Lecture: Silk Mania in Auburn Prison
September 21, 2017
The Cayuga Museum will host a talk on 19th century silk manufacture and Auburn Prison, presented by Dr. Denise Nicole Green, Assistant Professor and Director, Cornell Costume & Textile Collection. Dr. Green is the co-author of Silk Mania in Auburn Prison, with Dr. Nancy E. Breen. Silk Mania in Auburn Prison was recently presented in Portland, Maine at the National Symposium of the Costume Society of America.
The program begins at 6 PM, and admission is $7 Museum members, $10 general public.
[Paper Abstract] Sericulture and silk manufacture in the United States has always eluded large scale commercial production. This research uses archival records and other primary sources to investigate the social, political and economic forces that contributed to emergence and failure of early 19th century silk production in Auburn, New York, with specific focus on silk manufacture in the Auburn Prison.
Minor experiments in sericulture began in colonial Jamestown, Virginia as early as 1614 and continued efforts to domestically produce silk were small and isolated until the "silk mania" of 1831-1844. Central NY became an epicenter of this craze, especially in the growing town of Auburn. A new mulberry species, Morus multicaulis, was introduced from France in 1826 and was touted as easy to grow and cold-hardy. Many states, including NY, gave a bounty to encourage domestic production of silk. In the early 19th century, nearly all silk was imported; therefore, local production was expected to benefit the domestic economy. These conditions promoted a feverish rush for financial gain and fueled a sense of patriotism. Farmers and town dwellers in Auburn began to grow mulberry trees and raise cocoons in their parlors, woodsheds and barns.
In 1839 New York's Governor William Seward suggested silk be produced in the Auburn Prison. By 1841 the prison began buying cocoons, which created an assured cash market. Prison manufacture was well received by the locals as it did not compete with nearby manufacturing and supported the sericulture cottage industry. The prison continued to expand capacity until 1843 when it became the "Principal Cash Market in U.S. for Cocoons and Raw Silk."
Despite initial success, prison silk ultimately failed. Speculation drastically inflated prices for mulberry trees, after which the Morus multicaulis were doomed by a blight and discovered not to be cold-tolerant enough to survive northeast winters. Silk importers filed complaints, and imported silk remained cheaper than the domestic product because higher tariffs were not enacted.
The prison silk business ended in May 1844 and the machinery was sold. Silk was not an ideal prison product: the machinery was loud and enabled prisoners to converse with one another without being overheard; the transient nature of the convicts caused production problems; and lastly, prison silk was stigmatized by its association with male convicts, making it undesirable on the market. The brief history of prison silk (1839-1844) reveals how social, political and economic forces intersected to fuel both the rise and fall of the silk craze in Auburn.