Romance of the Worm: Connecticut’s part in ‘Mulberry Mania’

Chinese mulberries (Morus alba) are a ubiquitous non-native ‘weed tree’ throughout much of Connecticut. It is frequently encountered along the shoreline and central part of the state, less so in the northwest corner. The native red mulberry, M. rubra, is also found in Connecticut, though it is less common. Many of the wild mulberry trees found today may be natural hybrids between the two species.

Mulberry and sumac tangel in Thomaston, CT.

Mulberry trees dot otherwise inhospitable growing areas; along the highways and poking up through cracks in the pavement of abandoned lots. There, it often thrives in obscurity, birds most often feasting on the summer ripening fruit, which, despite the tree’s Latin name, can be white, black or pinkish. When people know the tree at all, it is most often from childhood memories of hands stained purple from eating the sweet berries, or from cursing the same purple juices for sullying walkways and cars located under overhanging branches. Few people today realize that these inconspicuous trees are a fascinating part of Connecticut’s early history of agricultural, entrepreneurship and hucksterism.

Silk farming, or sericulture has been practiced in China for over four thousand years. It is labor intensive process in which the larvae of the domesticated silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) is fed a steady diet of mulberry leaves until it spins itself into a silken cocoon. A single cocoon contains over one mile of silk filament. This filament is then unwound from the cocoon and combined with dozens of other filament strands into a single silk thread for weaving. While the technology and process of silk production is ancient, the industry has always demanded a both a great deal of knowledge and well as an abundance of available labor to be successful. As in past millennia, today the world leaders of silk production are India and China.

The desire for silk, as well as other fine products of the Asia, was a major motivating force behind the European Age of Exploration beginning in the 15th century. It was the quest to find an ocean passage to circumvent the overland Silk Road, by which Asian exports reached Europe which led to the European discovery and subsequent colonization of the Americas.

King James I of England liked his finery. 

In the 1600s, The English aristocracy, like their peers throughout the rest of western Europe has an insatiable desire for the fine cloth, which is equal parts durable and delicate.

The process for producing silk is complex and labor intensive, but the essentials to begin production might seem tantalizingly simple. All that is needed to begin are silkworm caterpillars and mulberry leaves. By the 17th century, silk production had become established in France and Italy, but not England, despite a concerted effort King James I. It was recognized that England spent vast sums of money on silk, and under the mercantilist lens through which economic transactions were viewed, King James and his advisers sought means to rectify this trade imbalance. First by seeking to establish silk production in England, and when this failed in the new colony of Virginia.

The dream of making silk a major product for export dates the earliest years of English colonization of North America. In 1621, just over a decade after the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, “silke worme seed” was sent along with grape vines for the colonists to cultivate. In 1623, the London Company, which controlled the settlement activities in Virginia, decreed, at the insistence of King James, that every planter cultivate ten mulberry trees for every hundred acres of their estate, or else pay a fine of ten pounds of tobacco. Later in the century, in 1641, silk production was incentivised with carrots rather than sticks, with fifty pounds of tobacco offered for every pound of silk produced by a planter. Despite these efforts, as time wore on, Virginia planters increasingly cultivated crops dictated by market demand rather than imperial whim. Chief among these was tobacco, a native American crop with nearly limitless global demand.

By 1760, efforts to establish a nascent American silk industry had moved northward to Connecticut. Jarad Eliot a preacher, inventor and naturalist from Guilford advocated the planting of mulberry trees and cultivation of silkworms. Eliot saw great utility beyond silk production in planting mulberries, noting that “in Italy, where they abound in [mulberry] trees, they fatten their swine and poultry with the fruit” and “that from [mulberries], very good artificial wine may be made.”

Dr. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University in the late 1700s was another influential supporter of mulberry cultivation and silk production in Connecticut. He successfully lobbied to state legislature to pass a financial incentive for the planting mulberry trees; ten shillings were awarded for every one hundred trees grown to at least three years old.

In a late 19th century history of early American efforts to establish a domestic silk industry, the famed horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey, estimated that by the early 1800s, Connecticut's annual silk production was worth $100,000 to $200,000 in 1898 dollars. This amount would be the equivalent to $2,800,000 to $5,600,000 in 2018. To understand the relative size of this sector of Connecticut agricultural in the decades immediately after the Revolutionary War, consider that in 2015 the value of all pork raised in the state was $1,300,000 and that of the state’s tree farms collectively sold $6,000,000 worth of Christmas trees.

As to the quality of this Connecticut silk, Bailey notes that “the fabrics were greatly praised; yet it must be confessed that, as compared with the silks of [1890s], they were very imperfect goods, and would be scorned by our belles and beaux as unworthy to be worn.”

Historians trace the origins of the ‘Mulberry Mania’ or the ‘Multicaulis Craze’ of the 1830s to a 1826 Congressional report. As in colonial times under the rule of King James I, the report states that too much money was being spent on imported silk and that, to remedy this, the feasibility of domestic production should be explored. The result of this investigation was a 220 page illustrated manual published in 1828 by the U.S.Treasury Department.

