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 Manchester.

Rev. Jared Eliot of Guilford recommended silk-production as a profitable form of agriculture in the region in this award-winning 1760 book on New England farming.

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 manufacturers started taking full advantage of the region’s abundant water power to drive their machinery. Silk cloth was consistently far more lucrative than cotton, wool, or linen, and for decades New England farmers had tried to import and cultivate mulberry trees 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. The demand for silk, however, 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 chain. Over the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th, the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company grew into a massive corporation, the largest provider of silk thread and silk products in the United States.

By the 1920s, the factory buildings and housing built for the company’s 4,500 workers encompassed hundreds of acres in south Manchester, and the company was grossing over $20 million in sales annually. The next decade, however, saw the Cheney Brothers’ fortunes decline rapidly, as the Great Depression dried up the market for luxury goods virtually overnight. Weak sales, combined with competition from increasingly popular synthetic fabrics, signaled the beginning of the end for the Cheney Brothers silk company. By the early 1950s, the company was reduced to a small fraction of its former size, and on February 26, 1955, the heirs of the original Cheney family who still owned the company received a buyout offer they couldn’t refuse from J. P. Stevens and Company — a synthetic textile manufacturing firm. They accepted the offer, and with that, the end of an era for one of Connecticut’s most prosperous early industries arrived — today in Connecticut history.

A 1920s ad for Cheney Silks. (University of Connecticut Archives and Special Collections)

Further Reading

Romance of the Worm: Connecticut’s Part in ‘Mulberry Mania,’ Cricket Hill Garden

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

Laura Smith, “Resources in the Archives About the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company,” UConn Library and Special Collections