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American Silk, 1830–1930: Entrepreneurs and Artifacts (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 49, Number 3, July 2008
pp. 796-798 | 10.1353/tech.0.0050

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
American Silk, 1830–1930: Entrepreneurs and Artifacts. By Jacqueline Field, Marjorie Senechal, Madelyn Shaw. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2007. Pp. xxiv+326. $45.

In American Silk, three authors develop a picture of the silk industry during overlapping periods. They focus on the role of “entrepreneurs [who] receive little attention because most industrial studies use a labor and social history approach and focus on factories and their effect on workers” (p. 253). Marjorie Senechal begins by describing the great interest in silk during the colonial period and the Early Republic. Enthusiasm for mulberry trees and silkworms pervaded the eastern seaboard to a degree quite out of proportion to any success in actually producing usable silk. Lack of skill and patience doomed efforts to move from cocoon to thread. Entrepreneurship and mechanical ability came together in an attempt at manufacturing in Northampton, Massachusetts, but without success until a communitarian society, the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, took over the effort. Though leading lights from Ralph Waldo Emerson to William Lloyd Garrison visited, and Sojourner Truth came to stay, the manufacturing effort attained success only after discovery of the advantages of threerather than two-ply yarn or thread for use in Singer’s sewing machines. Under the name Corticelli, machine twist or sewing-machine thread poured forth from the Nonotuck Silk Mills.

Jacqueline Field carries the story forward chronologically by treating the Haskell Silk Company of Westbrook, Maine, founded in 1874.While originally a throwing (yarn)mill, as spinningmachinery improved it began turning out good-quality staple woven goods. In the late 1880s and into the new century the firm expanded steadily until it was running 250 looms and employing 300. While it had originally relied on a few skilled men in key positions on the factory floor, over time it developed a highly skilled workforce as a result of a low rate of turnover.Haskell innovated by selling direct, particularly to department stores, and eventually using selvage marking to maintain the identity of its product in the marketplace. After World War I, however, it could not cope with the volatility of silk prices, style shifts to lighter and more informal clothing, the growing role of garment-makers as ready-to-wear came to dominate, and the introduction of rayon. Labor relations deteriorated and the company declined and closed about 1930. [End Page 796]

Madelyn Shaw turns to yet another aspect of the industry in her story of H. R. Malinson & Company, which operated in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. An innovative player in high-fashion design, theretofore primarily a European bailiwick, Malinson stood apart from most American manufacturers in silk. Like Haskell, Malinson hired production talent, but he applied his skills mainly to developing a modern advertising department and selling directly out of increasingly opulent New York showrooms. In 1921 Mrs. Carolyn Trowbridge Radnor-Lewis took over and fully developed the publicity department, a rare position of power and prominence in business for a woman at that time. Malinson became a leading figure in the World War I–era effort to establish an American design aesthetic and take control of style away from Europe. The extent to which he might ultimately have been successful remains unclear, as style changes, rayon, and ready-to wear made life as difficult for him as it had become for Haskell.

Together these accounts cover producers representative of three different parts of the industry. None of the companies left business records (all three authors admit to struggling to create a substantial account with limited historical resources), and this leads to more of the conditional tense than one generally encounters in historical texts. Still, each author has dug up all she can to supplement the scanty data specific to each mill. Original material in the Corticelli case consists primarily in letters from the days of the communitarian society, while the story of Haskell comes from the trade and popular press and various business journals. For Malinson, a wealth of fabrics in museum collections offered a different sort of record, as did various sorts of company publicity.

The authors have sought to make a kind of entrepreneurial history they claim...