Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On Friday March 3, 1989, the Catoir Silk Company Inc. in the Lehigh County seat of Allentown, ceased operation for the final time. The silence of the looms signaled the end of an industry the once dominated eastern Pennsylvania’s industrial landscape and economy. The closing captured a front-page story in Allentown’s daily newspaper, The Morning Call, which duly recorded the demise of the Lehigh Valley’s last surviving silk mill. Yet, the silk industry is one of the untold stories in Pennsylvania’s history.

“Silk is overlooked, because it disappeared so thoroughly,” says Lehigh County write and silk industry historian Martha Capwell Fox, whose father, the last Lewis Capwell, owned the Catoir mill from 1979 until its closing. In 2002, Fox served a guest curator of a recent exhibition on Pennsylvania’s silk heritage at the National Canal Museum in Easton. Although Fox grew up in the silk industry and, with her mother, operated the mill for two years, her research in conjunction with “Behind the Seams: The Silk Industry of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor” took her into uncharted territory. “Working on this exhibit was challenge,” she recalls, “because very little has been published or even recorded about Pennsylvania’s silk mills.”

The roots of the country’s silk industry stretch back to the early eighteenth century, when land grants and visions of instant prosperity enticed colonial-era farmers to plant mulberry trees and raise silk worms for England’s silk industry. Although American-made raw silk never took off, the cocooneries spun dreams of vast fortunes. In the years following the Revolutionary War, a silk craze swept the nation. “Large numbers of the country’s most intelligent people gave themselves over completely to the cultivating of silk,” wrote John Richardson in the American Silk Journal more than a century later, adding, “from New England to Florida the mania spread.” Pennsylvania was not immune from the fever. Early Bethlehem’s Moravian families raised silk worms in their gardens. A Philadelphia cloth manufacturer tested swatches of “black silk” from a mix of imported and American raw silk. At Old Economy Village in western Pennsylvania, the Harmony Society began experimenting with silk as early as 1826, and produced quality and highly desired silk fabrics until 1844.

Founded in Germany as a religious organization in 1785 by George Rapp (1757-1847), the Harmony Society first settled in Harmony, Butler County, in 1804, relocated to Harmony, Indiana in 1814, and returned to Pennsylvania and settled, in 1825, at its third and final home, Economy, on the east bank of the Ohio River, in Ambridge, Beaver County, west of Pittsburgh. The Harmonists transferred all their property to the society which, in return, supplied all the necessities of life-shelter, food, clothing, and education-and religious instruction. In 1807, the society adopted celibacy, a practice enforced by Rapp and adhered to by most members.

The Harmony Society became a successful manufacturer of textiles while at its first American home at Harmony, and engaged in silk manufacturing the year after its members settled at Economy. Because silkworms will only eat the leaves of mulberry trees, which are not native to North America, silk growers, including the Harmonists, imported cuttings from France and Italy. Eventually, they planted ten acres of mulberry trees and, as part of their nursery business, sold mulberry cuttings to other silk growers. It’s not unusual today for a visitor to Old Economy Village, a popular attraction along the Pennsylvania Trail of History®, to find white mulberries growing wild near the historic site.

Under George Rapp’s supervision, his granddaughter Gertrude Rapp (1808-1889) became an expert in silk production whom silk weavers sought out. For their production, the Harmonists grew about one million cocoons – no small accomplishment. They made material for men’s vests, handkerchiefs, cravats, satin, velvet, and sewing thread. In 1839, Gertrude Rapp received a gold medal from the American Institute’s New York exhibition for the “best specimens of silk velvets and fancy ribbons.” Five years later, in 1844, she received first place medals for silk fabrics in Philadelphia, New York, and Bos­ton. Despite the many awards, the manufacture of silk was not profitable and the Harmony Society discontinued production by 1844. Nearly fifty years later, though, it exhibited silk at the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exhibition of 1892-1893 in Chicago. Old Economy Village, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), has many examples of silk made by the Harmonists, including sets of clothes they wore.

Blight burst the silk bubble in the 1840s, wiping out most of North America’s mulberry trees. The golden age of the American silk industry would have to wait for the post-Civil War years, when northern cash reserves, cheap and abundant labor, and imported British weaving technology made large-scale silk production possible – just in time to meet the growing demand for silk rib­bons, taffeta gowns, neckties, scarves, hats, handkerchiefs, and petticoats.

