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A Child’s-Eye View of the Mormon Silk Experiment

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 02, 2009

Utah’s 19th century silk industry was one of those projects encouraged by Brigham Young to stimulate home production and reduce Mormon dependence on a hostile world. Period literature is heavy on sermons advocating sericulture, treatises on raising worms and the mulberry trees they fed on, and praise for the quantities and artistry of finished articles.

What I’ve never seen before is the memoir of a child who assisted in the enterprise.

This reminiscence is by Beatrice Angelina Farley (Stevens) (1885-1941); her mother was Rachel Caroline Poulter Farley (1858-1938). They lived in Ogden.

When I was a very little girl, I remember that one day my mother was given a thimblefull of tiny silkworm eggs. She put them in a shoe box behind the kitchen stove to hatch. … Mulberry trees had been planted in many localities throughout the State, as silkworms thrive on their leaves. A fine row of these trees was growing across the street from our house. This may have influenced and prompted my mother’s venture.

In a very short time the shoe box was filled with live, crawling things which demanded food.

We children gathered leaves – arms full of mulberry leaves. Soon the box had to be exchanged for a larger one, and as the worms grew, it seemed to be a story of more and larger boxes, more frequent trips and larger armfuls of leaves from across the street. I can close my eyes now and hear the never ceasing rustling noise the worms made as they ate them. At last the furniture had to be taken from one bedroom and the entire space given over to this army of weavers to spin their cocoons.

It was a very busy six weeks from hatching time to the finished cocoon – an incredibly short time filled with intense activity. Mother was taught by Mrs. Margaret Kane when to dip the cocoons into boiling water, and also how to find the end of the tiny silk thread and reel it off into skeins. These skeins were taken to one of the three factories in Utah and woven into silk cloth and ribbon. Hundreds of yards of silk cloth and ribbon were manufactured through the efforts of the women, and were sent to eastern cities to be dyed …



28 Comments »

  1. This is great. I loved the images – “a thimbleful of tiny silkworm eggs,” and the “never ceasing rustling noise the worms made as they ate.” Such evocative details to complement my only basic knowledge of the whole silkworm enterprise.

    Also, this anecdote reminds me how *easy* modern living is – not always better – but so much easier. What an intense process silk-making was…

    Comment by Hunter — February 2, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  2. No kidding. Can you imagine the labor involved in every kind of fabric making? If it was wool, you had shear the animal, then clean and comb the fibers, then spin, then weave. If it was cotton, you had to pick the stuff, then gin the seeds out, then comb the fibers straight, then spin, then weave. Even if you wore buckskin, you had to hunt and kill the animal, then clean and tan the skin, and do whatever you did to make it soft.

    And that’s all before you even begin to cut and sew.

    No wonder textiles were so highly prized and cared for.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  3. This is fascinating, thanks. One of the other principals in the Weber County silk industry was Louisa Sargent Harris, who is an ancestor. Somewhere, my grandmother has some material about her. My daughter has become very interested in her gggggg(?)mother’s history and involvement.

    Comment by queuno — February 2, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  4. If you have ever visited the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, New York one of the first things you see when you take the tour is a black , silk dress made for Ms. Anthony by the Mormon women of Utah from silk they had produced themselves.
    Next to it there is a picture of Susan B. Anthony with Mormon women leaders taken on one of her visits to Salt Lake City. One of the persons in it is a future Relief Societ Present Emmaline B. Wells.
    On recieving the dress Ms. Anthony indicated that she was pleased that it was made by women who had the vote.
    I wonder if the little girl in the story helped make some the silk that was used to make the dress. I’d like to think she did.
    If you are ever in that part of New York to visit Church History sites it would be well worth your while to visit the Anthony house and see the dress and learn more about that great women who was always friendly to the Saints.

    Comment by John Willis — February 2, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  5. queuno, I’ll keep an eye out for material on your gggggggggggggggggrandmother. As long as I’m tellin’ stories, they might as well be about readers’ ancestors, if those stories are available.

