Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.
Old Economy - Rapp Coat

George Rapp’s velvet coat and cap, Old Economy Village.
Photo by Sarah Buffington.

Silk was all the rage in America during the 1820s and 1830s. Initially imported from Europe, silk fabric was used in men’s suits, women’s dresses and miscellaneous household articles. The Harmony Society, always at the forefront of industry at the time, added silk manufacturing to its long list of enterprises shortly after the religious communal group settled in 1825 at their last home in Economy, Beaver County, today preserved by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as Old Economy Village in Ambridge.

The silk venture was never profitable for the Harmonists, however, because only a fine strand of silk can be yielded from each silkworm cocoon and 12 or more are needed to form a single thread, making the process slow and labor intensive. Additionally, the Harmonists had to grow acres of nonnative mulberry trees for the finicky silkworms, which eat only leaves from that particular genus of trees. Nevertheless, the Harmonists produced silk textiles for about 30 years and acquired a reputation for making a quality product. Their silks won gold medals at the fairs of the American Institute of New York in 1839 and 1844 and the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in 1844. Even President John Tyler had a suit made from Harmonist silk, which was presented to him in 1841 by Harmony Society founder and leader George Rapp (1757-1847).

This hand-stitched velvet silk coat and cap set, estimated to have been made at Economy between 1830 and 1847, was worn by Rapp on a few special occasions and was to be his attire for the expected Second Coming of Christ. Following Rapp’s death, the coat and cap were stored in a room of relics by the Harmonists, but after the society was dissolved in 1905 they were apparently given away by someone unknown. Several years after the historic site was established, the coat and cap were spotted at a Pittsburgh department store by Karl Knapp, the chairman of the advisory board at Old Economy, who managed to get the items returned to the site in 1949. Still alive at the time, former Harmonist senior trustee John Duss (1860-1951) was documented in a photograph wearing the coat and cap. The combo was also used as a costume in 1956 by actors in the site fundraising play Man’s Reach.

By 2013 the coat particularly was in dire need of conservation. In an effort to acquire funding for the necessary repairs and cleaning, staff at the site entered the coat and cap in an online campaign called Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts, sponsored by the Conservation Center of Art & Historic Artifacts of Philadelphia. They were ranked third in the contest and enough funds were raised to offset the conservation of the coat, which now can be safely displayed with the cap. These artifacts will appear in forthcoming exhibits at Old Economy Village, representing religious diversity and industrial enterprise in Pennsylvania.


Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.