Much like the frenzied dotcom boom and bust a century and a half later, America’s silk craze spun off a crop of highly speculative entrepreneurs, among them a New Englander, Christopher Colt Jr. (1812-1855), whose brother Samuel manufactured the famous revolver that bears his name. Although less famous than his sibling, Christopher Colt Jr. is credited for establishing silk production in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1839, when he set up silk looms on the fourth floor of his brother’s munitions factory. Colt quickly realized that his weaving operation was failing, and so he sold out to George Murray, who engaged an unemployed English silk worker, John Ryle, as superintendent. In 1842, Ryle had installed a battery of looms and four years later purchased Murray’s interest. Ryle’s success set the stage for Paterson’s future as a major production center. In 1860, seventeen silk mills dominated the city’s skyline; by 1910, the number ballooned to three hundred. (In 1886, John Ryle established Allentown’s Pioneer Silk Company, the city’s second mill, purchased by the Allentown Silk Company in 1901.)

West of New Jersey, Pennsylvania’s first silk mill opened in 1873 in Scranton, Luzerne County. (Scranton, the Commonwealth’s third largest city, became the county seat of Lackawanna County – Pennsylvania’s sixty-seventh and last county created – when it was formed from Luzerne County on August 13, 1878.) In July 1872, John E. Atwood, superintendent of the Sprague Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island, purchased sixty lots in Scranton’s South Side to erect a silk factory. Incorporated with a capital of one hundred thousand dollars, the company installed machinery in October and the factory began operations two months later with Alfred Harvey as superintendent. The company first made silk thread, or warp, to be used in the manufacture of dress goods or ribbons.

The work force burgeoned from “a small number of girls” to “one hundred and eighty hands employed in the mill, principally girls, at ages varying from twelve to twenty” by April 1875. The factory ­- the fourth largest in the United States – produced four thousand pounds of silk monthly, valued at thirty thousand dollars. Two years later, in 1877, the factory closed.

In 1879, the factory was sold at an assignee’s sale to the Saquoit Silk Manufacturing Company, which did not weave silk but made “organzine” and “tram,” the “warp and woof of silk goods.” After purchasing the property, the Sauquoit Silk Manufacturing Company more than tripled the size of the building and i.n 1885 introduced silk weaving. The company also erected mills in Bethlehem and Philadelphia. By 1890, the company employed six hundred young women and thirty-five men at the Scranton facility alone. Throughout its history, the company has had a variety of owners, including chemical giants DuPont, Monsanto, and Rohm and Haas. Sauquoit hasn’t manufactured silk since the 1930s, when it moved into synthetic fibers and was one of the largest producers of nylon at the end of World War II. The company today manufactures silver-coated fibers and fabrics for special application in the electronics, health care, and sports apparel industries.

Scranton eventually claimed a number of silk companies, including the Harvey Silk Mill, established in 1880 by Alfred Harvey, and the Meadow Brook Silk Company, incorporated in 1889. It was not long before dozens of silk mills sprang up in surrounding communities. Entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to invest in the commodity, helping to expand the industry both in and outside of Lackawanna County. A prominent Scranton family, which had prospered in real estate, insurance and banking, branched out both industrially and geographically by incorporating the Towanda Silk Mills in Towanda, Bradford County, in 1905. Along with proximity to New York, northeastern Pennsylvania offered cheap labor, mostly the daughters of miners and railroad workers. “A lot of kids worked as bobbin carriers for about six cents an hour,” says Fox.

To the south, the story of silk in Lehigh County might have taken a much different turn if pervasive labor unrest and strikes had not threatened the industry in Paterson, widely acclaimed by the late nineteenth century as the “Silk City of America,” or if Allentown attorney Frederic A. R. Baldwin had not been reading the New York Tribune. By 1870, half of the country’s silk industry was located in Paterson, but growing discontent among workers began alarming mill owners. Through a Paterson real estate agent, R.M. Ekings, the Phoenix Manufacturing Company advertised in New York newspapers in the spring of 1880 for a suitable site on the East Coast to which it could relocate its vast silk operations. Baldwin alerted Charles W. Cooper, cashier of the Al­lentown National Bank, who shared news of the opportunity with fellow business leaders. They quickly organized a committee to lure the company to the Lehigh Valley and invited Ekings and Albert Tilt, president of the Phoenix Manufacturing Company, to see the possibilities their city could offer. The requirements seemed tailor-made for Allentown: access to major markets, low-cost waterpower, and an “abundant supply of cheap labor.”

