand the unprecedented demands of the newly invented sewing machine. Nonotuck became one of the nation's leading silk thread manufactures and Northampton's largest employer for decades. Yet the details of this key invention have never been spelled out. This paper attempts to fill that gap.

The sericulture years: 1830 - 1850.

The story begins, not in 1838 as the trade card suggests, but eight years earlier, when Samuel Whitmarsh, a 30-year-old Boston native, bought a large estate near the center of Northampton with the proceeds of a successful tailoring business in New York and built cocoonery for two million silkworms and two greenhouses for mulberry shoots next to his mansion. Raising silkworm was a popular spring pastime in Northampton in the 1820's; Whitmarsh tugged the silkworm from cottage to factory, from hobby to industry. A former linseed oil mill three miles three miles to the north along the Mill River served as his first factory. A few years later, backed by a group of New York and Connecticut financiers, Whitmarsh built a four-story brick one nearby.

The new factory hummed with up-to-the-minute machinery. Tourists flocked to see his power loom churn out silk ribbons and vesting. The Northampton Silk Company was incorporated in 1838. But some whispered that the manufacture was mostly a show to persuade the gullible to invest in mulberry trees, whose price increased tenfold in a few short years. The Northampton Silk Company burst with the mulberry bubble. Bankrupt, Whitmarsh withdrew in 1840. Out but not down, he tried, again unsuccessfully, to establish a silk industry in Jamaica a few years later. At the time of his death, in Northampton in 1875, he was planning to raise silk in California.