The Ladies Silk Culture Society

The Ladies Silk Culture Society

January 20, 2021

America’s dalliance with sericulture, or silk farming, began in 1825, after Congress approved the import of silk goods from Europe and China, setting off a new fashion fad. A year later, the white mulberry tree, moris multicaulis, was introduced to America from southeast Asia. When eaten by silkworms, the tree’s tender leaves produced silk of the highest quality.

A subsequent “Mulberry Craze” soon overtook the country, giving rise to horticulture’s largest speculation bubble since the infamous “tulipmania” in 17th century Holland. Stock companies were formed to finance the plantings and import millions of silkworm eggs from Europe. Silk mills were rapidly constructed in New England and Michigan.

At the height of the market, the price of a young tree start rose from 5¢ to $5, before the bubble burst in 1839. Five years later, a mysterious blight destroyed what was left of America’s mulberry groves, forcing domestic factories to begin importing raw silk from Europe and Asia.

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Twenty years later, a second American sericulture craze began after disease devastated mulberry groves in France and Italy. This time, the craze’s epicenter was California, whose Mediterranean climate made it ideal for growing mulberry trees. Led by a French botanist named Louis Prevost, the craze was incentivized for the first two year by bounties from the state legislature of $250 for cultivating at least 5,000 mulberry trees and $300 for each 100,000 silk cocoons produced. Orchards and vineyards were advised to border their roads and property lines with mulberry trees in preparation for the coming sericulture boom. California’s largest vineyard at that time, Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, planted 3,000 mulberry trees around its 500 acres of grapes.

Twenty years later, a second American sericulture craze began after disease devastated mulberry groves in France and Italy. This time, the craze’s epicenter was California, whose Mediterranean climate made it ideal for growing mulberry trees. Led by a French botanist named Louis Prevost, the craze was incentivized for the first two year by bounties from the state legislature of $250 for cultivating at least 5,000 mulberry trees and $300 for each 100,000 silk cocoons produced. Orchards and vineyards were advised to border their roads and property lines with mulberry trees in preparation for the coming sericulture boom. California’s largest vineyard at that time, Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, planted 3,000 mulberry trees around its 500 acres of grapes.

[...]The women promoted sericulture as a home industry, pointing to Italy and France, where raising silk worms and reeling silk from cocoons was managed as a side business by women on family farms. In the five or six weeks it took each year to feed the worms and unreel the raw silk from the cocoons from 100 mulberry trees, a mother and her daughters were able make $300, or $8,500 in today’s currency, providing them with some economic independence.

[...]Meanwhile, the women of the California Silk Association pressed forward with their craft-scale model for sericulture, using their political clout to persuaded the California legislature to create a State Board of Silk Culture, with five of its nine appointees drawn from the silk association. The state board distributed subsidies for planting mulberry trees and raising silk cocoons around the state, including in Sonoma County, where the sericulture effort was led by Frances Purrington on the farm she shared with her husband Joseph in Green Valley.

[...]For most young women, the only employment available at the time was teaching, which only employed one in ten of them, or factory work. Many reported to having to marry unwisely in order to be supported. Silk culture was intended to teach them to earn money at home, and so provide them with an option to having to marry unwisely in order to be supported.

In 1885, the association helped to secure in the East Bay town of Piedmont one of five silk Experimental Stations established by the U.S. Department of Agricultural across the country to foster sericulture.

[...]The society assumed operation of the Experimental Silk Station in Piedmont, which consisted of a building for silk reeling and a eucalyptus-covered tract of 15 acres. With $10,000 appropriated from the state legislature, they replaced the eucalyptus with 6,000 mulberry trees and acquired half a million silkworm eggs for annual distribution. Hiring 100 women and girls, they used the station to teach people how to cultivate and handle silkworms, with the expectation they would be sent out as teachers of others in far reaches of the state.