During his first visit to Allentown, located eighty miles west of Paterson, Albert Tilt found an ideal site at Court and Race Streets, with access to the Lehigh Canal. (His mill in Paterson was located on the Passaic River.) Tilt presented an unanticipated demand, however. He required that Allentown pay both the costs of relocation and building construction – no small hurdle given the area’s depressed economy. The Allentown Board of Trade responded by establishing a Silk Factory Fund Association, to which community leaders and merchants contributed. Residents also donated to the cause and helped purchase the land and erect the building. The list of subscribers included individuals from all walks of life, but most were “professional men,” among them attorneys Samuel A. Bridges ($500) and Thomas B. Metzger ($l,300), bankers William Saeger ($1,200), Esais Rehrig ($100), and Tilghman H. Good ($1,400), physicians Joseph Young($200) and Edwin G. Martin ($1,200), newspaper editor C. Frank Haines ($1,000), and newspaper publisher W. K. Ruhe ($800). Local companies contributed to the fund, including the Coplay Cement Company ($1,700). Principals broke ground for the massive project in late September 1880, with A. J. Derron Jr. and Company serving as the supervising architect. Upon completion of the four-story building, the Phoenix Manufacturing Company installed machinery at the cost of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in autumn 1881.

The Adelaide Silk Mill, named to honor Tilt’s wife, Adelaide V., opened amid great fanfare on Thursday, November 17, 1881. A thousand large invitations-woven entirely of silk and depicting the new Adelaide Silk Works-had been issued by the company. A special train brought more than one hundred guests from New York and Paterson, including the Tilts, Paterson’s Mayor David S. Gilmore; G. A. Hobart, president of the New Jersey Senate (and later vice president under President William McKinley); John Cooke, vice president of the Danforth Locomotive Works, Paterson;
Philadelphians John C. Lucas, president of the Keystone National Bank, and his wife, Harriet A. T. Lucas, president of the Women’s Silk Culture Association of the United States; and officers of the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company. More than two thousand people “swarmed through the mill all afternoon on a tour of inspection and to see the plant in operation.”

Mayor Edwin G. Martin recounted for the throng of spectators the chain of events that led to the company’s relocation to Allentown. He also cited the city’s “superior advantages,” including “our proximity to the great anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, the cheapness of fuel and the advantages of steam over water power; the three railroads and canals connecting us with the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, the healthfulness of our beautiful city, with its abundant supply of clean, cold, and limpid water derived from a perpetual spring within the city limits, the thousands of girls and boys of our city, and of the many neighboring towns and villages almost contiguous to us, and the last, but not the least advantage, the thrift, enterprise, and unbounded hospitality of the inhabitants.” Opening of the Adelaide Silk Mill expanded Allentown’s industry and bolstered its economy that had for many years relied heavily on the iron industry. The region’s iron trade had been declining for some time, and the introduc­tion of a new industry could not have come at a better time.

“One of the most important, though one of the newest manufactures in the city is that of silk, carried on in the Adelaide Mills, which are a monument to the enterprise and liberality of Allentown’s substantial men,” wrote Alfred Mathews and Aus­tin N. Hungerford in their History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon, published in 1884. Equipped with the latest machinery, the mill initially employed between four and five hundred young workers, nineteen hundred by the 1910s, and more than two thousand in the 1920s. Like a magnet, the mill’s success drew other silk manufacturers to Pennsylvania. The 1916 edition of Davison’s Silk Trade: A Directory of the Silk Manufacturers of the United States and Canada, published annually for the industry, counted more than three hundred silk mills in the Commonwealth, with the densest clusters in its eastern counties. At the height of Pennsylvania’s silk boom in 1920, one third of the nation’s silk workers lived in the Keystone State.

Not only did the Phoenix Manufacturing Company’s relocation to Allentown draw other silk manufacturers to the Lehigh Valley, but it profoundly changed the way community leaders attracted industry. Jo 1896, fifteen years after the Adelaide Silk Mill opened, the Hartley Silk Manufacturing Company, of Middletown, New York, advertised for a site on the eastern seaboard for the relocation of its idled mill. An agent for the company dispatched a letter to the Alburtis Board of Trade – an organization that did not exist – but the missive “was brought to the attention of the public-spirited citizens of Alburtis, and after a liberal discussion resulted in the call of a citizen’s meeting, January 1, 1879.” After the meeting, a committee of two, William B. Butz and William Richards, visited Middletown to examine the company’s machinery which they found in good condition. After Butz and Richards announced their findings, a number of citizens came forth to support the mill’s relocation and more meetings were conducted “for the purpose of determining upon some means whereby the enterprise might receive the proper support.”

