February 26: The Rise and Fall of Manchester’s Silk Industry


Of all the many factories and diverse industries that sprang up across Connecticut during the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, one of the longest-lasting was the silk-spinning industry, which coalesced around the Cheney Brothers silk mills in the town of Manchester.

Opening their first silk-processing mill in 1838, the Cheney brothers sought to capitalize on a money-making fad that had taken New England by storm: sericulture, or the cultivation of silkworms and the mulberry trees they fed upon.  American cloth production had soared ever since the late 18th century, when innovative New England businessmen started taking full advantage of the region’s abundant sources of water power to drive their industrial machinery.  Silk cloth, however, remained far more lucrative than cotton, wool, or linen, and for decades New England farmers tried to import and cultivate mulberry trees in order to raise silkworms, whose cocoon thread they could sell to silk companies for a high price.

The mulberry tree craze was grinding to a halt just as the first Cheney silk mills were being established, thanks to a series of harsh winters that wiped out most of the delicate trees, but the demand for silk was as high as ever.  The Cheney brothers began importing raw silk from overseas, which allowed them to focus on improving the quality of their finished silk products instead of worrying about an inconsistent local supply of materials.  Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company grew into a massive corporation that became the largest provider of silk thread and silk products in the United States.

By the 1920s, the factory building and acres of housing built for the company’s 4,500 workers encompassed hundreds of acres in south Manchester, and the company was amassing over $20 million in sales annually.  The next decade, however, saw the Cheney Brothers’ fortunes rapidly decline as the Great Depression saw the market for luxury goods like silk virtually evaporate overnight.  The weak market, combined with competition from increasingly popular synthetic fabrics, marked the beginning of the end for the Cheney Brothers silk industry.  By the early 1950s, the company was a shell of its former self, and on February 26, 1955, the heirs of the original Cheney family members who still owned the company received a buyout offer they couldn’t refuse from J. P. Stevens and Company — a synthetic textile manufacturing firm.  The end of an era for one of Connecticut’s most prosperous textile industries — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Patrick Skahill, “The Cheney Brothers’ Rise in the Silk Industry,” connecticuthistory.org

Susan Barlow, “The Cheney Silk Mills,” Manchester [CT] Historical Society

Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District,” Manchester [CT] Historical Society