    Wonderful, John. I’ve read comments from the Mormon women about their pride in having presented such a dress to SBAnthony, but I had no idea that the dress meant as much to SBAnthony as it did to the Mormon women! (My dad was from Rochester. The one time I was there, my nose was too deep in courthouse files and cemetery ledgers to visit any non-family-history sites. Much as I love the research, it was a mistake not to look around, and I won’t repeat it.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Ardis

    Comment by John Willis — February 2, 2009 @ 10:59 am

  7. I seem to remember visiting the Brigham Young winter home in St. George that had an exhibit on sericulture there, as well.

    Like most of the home manufacturing industries, though, this too ultimately failed after the effects of The Raid, and the Saints became more accommodating of gentile merchants and manufactured goods shipped in from out of state.

    I grew up in Ogden, and was not aware of a silk industry there. Not sure I would recognize a mulberry tree if it fell on my car, but I must have seen them growing up.

    Comment by kevinf — February 2, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  8. What an interesting post! How big were these cocoons? That sounds like incredibly intricate work.

    I also really enjoyed John’s comment.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — February 2, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  9. kevinf, there’s a mulberry tree in my neighbor’s yard hanging over the spot where we store our trash cans. The seedy red fruit is multitudinous, juicy, and staining. You’d rather have the tree fall on your car than to park your car where the fruit would fall on it, trust me.

    Lyons, France, is/was a center of silk industry, and I bought some small pieces when I was there as a missionary. They used cocoons and ribbons to decorate the packages. If the ones used there are typical, they are about as large as the last joint of your thumb, and the unraveling fiber is finer than a baby’s hair.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  10. Thank you Ardis for sharing this. I too have a gg grandmother involved in sericulture in St George, Utah. I’m impressed with the fine work required such as “how to find the end of the tiny silk thread.” Amazing!
    Not just fabric, but finished clothing too was valuable. So much so I have read of outfits being passed down in wills. We don’t do that much today. It is so cheap and we are so separated from the manufacturing process (cough) child slave labor in china (/cough) that we don’t value our old clothing.

    Comment by BruceCrow — February 2, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  11. The Daughters of Pioneer museum in Logan has a display with a skein of silk, which looks like a lock of silver golden hair. Also a couple of baby caps made from homegrown silk, and the ledgers kept by those in charge of the silk industry in Logan/Cache Valley.

    I can’t remember the details, but a card in the display with the baby caps tells how many strands of silk were twisted together, then how many of those strands were joined, etc until the final number of silk strands that were needed to work into the actual cap, or whatever. It would have taken an enormous amount of silk strands to make a dress.

    Comment by Maurine — February 2, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  12. I, too, was struck by the image of trying to find the end of the thread on the coccon. I had always assimed that sericulture (word of the day!) required intricacy, but this really brought it home. Thanks.

    Comment by Martin Willey — February 2, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  13. Ardis – I have some material here, but it’s not in any digital form. Probably time to invest in a new scanner anyway.

    And I looked it up. Louisa is my daughter’s GGGG-grandmother (my daughter did a big presentation for her 5th-grade class last year on the Mormon Migration and leaving Nauvoo and we put in some material).

    Comment by queuno — February 2, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  14. My Japanese grandmother’s family raised silkworms on their farm north of Nagoya. My mother talks about gathering the mulberry leaves to feed the caterpillars, and the insects making the sound of “Zawa, zawa, zawa” all night.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — February 2, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  15. My grandparent’s family home in a Mormon-settled area outside Utah had a large, beautiful mulberry tree in the corner of the lot. I spent a lot of time in that tree when I was a child. I just looked at the town on street view and see that the tree is still there.

    I’m trying to remember from a long-ago trip to the town museum whether the pioneers in that town made any attempts at sericulture, but can’t remember any mentions there or in any books on the area. Perhaps the effort remained in Utah proper?

