19th c. silk quilts on view at NMAH

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is displaying nine rarely-seen silk quilts in a new exhibition that runs through January of 2020. Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection features exceptional quilts made in the late 19th century alongside related artifacts including personal sewing kits, needlework books, tools and embroidery samples.

The quilts illustrate in vibrant color the explosion of silk manufacturing in the northeastern United States. Silk was a luxury import for thousands of years, more expensive than gold, subject to sumptuary laws that made it the exclusive province of the elites. The bottleneck was always the mulberry tree, home and nourishment of the silkworm without whose cocoons there would be no silk. There had been many attempts to cultivate mulberry trees especially in New England, but the vagaries of the weather did not agree with the sensitive trees.

In 1826 a new, hardier varietal, morus multicaulis, was introduced to the country, and textile manufacturers went all in, buying so many of the new mulberry trees that the price skyrocketed, reaching a high of $30 per 100 trees in 1836, an increase of almost eight times in two years. There was just one problem: morus multicaulis wasn’t all that hardy after all and in 1837 the bubble burst. Mulberry farms went under and the once-precious trees were sold for brush or burned.

Still, the explosion of interest in the potential of locally-grown silk did have a positive effect on industry visionaries like the Cheney brothers of Manchester, Connecticut. They recognized even before the failure of the mulberry farming experiment that there was profit to be made in applying American manufacturing to the raw material imported from Japan, China, Italy and the Middle East. An 1847 Cheney invention, the Rixford Roller, was a major leap forward in US silk manufacture, winding raw silk into much more durable double-twisted threads. Eight years later, the Cheney Brothers discovered how to spin waste silk into a high quality product. They were the first in the world to figure out a way to make unblemished silk fabric out of damaged cocoons.

By the 1870s, silk manufacturing was very big business in the United States and American inventions were found in silk factories all over the world. The industry reached its zenith in the 1920s, declining only with the advent of the Great Depression from which it would never recover. During those 50 heady years, however, silk underwent a process of democratization, shifting from an unattainable symbol of wealth to affordable beauty. Even a working class girl could have a silk dress for her Sunday best.

Inspired by the availability of inexpensive silks, a new fad emerged nationwide in the 1880s for ‘crazy patchwork’ quilts. Quilt makers adopted asymmetry and layered patterning, moving away from the rigid geometric piecework of traditional quilts. Silk embroidery added dimensions and texture to the quilts. These quilts were never meant to be used as bedding. Instead, they were a statement of status and style at the turn of the 20th century. They tell a little-known story of art, industry, trends and marketing in American history.

“The quilts on display demonstrate individual imagination and skill,” said exhibition curator, Madelyn Shaw. “But beyond that, they represent America’s silk industry: thousands of mill workers, hundreds of companies, business people and designers. The quilts offer us a unique perspective on this period of industrialization in American history.”

The nine quilts on display — 1870 – 1890 Marian Frick’s Log Cabin Parlor Throw1855 – 1885 Laura Clark’s Silk Patchwork Table Cover1890 – 1900 Mary Watson’s “Biscuit” Parlor Throw, 1890 – 1900 Bates Family Silk Parlor Throw1877 – 1946 Aimee Hodge’s Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw1880-1900 Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw1880 – 1895 Commemorative Ribbon Parlor Throw1870 – 1880 Martha Jane Taylor’s Parlor Throw, 1880 – 1890 Eva Shaw’s Crazy-patch Piano Cover — are part of the burgeoning National Quilt Collection which has more than 500 quilts and quilting artifacts. Most of the collection has been digitized and can be browsed online here.


3 thoughts on “19th c. silk quilts on view at NMAH

  1. Friends,

    During the hey-day of silk importation in the U.S., railroad cars carrying the silk material were dispatched from west coast ports to eastern garment factories. The silk was often carried on passenger trains in specially-built cars similar to express refrigerator cars, and sometimes in special trains of nothing but the silk cars. Because of the high value of the material, there was always a danger of high-jacking and other theft. Special vault buildings with heavy iron gates were built by some railroads at important rail yards to hold entire unloaded cars safely until they could be added to the next train. When the silk business collapsed during the Great Depression, all the cars were scrapped or converted to other uses, and the vault buildings were eventually torn down. Only photos and documents survive to tell the story about this interesting facet of silky history.

    Yours Aye,

    Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge (SCA_
    and amateur railroad historian

  2. California’s domestic importation of Japanese silk goods, including finished cloth, silk cocoons and silk worm eggs, began in the mid-1850s before the Treaty of Kanagawa had been ratified, greatly enhancing American access to and consumption of fine silks, but most of that trade took off after the end of the Civil War.
    In January 1874, Japan’s first transshipment of silk worm eggs to France via the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Transcontinental Railroad was widely reported internationally. The eggs were bought by the French government to revive France’s sericulture industry after a disease wiped European stocks of silk moths. Here is a transcript of a news story originally published on 10 January 1874, in the Sacramento (California) Daily Union:

    “Silk-Worms’ Eggs. — The Chicago papers about the last of December appeared to have been raised from their proper level on the arrival there from San Francisco of what they call “one of the most valuable consignments that ever passed across the continent.” The treasure seems to have been a car-load of goods to the amount of $2,000,000 in the shape of silk worm eggs en route for France. They were purchased at Yokohama by the French Government and arrived in San Francisco, December 15th. Three days were passed in transferring them from the steamer to the freight car, and the packages commenced their passage over the mountains and plains on the 18th of December. The papers, after dilating awhile on the nature of the silk-worm, its habits and general history, proceed to speak of its eggs, remarking that the matters touched upon were comparatively unknown to their readers. They then speak of the manner in which they were transported, as follows:
    The reader may gain an idea of the number of eggs now on their way to Paris, when he learns that on this one car there are nine and a half tons of eggs. The eggs are packed in air-tight tin boxes, which are in turn covered with matting. The car is kept at a temperature below the freezing point, and no light is admitted. The matting-covered boxes are piled on either side. There is nothing to be seen there but matting, and the appearance of the boxes is certainly not indicative of the value of the contents. This is the first attempt yet made to import silkworms via the United States, and if human foresight avails anything there is every reason to look for success.”

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