GUEST CURATOR: Kathryn J. Severance
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“John Hickey, SILK-DYER and SCOWERER … continues to carry on his Business.”
In this advertisement John Hickey advertised his silk-dying business to the public. It seems that his shop has been set up for some time “near the Canoe-Bridge in Portsmouth.” This advertisement focuses on the color blue as one of the silk-dyer’s colors that he could dye. As I mentioned in February when I guest curated, the use of indigo allowed for textiles to be dyed blue.
For a period of time, fabrics used to make clothing and other items were imported from Europe. In 1750 however, Americans moved toward becoming more independent and self-sufficient by starting to produce their own fabric on a larger scale. Silk-dying in colonial America was part of the vast textile field that existed at the time. Unlike wool fabric, which was made of thread spun from the wool of sheep, silk was a fabric that had to be imported. For this reason, it was more of a luxury textile. Silk was produced much differently from wool, as it was spun by silk worms. In the eighteenth century, silk was imported mostly from China, where the silk worms are naturally found, but it was also imported from the English, who had ventured into the silk-production trade during the thirteenth century. England’s climate was not as ideal as China’s for the worms and, as a result, they often produced less. For information about how silk was produced, read this article from the Mansfield Historical Society.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Kathryn has chosen an advertisement that offers glimpses of the production and use of different sorts of textiles in colonial America. In listing his occupation as “SILK-DYER and SCOWERER,” John Hickey announced to potential customers that he was capable of working with fabrics made of both silk and wool. As Kathryn indicates, silk was most often imported, though colonists experimented with cultivating silkworms from the earliest days of settlement. Over time, as Americans gained political independence, they also increased their efforts to achieve commercial and economic independence through producing silk in the late eighteenth century.
Hickey did not work exclusively with silk. In his advertisement he underscored that as a “SCOWERER” he “takes in Cloth, to Full and Dress, and does all other Branches of his Business.” In so doing, he emphasized his extensive expertise and experience. Rather than scowerer, Hickey might have listed his occupation as fuller, tucker, or walker. All of these referenced the fulling business, the part of the process of making woolen cloth that involved cleansing the cloth to eliminate oils and dirt. As a result of fulling, woolen cloth also became thicker. Fullers often operated mills that used water wheels, which helps to explain why Hickey “carr[ied] on his Business near the Canoe-Bridge.”
By stating that “does all other Branches of his Business,” Hickey assured potential customers of his skill and competence in working with both silk and woolen fabrics.