    Comment by Researcher — February 3, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  16. I don’t know, Researcher, good question. As long as the climate supported mulberry trees, I don’t know why Mormon women couldn’t have tried raising silkworms outside of Utah, especially in places like Colorado or Arizona. And since the trees and worms did well in northern Utah, even Idaho might have been possible. I’ll see if I can find anything mentioning sericulture elsewhere in the Mormon Corridor.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  17. We had an old mulberry tree in the backyard of the house we bought in Brooklyn several years ago. The berries made an unholy mess–we were not sorry to see the tree go.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 3, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  18. Mulberry bushes grow wild here in the arid Columbia Basin in eastern Washington. I work at the Hanford Nuclear Site, where nine nuclear reactors lined the Columbia River, using the water for cooling and electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration for power. One of the reactors had a leak of Strontium 90 into the groundwater, which slowly flows through the ground and into the Columbia (it is diluted to the point of being undetectable). Mulberry bushes grow right above the water line, and their roots tap into the Strontium-contaminated groundwater and incorporate it into the leaves and berries. The Department of Energy has to periodically cut down the bushes and bury them as radioactive waste.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — February 3, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  19. That should give some fashion designer an idea (and the rest of us nightmares) — feed the leaves to silkworms, spin the resulting silk, and make “naturally” glow-in-the-dark clothing.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  20. How interesting to read this when I have been working on a presentation for our DUP Camp. There is a stone monument in our SLC neighborhood which was carved by Avard Fairbanks and is dedicated to the early Utah silk industry. It is DUP marker #73 and was erected July 13, 1941. There were 5 acres of mulberry trees in this area and I remember the messy berries of one across the street from our home. I also had some silkworm cocoons as a child – a school project, I suppose.
    Thanks for this insight from a child.

    Comment by Peggy Wheelwright Parry — February 4, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  21. Glad you enjoyed it, Peggy — thanks for commenting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 4, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  22. Delightful! It sounds like my aunt writing about last summer’s adventure! It also reminds me of some of my favorite memories of Provo, picking mulberries barefoot with some friends.

    Comment by Ben H — February 8, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  23. The lesson for DUP in April is on the Ogden Pioneer Museum and has quite a bit about the silk industry in Ogden. I had no idea sericulture was done so far north. I thought it would all be in southern Utah because of the climate there. Last week I came to Florida to visit my daughter and her family. Eight year old Allison told me she was getting some silkworm eggs in the mail and she had heard an audio book “Project Mulberry” which mentioned a lady in Utah and a black silk dress. The author mentioned the black silk dress that was given to Susan B. Anthony by Mormon women and mentioned the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints by name. What a coincidence! If it hadn’t been for “Project Mulberry” I probably wouldn’t have known about Susan B. Anthony’s black silk dress.

    Comment by Maude Norman — April 4, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  24. Completely unexpected, Maude, thanks! I searched and found Project Mulberry online (the reference to the church is on page 188).

    I haven’t read it yet, but I will.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 4, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  25. I have searched the net for hours trying to find an account of the gift of the black silk dress. I did find in Anthony’s biography that in public she always wore either black silk or black satin dresses, but often with a red shawl. I was also surprised to find that the silk industry in Utah continued until 1905 when the Utah State Legislature stopped funding for the Utah Silk Association. A paperback of Project Mulberry is waiting for me when I get home thanks to Amazon.com. I highly recommend it for young people and it was interesting to me as a “grandma” as well.

    Comment by Maude Norman — April 4, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  26. I’m back home and looked up Louisa S. Harris in the DUP lesson for April. There is about a page and a half about her. (The lesson booklet can be purchased for $1.75 at the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City) Very interesting! A black silk dress made by Louisa from local silk is displayed in the Pioneer Museum in Ogden located west of the LDS Temple. I don’t know if “queuno” will read this since the original comment was back in February. Could you please forward this to “queuno”?

    Comment by Maude Norman — April 7, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  27. Will do!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 7, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  28. Thanks, Maude. I didn’t know about the dress on display (or maybe I just forgot all about it). I know that there’s also a monument in a cemetery. We’ll definitely need to make a trip up to Ogden on our next sojourn up to Utah to see the cemetery monument and the dress on display. And I’ll have to go purchase the lesson on Louisa from the DUP museum.

    My grandmother has sent my daughter a packet of info on Louisa. When I get time, I’ll convert it to electronic form. (I just pulled it out and there’s a lot here, and my scanner is broken. Oh, and I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation this week, since I’ve taken a week off from work.)

    Louisa was also a survivor of the Saluda riverboat explosion on the Mississippi River, so there’s a lot of intersecting history, and looking through this packet, there’s a lot of that information too.

    (My email is queuno@gmail.com.)

    Comment by queuno — April 14, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

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