Alburtis, located just southwest of Allentown, raised nine thousand dollars to erect a one-story frame building, measuring forty by eighty feet, to house the works. Lewis Meckley donated an acre of land. In the spring of 1897, the committee broke ground for construction of the new home of the Hartley Manufacturing Company, which opened with twenty-five broad silk looms and thirty employees. Five years later, in 1902, fire destroyed the building, which the company enlarged and rebuilt in brick. After a change in ownership, the firm emerged as the Alburtis Silk Ribbon Mill, annually producing ribbons valued at more than two hundred thousand dollars by 1914.

Circumstances similar to those played out in Allentown and Alburtis also occurred in the Berks County seat of Reading in 1887.John, George, and David Grimshaw, proprietors of the successful Grimshaw Brothers Silk Company, of Pater­son, looked to Reading to expand their operations. Tn addition to finding a suitable location, they also sought encouragement – specifically financial support – for their venture. As had their counterparts in Alburtis and Allentown, Reading’s residents rallied and organized an association which collected sixty-five thousand dollars from subscribers. A building committee purchased property and erected a three story brick mill measuring fifty by two hundred and fifty feet and leased it for a term of several years, with an option to buy, to the Grim­shaws, who then equipped it with machinery costing approximately seventy-five thousand dollars. But it wasn’t long before disaster struck.

On Wednesday afternoon, January 9, 1889, a tornado crashed through Reading, duly chronicled and dispatched by an Associated Press writer to California’s Fresno Weekly Re­publican, which published the graphic account two days later under screaming headlines, A HURRICANE. Hundreds of People Hurled Into Eternity. Nothing Stayed in Its Wrath, and the Worst is Not Told.

Directly in its path, at the corner of Twelfth and Marion streets, stood the Reading silk mill, in which about 175 girls were working. The building was a huge, substantial structure of four stories, occupying a full block of ground, and surmounted by a massive tower fully one hundred feet from the ground. A funnel-shaped storm-cloud struck the building directly in the center of the broadest side, and it fell to pieces as if composed of so many building­ blocks. Nearly 200 human beings went down in the awful wreck. The wrecked walls gave way and the floors fell down on top of the other; and carried their great mass of human beings to the bottom. The bricks were piled up in the greatest confusion, while above the hurricane rose the cries for succor. From the ruins probably seventy-five or 100 girls, with blackened faces and bruised or broken bones and torn clothing, drew themselves out or were dug out by friendly hands. These worked on the upper floors. At some places the bricks were piled up twenty feet deep, and underneath are lying to-night human bodies by the score. In response to the alarm thousands of citizens hastened to the scene, and, by the light of the bonfires, the work of rescue was commenced. The fire company left the burning railroad shops, and the entire police force was caller/ out. The ambulance and relief{illegible word} all set to work. One young woman was brought out covered with cuts and wounds. One body was dragged out which had the head wt off. The Associated Press reporter entered what had been the basement of the building, and, groping his way through the debris sighted five bodies close together, all dead. They were pinned down and it was impossible to move them at the time, up to half-past 10 to-night probably the bodies of a dozen of the dead had been taken out, while the greater portion of the remainder were still buried in the ruins. All the living brought out were terribly wounded. The work of the rescue will be continued all night.

Despite the horrific tragedy, the brothers rebuilt the mill within a year. The company, producer of large quantities of dress goods, linings, and yarns, operated the mill until January 1, 1908, when financial difficulties forced the brothers to dissolve it. The mill, entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, has been converted into an apartment building with forty-one units.

Silk mills became fixtures in small townships and boroughs between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers, particularly in areas where a dominant industry, such as iron or coal, had grown moribund. While Allentown’s fading iron industry gave way to the manufacture of silk, decreasing mining and processing of anthracite in Pennsylvania’s northeastern counties opened that region to the silk trade. As the largest – and, in some cases, the only major – employer in many communities, a mill controlled the economic barometer of its community. In Weatherly, Carbon County, Read & Lovatt Silk Manufacturing Company (R & L) opened in 1881, the same year as the Adelaide in Allentown. By the mid-1890s, the factory was the largest “throwing plant” in the world. The company’s “throwsters” twisted silk fibers into thread in preparation for weaving or dyeing. In 1915, the mill employed five hundred silk workers, about one-fifth of Weatherly’s population. “Everyone who didn’t work for the railroad worked for R & L,” says Fox.