[...]After the tariff battle, the political tide turned against silk culturalists, as government funding dried up at both the state and federal levels on the grounds that past appropriations had yielded poor results. In March of 1892, the Ladies Silk Culture Society purchased the Piedmont Experimental Silk Station from the U.S. government for only $50, with plans to maintain it privately.

[...]Merely three months after the new mill opened, Ida Belle McNear and the Petaluma Women’s Silk Association threw in the towel, realizing Carlson-Currier’s 25% premium for domestic raw silk was woefully insufficient in turning a profit on domestic sericulture. Labor costs alone for the two days it took a  person to reel a pound of raw silk from cocoons by hand far outweighed the $1.40 per pound that Carlson-Currier paid for imported raw silk from Asia.

For largely the same reason, two years later the Ladies Silk Culture Society closed down their Piedmont Experimental Station, formally ending the dream of a home silk industry for women.

The start

Silk farm

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Oakland Tribune - Fri - Jun. 5, 1885

Oakland Tribune - Fri - Mar. 5, 1886:

SERICULTURE AT PIEDMONT.
Mulberry Trees 10 are Planted and a Museum Established.

 

At the meeting of the Ladies' Silk Culture Society of California yesterday, in San Francisco, Dr. J. J. Braman and Mrs. C. E. Braman, of West Berkeley, were elected members.

 

The Committee on Instructions on Schools and Lectures recommended that for a first experiment persons should limit themselves to from 200 to 500 mulberry trees. The planting and culture of mulberry trees in school yards was also advocated.


Professor Hilgard, of the Committee on Mulberry Trees, reported that 406 trees had been planted at the experimental station at Piedmont. The University had donated 200 trees and P. F. Burner, of Oakland, had given 50. There were about 20,000 cuttings on band and 19.467 had been planted up to the 3d inst. The three acres of ground. occupied would all be planted by the middle of the month. Some time ago the State Board of Sericnlture had promised to donate $400 for the purchase of trees, and the committee had made arrangements accordingly. Subsequently the State Board decided not to spend the money and the action bad crippled the committees for want of funds, The Committee on Library and Museum reported that a respectable museum would soon be established at Piedmont,

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Oakland Tribune - Thu - Jun. 21, 1888

Berkeley Daily Gazette - Wed - Jun. 1, 1904:

ARRIVAL OF KEY ROUTE
The arrival of the first Key route train to Piedmont at the corner of fortieth street and Piedmont avenue at 10:30 o'clock this morning was celebrated with great rejoicing by the residents of Piedmont. The little station was a-fiutter with flags and garlanded with flowers in honor of the important event. Among the decorations was the first American flag made from silk grown in the United States, it being from the silk culture station at Piedmont. It was loaned by Warren B. Ewer.

California Historical Society Quarterly (1952) 31 (4): 335–342.

Silk in Piedmont By Evelyn Craig Pattiani

VISITORS driving up Mountain Avenue in Piedmont, Alameda County, California, in the 1880's, would have had pointed out to

them a square, two-story structure, over the doorway of which hung a large sign, "U. S. Silk Culture Experimental Station." Behind this matter of-fact building lay a history, which began some 4000 years ago (2640 B. C.) in the encouragement, given by a high-born Chinese lady, to those willing to undertake the cultivation of mulberry trees, the feeding of their leaves to a unique worm, and the reeling of the silken strand out of which the creature made its cocoon. Secret processes had been discovered by the lady's people.

[...]As to the water supply on the Piedmont site: during the presidency of Dr. Gibbons, that gentleman reported to the members, gathered together at the Horticultural Bureau, 220 Sutter Street in San Francisco, that "the services of three men had been engaged to dig a well for it." They had gone down, he said, "to a considerable depth and obtained two feet of water, but more was necessary, and their services would be required for some time longer, how long it was impossible to say." It was apparent that water costs were going to be high; fears were expressed and objections raised.* (It might be remarked here that although the presence of lime in the Piedmont soil was favorable to the mulberry, it was apt to create an alkaline condition in the water that percolated into the well. In silk reeling, alkali-free water was preferable, as the San Francisco water was said to be; otherwise the reelers' fingers tended to become sore.)

