Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  10 (1885), 240–61.

A Silk Dress

Richard R Bowker



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [10]


Entomology, Industry, Agriculture, Periodicals, Disease, Bacteriology, Machinery, Manufactories, Gender, Acclimatization, Political Economy, Invention, Industrial Chemistry, Technology, Artisans

People mentioned:

Harriet A Lucas , William C Wyckoff

Institutions mentioned:

Women's Silk Culture Association of the United States , Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company , Silk Association of America

Publications cited:

Wyckoff 1883

    Describes the 'industry of the petty silkworm', upon which more than 'a million human beings depend [...] for their daily bread' (240). Beginning in the ancient world, gives a brief history of the cultivation of silk which culminates with the American 'Morus multicaulis mania' of the 1820s and 1830s, when the 'whole country [...] went wild' over the planting of mulberry trees after Gideon B Smith 'planted [...] what is claimed to have been the first' in Baltimore, an event recorded in the American Journal of Science and Arts by Felix Pascalis (243). Since then there have been many ups and downs in the silk production trade, and in the 1850s 'Europe was swept of much of its silken wealth by one of these parasitic diseases, and one of Pasteur's early triumphs was in discovering its nature' (244). Having given an account of 'sericulture, or silk-raising' which is properly speaking 'a division of agriculture' (244), goes on to describe the increasingly mechanised industry of 'silk manufacture proper' which is 'mostly women's work' (244 and 246). Because raw silk, which comes mostly from China, is 'duty free', 'manufacturers do not expect much result from silk-raising in America' and there are no great attempts at acclimatisation (246). The manufacture of silk first changed from a 'fireside industry' and moved into factories after Alfred T Lilly developed a 'sewing silk' made of 'two threads' that could be used in sewing-machines, a sample of which he brought to Isaac M Singer (248). Warns against 'foreign black silks' that are 'so highly "loaded" with nitrate or iron as to give color to the belief in "spontaneous combustion" in silk which caused the North German Steam-ship Company in 1879 to refuse the weightier foreign silks', explaining that the 'carbon of the silk and the nitrate make a compound closely parallel to gun-cotton' (252). Also describes the 'Jacquard loom, with its marvellous power of producing infinite detail of figure', which allows the automatic production of 'an infinity of patterns' by the use of 'cards pierced with round holes [shown in a diagram], much like the perforated music of the orguinette'. Although Jacquard was mobbed in 1804 by angry French silk-weavers 'who thought his labor-saving machinery would destroy their livelihoods', he was soon honoured by them once it was realised that his loom in fact 'furnished employment for thousands of workers' (254)

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

Printed from Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: An Electronic Index, v. 4.0, The Digital Humanities Institute <http://www.sciper.org> [accessed ]