The Commonwealth’s silk corridor comprised a regionally varied texture of manufacturing processes and products. Mills in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite region were throwing mills. Most of the Lehigh Valley’s operations were weaving mills that made silk products for the New York garment trade. In Allentown, the Queen City Silk Company manufactured hat bands, shoe facings, and ribbons. Bucks County’s mills specialized in silk knits and hosiery. In Easton, Northampton County, R & H. Simon made dress silks, ribbons, coat linings, automobile upholstery silks, and velvets. R. & H. Simon’s success allowed owner Herman Simon, a German-born immigrant, to commission Easton architect William Michler in 1902 to design “the handsomest house in the Lehigh Valley.” A quarter-million dollars and two years later, American and European craftsmen completed work on the opulent, high-style mansion, which now houses the Third Street Alliance for Women and Children, a not-for-profit social services organization.

During the heyday of the industry, silk imported from Asia was hauled by high-priority silk trains that sped across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and then shipped to makers in Pennsylvania New Jersey, and New York. For roughly a half-cen­tury, from the 1890s to the 1940s, the Canadian Pacific Railway transported raw silk from Vancouver (a day closer to Japan) to factories on the East Coast. The “Silks,” as the trains were known, each carried several hundreds of thousands of dollars of raw silk cocoons, requiring armed guards to prevent theft and reduce insurance premiums while the precious cargo was in transit. The Silks had the right-of-way over all other rail traffic, and it was not unusual for other trains, including those carrying passengers, to be pulled into sidings to make the silk trains’ trips faster.

In the teens, eastern Pennsylvania was the epicenter of the American silk industry, with most of the mills clustered in and around the Lehigh Valley. By 1920, silk had become the largest employer in Pennsylvania. Allied industries – dye works, spinning companies, and bob­bin works – followed the silk trail to Lehigh and Northamp­ton Counties. At the industry’s height, the area was home to approximately seventy-five silk mills.

Mills popped up everywhere. Weavers, accountants, business associates, and contractors – with and without experience in the trade – delved into the business. Polish immigrant Louis Wiener had been a partner in his father’s Paterson mill before setting up a weaving mill in Slating-ton, Lehigh County. Louis Capwell came to the silk trade with a business degree from Dartmouth College. He was a manager at the Crothers & Seib­ert Fabrics Company in Catasauqua, and then worked as a “converter,” or middleman, between the silk mills and garment industry, before taking over the Catoir mill.

A few company owners amassed fortunes in silk, weaving a layer of glamour in the social fabric of small-town Pennsylvania. One of the most colorful, Hungarian-born Desiderius George Dery – known in both social and business circles as D. George Dery – began in the silk business as a mill superintendent in Paterson. His dream of own­ing his own factory brought him to Catasauqua, where he set up shop in a three-story brick building and hired two hun­dred silk workers for weaving “plain and fancy dress silks.” Within three years, he had expanded his space and doubled his payroll. By 1914, Dery was operating fourteen silk mills in eastern and central Pennsylvania with a work force of thirty-six hundred. Five years later, he owned forty-two mills and employed ten thousand workers. In the 1920s, Dery was on top of the world, welcoming celebrities and dignitaries to the lavish parties he and his wife Helen gave at their palatial mansion – replete with a wing for their vast art collection – at Fifth and Pine Streets in Catasauqua. The residence, built in 1899 and renovated by the silk manufacturer in 1910, is currently being considered by new owners for rehabilitation and reuse as an inn and banquet facility.

In addition to owning mills in Catasauqua, Allentown, Bethlehem, and nearby Emmaus, Dery also owned operations in Jim Thorpe (known as Mauch Chunk until 1953), Carbon County; Wind Gap, Northampton County; Kutz­town, Berks County; Scranton and Olyphant, Lackawanna County; Forest City, Wayne County; and Marietta, Columbia County. He was a director of the National Bank of Catasau­qua and developed real estate in Allentown for housing. Befitting an individual of his socioeconomic status, he belonged to the Livingston Club, Allentown, the Hamilton Club, Paterson, New Jersey, the Lehigh Country Club, the Northampton Country Club, the Bethlehem Club, the Manhattan Club, New York, and the Manufacturers’ Club of Philadelphia. His success enabled him to purchase, in 1912, the “fine residence” of wealthy Allentown businessman and industrialist General Harry C. Trexler (1854-1933) at 926 Hamilton Street.

