Northampton's silk industry was born in the mulberry tree craze of the 1830’s and died, at the age of 100, in the throes of the Great Depression. The official cause of death, labor unrest, was emblematic of the problems that had plagued the American silk industry from its start in the colonial era. For no amount of optimism and ingenuity could alter the fundamental fact that silkworms are finicky and silk production is difficulty, highly complex, and labor-intensive.After centuries of glory in Europe and Turkey, most of the world’s silk is once again produced in China, where the industry began 5,000 years ago. Yet silk continues to fascinate people everywhere, and there are signs of resurgence of cottage industries around the world.The history of the Northampton silk industry can be divided, more or less, into four eras:* During the initial period, 1832-1846, it was the embodiment of utopian aspirations (first those of Samuel Whitmarsh then of the Northampton Association for Education and Industry). During this period, silk was raised here from start to finish, from silkworms munching on mulberry leaves to ribbons and satin. Soujourner Truth was one of the many interesting people who belonged to the Association.
1846-1876 saw the industry grow into a mainstay of the local economy and Northampton’s largest employer. Now raw silk was imported from China, and then processed into "machine twist" -- first successfully developed here by the local manufacturer Samuel Hill who anticipated the huge demand that would be created by the newly invented sewing machine. Sewing silk, embroidery thread, and other silk thread products were also produced and sold. Hill's company became one of the leading manufacturers of sewing silks in the world.* Between 1876 and 1912, the industry grew in size and sophistication. Working closely with suppliers of raw silk in Japan, the Nonotuck Silk Company (later renamed the Corticelli Company) became world famous. Gradually, the industry lost its local character: local industry opened branches elsewhere, and a branch of the Connecticut-based Belding Company was opened here. The history of our silk industry became part of a larger picture, the New England textile industry.
From 1912 to 1932, Northampton’s silk industry continued to be a major player on the local scene, but was increasingly buffeted by failures, buy-outs, and labor unrest. Eventually only Belding-Hemingway remained, and its closed its Northampton operations in 1930. The College Weavers bought Belding’s equipment in an attempt to keep silk going here, but it too soon folded.
he Northampton silk industry did not arise in a vacuum! Silk was cultivated and processed in many parts of the world, and Northampton's industry was part of a much larger picture. Click here to learn what else was happening in the world of silk when the Northampton industry took root, circa1840. Then, to test your understanding, take our Silk Trivia Quiz!