[...] The news item in the Oakland Tribune of April 27, 1912, from which the later events in the building's history, as given in the above paragraph, were taken, bore the sub-headline, "Famous Old Landmark In Piedmont To Be Done Away With"; it closed with the statement that the present owner pro posed to have the house "demolished." Two years before the appearance of this news report, C. A. Hooper of Alameda, long prominent in the state's lumber industry and father of Mrs. Wigginton Creed, purchased twenty three acres surrounding the "Old Landmark" and had a cabin built on the property, to serve as headquarters for the family's week-end picnics. Following her husband's death in 1914, Mrs. Hooper arranged to have the abandoned silk station taken down and the cabin enlarged into a residence for her own use, so that she could be near Mrs. Creed and other members of her family living in Piedmont. In 1925, most of the property was sold by the Hooper Estate to George Roeth and Edgar A. Jones; it has since been sub divided for the erection of suburban homes.

[...]In due time that small box of tiny black specks turned into a mass of wriggling life, and every day brought greater need for more space. A good natured Irish cook rose to the occasion, while the entire household became involved because of the rapid growth of the worms and their great consumption of leaves. We children thought they were good little things ? never crawling away, but just raising their heads, as if they were asking for food. We even asserted that they heard us coming.

Instead of the fifty or a hundred that were expected to be fed from our one mulberry tree, the batch contained some 30,000 worms, all hungry (except just before each moult, or skin-shedding), and awaiting the night and morning feeding of broken mulberry leaves. Growth had become so rapid that my father bought a large tent, dark blue in color so as to soften the light. It was set up on the grass near the back door of the house, and a carpenter was engaged to build redwood frames and tray racks with fine-wire bottoms. Thus our unexpected business was launched.

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The Record Union - Sat - Apr. 14, 1888

The San Francisco Call - Sun - Jul. 1, 1894:

 

Every peasant has a few shelves for worms in the corner of the living-room and a few mulberries in the garden, and when the cocoons are sold there is a tidy little sum. On a larger scale it does not seem to pay, though it is difficult to see just why this should be so. The climate of California is so admirably adapted for mulberries and osage-oranges, which are used as food, that there is no difficulty in that direction. There are 3000 mulberries on the farm at Piedmont, and they grow luxuriantly. Just at present they are covered with small red and black berries, which look like wild blackberries and are rather good to eat. The 3000 trees would support & great many more women than are now housed at the station, but one of the objects of the society is to supply mulberry trees free of charge to any one who will try the industry.


At the left of the front door as you enter the building there is a room which might be a sitting-room or a library, but is instead devoted to the worms. It has a warm, sunny exposure and the sun pours in on the frames all day, for the worms need warmth. They can even be forced in the spinning process like a plant by keeping the room warm at night. This is not done at the station. There is no cause for hurry and the worms are allowed to take their time.

[...]The worms that are so busily eating at Piedmont and hastening toward the end of their brief, busy career are of several
ages. There are twenty-eight trays of them, each holding perhaps & hundred worms, and the largest ones are entering on the fourth stage. They are about an inch and a half long and gray white in color, which is the healthy complexion for a silkworm to have. One would suppose they would be green, from the color of the pale leaves they are so greedily devouring. The worms produced at Piedmont are also pure white. There will be over two thousand of them this year, as very few moths are required to lay the eggs for the succeeding season.


On a shelf in the wormery are numbers of specimens. There are bottled worms of varying ages from a day old to the big white full-grown worm of three inches. There are also specimens of eggs, half finished cocoons and preserved millers. In fact, the little exhibit shows the whole evolution of the busy span of life that acts and reacts itself in that sunny room every summer.


Mr. and Mrs. Ewer haye quantities of visitors curious to see the worms. They are only too glad to show the trays of eaters and spinners, and they are anxious above all things to revive the interest in the culture.