Although New Yorker Henry D. Klots never lived in Pennsylvania, he amassed a fortune from his silk mills in the Keystone State. In 1895, he and his brother, George, opened the Klots Throwing Company in Carbondale, northeast of Scranton, after a fire destroyed their mill in New York. At the time of his death in 1914, Henry Klots’s holdings also included plants in Scranton and Archbald, Lackawanna County, Forest City, Susquehanna County, and Alexandria and Fredericksburg, Virginia. Historian Bonnie Stepenoff offered an insightful portrait of Klots in Their Fathers’ Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960. In many ways, his portrait resembles that of D. George Dery. Klots was an absentee owner. He lived in New York City where he belonged to the Manhattan, Princeton, and New York yacht clubs, the Apawamis Club of Rye (New York), and the Larchmont (New York) Yacht Club. Until his death from appendicitis he was a prominent member of the Silk Associa­tion of America, the most important organization of silk manufacturers. According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, “In politics he was a Republican and in religion an Episcopalian. Yachting and golf were his outdoor recreations.” A typical example of the Gilded Age elite, he probably would not have been comfortable living in Carbondale, a bustling small city on rugged terrain north of Scranton.

At the other end of the spectrum, silk workers labored long, physically taxing hours for modest wages and few – if any – ­benefits. Until 1913, when child labor laws barred children under the age of sixteen from wage work, girls as young as twelve made up the bulk of the silk workers in the anthracite region. The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, administered by the PHMC, documents as many as five thousand young girls working in the coal region’s silk mills in the early twentieth century. “Silk manufacturing was extremely critical to the region’s economy,” explains museum administrator Chester Kulesa, “because it gave work to women, especially during a period when the mines and col­lieries were slowing production or closing. Silk is part of our anthracite heritage, and we interpret its role in our exhibits, which visitors find fascinating.”

Hours and earnings varied from region to region, and by job, with men earning an average of ten dollars a week more than women. In 1929, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry published a special bulletin entitled “Hours and Earnings of Men and Women in the Silk Industry,” which had been prepared by the agency’s Bureau of Women and Children. The study focused on forty-one throwing plants and twenty-one weaving plants for one pay period in February 1928. Of the 16,886 workers in the study, approximately 60 percent were women and 4 percent children under the age of 16. Workers typically averaged fifty hours per week. The report revealed that the highest paid workers were weavers in the Easton area, where men earned up to $34.60 weekly and women, $25.40. Wages generally were highest in the Lehigh Valley and the Philadelphia area.

Despite long hours and low wages, Pennsylvania’s silk industry offered relatively steady employment for generations of working class men and women with little education and few other options. Immigrants with limited English language skills and wives and daughters of steel, iron, coal, railroad, and cement workers labored alongside siblings, relatives, friends, and neighbors. By 1920, the typical mill worker was a woman in her twenties, often married and, more likely than not, a mother. Some met their spouses at the mills; others made lasting friendships.

“In 1922, I moved to America to live with my sister in Pittsburgh, but f had trouble finding work,” recalled Austrian immigrant Mary Emery. “Then someone said that Allentown had silk mills.” Trained as a silk worker in Europe, Emery had no trouble finding a job at Allentown’s new Highgrade Silk Mill. “My sister didn’t want me to go. Then, when she learned I was making twenty-seven dollars a week, she joined me in Allentown.”

Emery was one of fifteen former silk workers and owners interviewed in 1992 for “Quillers, Warpers, and Weavers: Silk Workers in the Lehigh Valley,” an exhibition mounted by the Lehigh County Historical Society, headquartered in Allen­town. The exhibition, recipient of a PHMC research grant, ran from January to July 1993. Transcripts of interviews conducted in preparation of “Quillers, Warpers, and Weav­ers,” provide a rare glimpse of the personal stories behind the statistics.

Anna Wieder Miller, born and raised in Macungie, Le­high County, left high school after one year to work at the Macungie Silk Company, a manufacturer of silk ribbons and bindings. The company – incorporated in 1908 by G. Byron Kleppinger, Charles L. Huber, Charles W. Rothenberger, David Dry Fritch, Charles A. Rauch, and Horace W. Schantz – employed twenty-five people, first in the former Lea Street Baptist Church building, erected in 1873, and later in a one-story brick mill building the firm built on Locust Street. Known widely as “Potato King of Lehigh” David Dry Fritch (1848-1931), a prominent physician and miller, served as company president.

