The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

James Mease and American Sericulture

“We are striving to promote the Culture of Silk,” wrote Dr. James Mease of Philadelphia to Colonel Timothy Pickering of Salem on 13 November 1826. The wealthy physician dabbled in various interests outside of medicine including geology, agriculture, local history, and something called sericulture.

Sericulture, or silk farming, is the breeding of silkworms for the production of silk. In short, silkworms require white mulberry leaves or osage orange leaves to create liquid silk. These caterpillars then spin the liquid silk into cocoons, using the sticky protein sericin to glue each strand together. The cocoons are collected and boiled before the pupas develop and emerge as silk moths. The silk threads of the emptied cocoons disband as the sericin dissolves in hot water. This “raw silk” is then reeled and woven into the cloth. Sounds easy, right?

Silkworm breeding is exhaustively needy at best and disease-ridden at worst. An adult silk moth cannot eat, drink, or fly. The sole purpose of its existence is to mate (which it relies entirely on human intervention to achieve) and produce the next generation. At odds with the laborious milieu of sericulture, Dr. James Mease remarked in the 13 November 1826 letter:

[We] find that the there is no difficulty in breeding the worms – we have abundance of red or native mulberry trees and also the white sort. I imported an ounce of eggs from Genoa last spring and gave them to three persons, who had very great success with them. The Cocoons were twice the size of those produced from Egg previously here.

With mulberry trees aplenty, Dr. James Mease’s associates and other American silk farmers eagerly produced raw silk throughout the early 19th century.

permalink | Published: Friday, 15 November, 2013, 1:00 AM