Following the federal lead, state legislatures took up the issue of silk production. The House of Representatives of Massachusetts passed a resolution in 1831 that a treatise be compiled that would contain “the best information respecting the growth of the mulberry tree, with suitable directions for the culture of silk.” The author of this work, a Mr. Cobb of Dedham, MA had experience in sericulture and claimed that he was able to produce $100 worth of silk a week yearound. Cobb entices farmers with visions of silk production as the surest way to “acquire so much [income], with so little capital and labor.”

He also pitched silk production as a means of alleviating rural poverty. Cobb envisioned self-sustaining town run silk farms, suggesting that “paupers” and students provide the labor. This manual also predicted ample funds would be available for public works and schools “if all the highways in the country towns were ornamented with a row of mulberry trees.” By the end of the decade, thousands of volumes had been printed and this wildly popular work had gone through four editions.

Similar works were published up and down the east coast. In 1836, F.G. Comstock, the Hartford seed dealer published A Practical Treatise on the Culture of Silk, his own contribution to a growing body of  work that sought to promote the planting of mulberries. With the fertile ground of imagined riches thus well prepared, the introduction of a new mulberry tree from China was the seed that allowed a bout of wild agricultural speculation to take root.

Around 1830 a new variety of mulberry was introduced in America from France. It was known as Morus multicaulis, for its habit of sending up multiple sprouts from the base. This variety also had very large leaves and was said to be the secret behind the Chinese success at silk production.  

Nurseryman in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, always eager to meet market demand for a new crop, began to grow the trees in great quantities. At the height of the bubble, young mulberry trees sold for up to $5 each, while the going rate for trees of other species was thirty to fifty cents apiece. Mulberries are fast growing, as well as easily cloned from both softwood and hardwood cuttings, so a skilled propagator was able to realize great profits.

The dizzying heights which the speculation reached are perhaps only rivaled by the Dutch tulip mania of the 16th century. The demand for the multicaulis mulberry was insatiable, with at least nurseryman setting up a satellite location in the Caribbean so he could grow hundreds of thousands of trees during the winter and offer them for sale in New England in the spring. The highpoint of the market may have been reached in North Windham Connecticut, where two mulberry trees were auctioned off for $106 and $100 each. In hindsight, it is clear that that market speculation drove the price of the mulberry trees well beyond the value of any silk which might be produced from the leaves. Indeed, none of the accounts from the period tell of any but theoretical profit made from silk farming, but instead of equal parts lucky and wily nurseryman who were able to capitalize on the craze.

While farmers have a deserved reputation for conservatism, the allure of new and exciting crops for which demand seems great has always enticed some to devote at least a little space for experimentation. Some of these crops have proved to be very profitable and enduring in Connecticut; perhaps none more so than shade tobacco, a hybrid created from strains imported from the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Cuba in the late 19th century. In recent years, novel crops such as shiitake mushrooms, saffron, ginger and turmeric, all of which have been traditionally imported from abroad have been promoted as new and profitable crops for small scale farmers. While it is doubtful that we will soon witness a Saffron Mania, it would be a safe bet that nurseries selling the corms would reap more profit than any farmer would ever see from selling grains of exotic crocus pollen.

Like all bubbles, the mulberry mania of the 1830s grew and grew until it popped. The precipitating events for the rapid deflation was a blight which wreaked havoc on newly planted mulberry orchards in 1839 and a particularly hard winter in 1844, to which many surviving trees succumbed. These two calamities offered a moment of clarity to farmers who had been swept up in the mulberry manina; silk production was not viable on a large scale in New England. Too many factors, from climate, to the necessary labor labor and the knowledge of the production process were hurdles too large to surmount. By the time the market crashed, nurseries could not sell one hundred mulberry trees for a dollar!

In the long run, the New England and the rest of the country reaped what must be deemed a bitter harvest from the mulberry mania of the 1830s. Despite the crash of the 1840s, some sporadic interest persisted in American silk production. In an effort to breed a more disease resistant silkworm, the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispa) was imported to Massachusetts from Europe in the 1868. It soon escaped into the wild and began to feast itself on native hardwood trees, it is now one of the most destructive insects in the United States.

Another, less devastating, outcome of mulberry mania in Connecticut was that it helped give rise to a large silk manufacturing industry which produced fabric from imported raw silk. In 1881 Scientific American reported on the finding of the Census Office which stated that Hartford, Along with New York city and Philadelphia were important centers of silk weaving. In all there were 549 looms in operation in the city, and 28 factories in the state, employing some 3,766 people. Thus silk production was part of Connecticut's rapid industrialization in the late 19th century.

Indeed, the legacy of mulberry mania is all around us. From the roads named after mulberry trees in Guilford, Fairfield and Woodbridge to the havoc wrought by gypsy moth caterpillars this spring.  Finally there are the feral mulberry trees themselves, the descendants of very trees which were the cause of so much wild speculation.

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