Like many young girls, Miller worked as a “quiller,” wind­ing yarn around bobbins. Typical too was her ten-hour day, six-days-a-week schedule, and eights-cents-an-hour wage. Her older brother, Dennis Wieder, also worked at the mill, as did her future husband, Leroy Miller. “Working in the silk mill was a popular thing to do,” she explained. “Most of our friends went to work there.”

Renee Roseto recalled how her parents and uncles emigrated in 1915 from Italy to Allentown, where they lived at Penn and Whitehall streets. “There must have been fifteen mills right in our area,” she said. “Most of my uncles went right into the silk mills. My parents were both weavers at the Highgrade Silk Mill. The looms were so loud, my father went deaf.” She and her three younger siblings all worked in the mills. “I was fourteen when l went to work at Moggio’s Silk Mills. We gave all our earnings to our parents.”

One of ten children of a cement mill worker, Catherine Haftel was also fourteen when she went to work at the Diehl Silk Mill in Bath, Northampton County, first as a picker, and then as a quiller. “When l got a chance, I learned to weave,” she said. “Weaving was the better paying job.” Except for taking “a few years off to raise three children,” she worked in the mills from 1925 to the early 1950s. Haftel typified most silk workers, who stayed in the industry, if not with the same mill. This was particularly true for women, many of whose husbands eventually moved on to higher paying jobs in trucking and cement.

“Before we closed the mill, the youngest worker was in his fifties,” recalled Louis Capwell in his interview. “We never had to train anybody, because they’d been at it so long.” His daughter concurs. “Some were in their eighties,” she says. “One woman was in her nineties. They didn’t want to retire.” Pennsylvania’s silk industry crested in the early 1920s, then flattened through the decade, as imported Japanese silk products deflated silk prices and the less costly synthet­ics, nylon and rayon, infiltrated the market. Although many Paterson silk mill owners had relocated factories to Pennsylvania to escape labor unrest, strikes were not unknown in the Keystone State, most notably at the Klots mill in 1900 and at the Lehigh Valley Silk Mills in Fountain Hill, Lehigh County, in 1910. Strikes in the thirties sent at least ten Lehigh Valley mills packing up and moving to the South, where labor was cheaper and unions had not yet taken hold.

Most of the remaining mills abandoned silk altogether or adapted their operations to other textiles, such as cotton or wool. Some switched to synthetics, including Louis Wiener, who kept his looms running through the 1940s by manufacturing rayon and nylon. After losing much of his fortune, D. George Dery closed all but three of his mills and moved into a modest house across the street from his mansion. He closed the remaining mills in 1934. Read & Lovatt hung in until 1944 by producing silk thread for parachutes for the war effort.

The federal government’s wartime ban on Japanese raw silk and its rationing of silk, cotton, linen, and wool only hastened the end of the silk industry. As late as the 1960s, though, a stable – but significantly smaller – market for luxury silk coat linings, blouses, dresses, and lingerie kept the industry in existence. In the 1980s, the Capwell’s Catoir mill made silk neckwear for the Manhattan-based Countess Mara Ties (now Merola), along with nylon for flags.

Since the 1980s, historic preservationists have been scrambling to save silk mills from the proverbial wrecking ball, and communities and developers that once decried the crumbling buildings and complexes, as well as the declining neighborhoods surrounding them, are now acquiring the sites and rehabilitating them for new – and unprecedented ­- uses. Former silk buildings now house publishing companies, art galleries, clothing outlets, lofts and apartments, municipal offices, and real estate offices.

The gargantuan building which once housed Albert Tilt’s Adelaide Mill in Allentown has been recently rehabilitated and now serves as a distribution center for Safavieh, a manufacturer and importer of fine rugs, founded in 1914. The former Lehigh Valley Silk Mills in Fountain Hill, renovated with a federal historic preservation tax credit administered by the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, now houses private residences and borough offices. The Bethlehem Silk Mill, a handsome brick building nearing completion as an apartment building for area college students, was destroyed by fire on Friday, March 24, 2006. The project, Campus Crossings, was also a tax act project certified by the PHMC’s historic preservation program.

Surviving silk mills offer testimony to the Keystone State’s golden era of silk manufacturing. Much Like the vacant ten-acre R.& H. Simon mill in Easton, once the community’s largest employer, these giant artifacts of Pennsylvania’s industrial history, have stories just waiting to be told and retold.


Travel Tips

There are several sites and museums where visi­tors can examine the story of Pennsylvania’s once booming silk industry.