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Oakland Tribune - Sat - Aug. 14, 1886

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Oakland Tribune - Wed - Aug. 11, 1886

The House:

 

The San Francisco Call - Tue - Jul. 9, 1901:

Situated in the midst of a charming grove of trees on the very summit of the hills above and beyond Piedmont, the old United States silk culture station has for several months past stood vacant and almost abandoned. The building was erected originally to aid women and children by supplying them with work in the cultivation of the silkworm, but the experiment was a failure. Now, however, after the lapse of many years, through the kindness of W. B. Ewer, president of the Board of Silk Culture, the building is being devoted to the cause for which it was originally intended that is, for the benefit of self-supporting women, the house and grounds having been leased by the
Young Women's Christian Association for a "rest cottage. The place has been renovated and fitted up cozily and is now a comfortable abode of ten large, sunny rooms,

Xavier Martinez's wife, Elsie Whitaker Martinez:

(We moved) In 1902, to the "Silk Culture House" at the end of Mountain Avenue. The picturesque old previous house had an impressive sign across its front, "Silk Culture Experimental Station", popularly called "the bug house," was on a narrow ridge that dropped down into Hayes Canyon with its trees, heavy shrubbery and babbling creek. It fronted the large expanse of the towns of Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley, spread out below, down to the wide sweep of the Bay with its islands and across the Bay to San Francisco whose wharves, buildings and towers we could see clearly from our windows — a spectacular view that always impressed our visitors and awed us when we first saw it.

 

The house was a large, well built eleven room house with high ceilings and six foot double windows. The old house was full of antiques and curiosities. The bedrooms were furnished with real mahogany colonial beds and matching highboys, brought around the Horn by the Sea Captain. The living room, left by the second tenant was tasteless. It had ornate tables and a gaudy lamp with a colored glass shade, ugly rep covered Victorian chairs and couches. The dining room was a jumble of massive Mission furniture and, to add to the confusion, my father's study looked like a museum of pre-Columbian antiquities — an accumulation of treasures from two years in Mexico—including Aztec sculptures, richly colored Mexican pottery, colorful blankets and Mexican silver.

 

The house and the property had a clouded title. The government had donated the seven acres of land and the California legislature had appropriated funds for the project. Mrs. Kirkham had built the house on behalf of her nephew who was joint co-worker with the old Sea Captain on the experiment. The nephew, a mining engineer in Mexico, was killed there, so the property reverted to her. For several summers it did duty for a Y.W.C.A. Rest Home for working girls. A relic of their occupancy was the printed rules and regulations with the prize statement we cherished "Young Ladies! Do not empty your chamber pots out of the top windows!" Several tenants took refuge there for a while, then it fell into father's hands as caretaker for the munificent sum of ten dollars a month. After he took over the old previous house was filled with life, gaiety and many activities.

 

On the seven acres of land was planted a mulberry orchard, on whose leaves the silkworms lived. The small, stubby trees grew quickly, and were soon productive. The silkworms had been imported from China. The project was well on its way to success when, unfortunately, the tariff on Chinese silk was reduced to such a low that the venture could not compete with Chinese labor. So, the silk raising experiment became a lost cause and a conversation piece. The only souvenirs left of the experiment were the beautiful silk culture displays elegantly arranged in massive gold frames.

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Oakland Tribune - Tue - May 8, 1906

Silk house.tiff
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Oakland Tribune - Sat - Apr. 27, 1912

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The San Francisco Call - Sun - Apr. 16, 1911

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The San Francisco Call - Sun- Apr. 28, 1912

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Oakland Tribune - Thu - May 1, 1952

Mulberry's website:

The name “Mulberry’s Market” is a tribute to Piedmont’s one and only manufacturing facility which thrived at the turn of the century: the Piedmont Ladies’ Silk Culture Club. Hungry silkworms feasted on mulberry leaves -- their only food source -- from the mulberry orchard that blanketed central Piedmont.