Friday, May 18, 2012


Our 1920s silk lingerie pattern
We came across this wonderful 1920’s pattern for silk undergarments and wondered about the origin of the Corticelli Silk Company with its cute kitty logo in the upper right-hand corner.

Mr. Whitmarsh
In researching silk production and the original of the company, we came cross a gentleman named Samuel Whitmarsh, who in 1832 moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to plant 25 acres of mulberry trees and a set up a cocoonery on his estate to create a silk mill. It became a great tourist attraction.

What? Mulberry trees? What do they have to do with silk?  A lot!!! Apparently though there are many varieties of mulberry trees (Japan has about 700 kinds!), silkworms only eat the leaves of white mulberry trees.

silkworm moth
Silk moths lay their eggs on the mulberry leaves and 14 days later, the worms hatch and feed continuously on the leaves, molting as they grow. After molting 4 times, the larvae enclose themselves in a raw silk cocoon produced by their own salivary glands. Did you know that silk is basically a protein? 

In its cocoon, the silkworm transforms into a pupa that eventually emerges as a moth in about 3 weeks.  The moths reproduce and though they die within 5 days, the female manages to lays between 200 to 500 eggs (!!!) within that time to again continue their cycle of life.

Silk is created by dipping cocoons in boiling water to kill the pupa and unraveling the thread. Each cocoon is actually a single thread that ranges from 300 to 900 meters long. Amazing, right?

Another interesting fact is that mulberry trees have such other diverse uses: the leaves are used as feed for pigs and chickens; ethanol is created from mulberry tree sawdust; it is used as traditional folk remedy for everything from asthma to diarrhea to epilepsy to tumors;  the twigs are used for making baskets; the wood is used for furniture and a traditional Japanese tea ceremony green tea scoop called “Cashaku” is made of mulberry wood.

Noguchi Shoji lamp
American Samoa Tapa cloth
Famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi used boiled mulberry tree bark to create his “Shoji” paper lamps and in Polynesia, it is used to make a fabric called “Tapa cloth”.

Big timber companies have tried to take over  viable land that produce these trees, but tribes such as the Maisin people of Papua New Guinea have rejected offer to sell their one million acres of ancestral rain forest, trying to make their living in part by selling these Tapa cloths from mulberry trees grown in their own gardens.

…..and now, back to Mr. Whitmarsh, who was advocating the sale of mulberry trees to the public. Alas by the end of the decade, “mulberry speculation” crashed, along with Mr. Whitmarsh’s dreams. 

Members of the Utopian Association
Book about their Society

In 1842, members of a local Abolitionist group calling themselves the  Northampton Association of Education and Industry established a utopian community and took over the silk mill as their main source of shared income,  community owned and operated. They believed that the rights of all should be "equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion." Famed freed slave and activist/orator Soujourner Truth was a member of this group, and though the utopian community dissolved in 1846, she continued to live in the area until 1857.

Sojourner Truth

Mr. Samuel Lapham Hill
Another of the original members who strove to create a humane industrial society was Mr. Samuel Lapham Hill, whose home in Florence, Ma. was used as a stop for the Underground Railway to spirit former slaves to safety. Mr. Hill also established Americas’ first free kindergarten called the Hill Institute.

At the time, the newly invented sewing machine made its appearance but one of the inherent problems was the unevenness of the threads used. Hill devised a machine that could spin smoother thread and submitted it for approval in 1852 to Mr. Isaac Singer…who was so delighted with the smooth quality he explained “ I shall want all you can make!”

This new “fabric became known as “machine twist” …and within 20 years, his company became the largest silk thread manufacturer in the country.

When the commune dissolved, Hill took over the factory and called it the Nonotuck Silk Factory, which later merged with the Corticello Silk Company, which became the world’s largest producer of silk thread made with raw silk imported from Japan.

The famous Corticelli Silk Thread Company logo was the “Corticelli Kitten” a kitten playing with a spool of thread, and between 1910 and 1913, a huge electrical sign loomed over Broadway in NYC with their logo, one of the earliest ads on the Great White Way.
One of Broadway's First Electric Advertising Signs