Old Economy Village in western Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), was once one of the most prosperous manufacturing communities in nineteenth-century America. From 1824 to its dissolution in 1905, the village’s founding Harmony Society, first led by George Rapp, attempted to establish a pious commune that prepared its members for the Millennium, believing that a prophesized thousand-year rule by God was imminent.

Silk production was established by Rapp’s granddaughter, Gertrude Rapp, when she was 19 years old. The Harmonists wove high quality silk fabric into satin, velvet, ribbons, sewing thread, handkerchiefs, cravats, and clothing. Gertrude was consulted for her expertise on raising silk­worms by culturists from all over America and Europe. Until silk production ceased in 1852, they won several exhibition medals in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The Harmonists wore fine clothes spun from their silk; wove a suit for President John Tyler; and a display of silk fabric, on exhibit at Old Economy, was entered in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893.

Old Economy’s rare glimpses into an entire nineteenth-century community, with its many restored buildings, interiors, furnishings, gardens, artifacts, and photographs, appear as though the Harmonists could return at any moment. To plan a visit, go to Old Economy Village website; write Old Economy Village, 270 Sixteenth St., Ambridge, PA 15003- 2298; or telephone (724) 266-4500.

On Pennsylvania’s silk road, Wright’s Ferry Mansion in Columbia, Lancaster County, should not be overlooked. Built in 1738, the restored mansion celebrates the life of its former Quaker owner, Susanna Wright (1697-1784). Wright tended a farm, orchard, and garden; wrote poetry and essays; and dispensed home remedies, as well as mediated local legal disputes. An enlightened and respected woman, she befriended luminar­ies of her time, including two colonial citizens who advanced silkworm cultivation in Pennsylvania – Benjamin Franklin and James Logan. Wright quickly mastered the process of raising silkworms and published a treatise on the subject. Historians believe that Wright produced the first pair of silk stockings in Pennsylvania.

Visitors to Wright’s former home can see rare collections of silk dresses, shoes, needlework pictures, and sewing accessories which provide authentic examples of the same type of silk fabric produced by Wright prior to 1750. The mansion also includes a rare collection of Queen Anne chairs and other early eighteenth-century Philadelphia furniture, as well as blown glass, ceramics, and household artifacts. Much of the estate’s history and collections are detailed in a beautifully illustrated two-volume book, Wright’s Ferry Mansion (2006). For more information, write: Wright’s Ferry Mansion, 38 South Second St., P.O. Box 38, Columbia, PA 17512; or telephone (717) 684-4325.

The Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, administered by the PHMC, features silk machinery and a lace loom from the former Scranton silk industry. For information about programs and exhibits, visit Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum website; write Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces, R.D. #1, McDade Park, Bald Mountain Rd., Scranton, PA 18504; or telephone (570) 963-4804.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, beginning July 1, will feature eigh­teenth-century French and English patterned silk dresses worn by some of Philadelphia’s most fashionable women. “The Bizarre and the Beautiful: Silks of the 18th Century” will be on exhibit in the museum’s Costume and Textiles gallery until spring 2007. VisitPhiladelphia Museum of Art website; write: Philadelphia Museum of Art, P.O. Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646; or telephone at (215) 763-8100.


For Further Reading

Feltwell, John. Story of Silk. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

Giovanni, Federico. An Economic His­tory of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Legett, William F. The Story of Silk. New York: Lifetime Editions, 1949.

Reibel, Daniel B. Old Economy Village: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Mechanicsburg, Pa., and Harrisburg: Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission, 2002.

Scranton, Philip. Figured Tapestry: Production, Markets, and Power in Philadelphia Textiles, 1885-1941. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Scranton, Philip, ed. Silk City: Studies in the Paterson Silk Industry, 1860- 1940. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1985.

Stepenoff, Bonnie. Their Father’s Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna Univer­sity Press, 1999.


The editor thanks Lance Metz, historian, National Canal Museum, and Sarah Bufftngton, curator, Old Economy Village, for their assistance in providing images illustrating this article.


The author thanks Martha Capwell Fox for sharing her extensive knowledge of the silk industry, for her private tours of the recent exhibit “Behind the Seams: The Silk Industry of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor” at the National Canal Museum, and for guiding a visit to the vacant R. & H. Simon mill complex in Easton.


Elizabeth Armstrong Hall, writer and independent scholar, lives near Manassas, Virginia. A native of Allentown, she had no idea before working on this article that her county was once America’s silk center. Her most recent article for Pennsylvania Heritage, Max Hess Jr. Puts Allentown on the Map,” appeared in the Fall 2004 edition.