What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Loammi Baldwin did much more than advertise mulberry trees for sale in Woburn, Massachusetts, in a notice that ran in the May 5, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette. He advocated for colonizers in New England to more firmly establish a silk industry and, to that end, offered advice for cultivating mulberry trees.
What was the connection between mulberry trees and silk? As Bob Wyss explains, the silkworm, a type of caterpillar, “prefers a diet of mulberry leaves. It produces a cocoon which, when unraveled, can be spun into silk thread.” Colonizers experimented with silk production in Virginia as early as 1613, “but efforts to build businesses around [silkworms] in American colonies such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania were only marginally successful.” Efforts expanded into New England when the Connecticut Colonial Assembly “passed legislation offering financial incentives for silk growers” in 1734. Bolstered by those incentives and newspaper advertisements promoting mulberry trees and silk production, some colonizers in Connecticut met with success in their silk ventures in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, “Connecticut was a national leader in silk production and by 1840 was producing three times as much silk as any other state.”
Baldwin believed that silk production had a lot of potential in neighboring Massachusetts. “I would spare no reasonable pains,” he declared, to encourage and bring to perfection, the production of so valuable an article as silk.” He explained that he had already raised silkworms for a few years and “made a machine to winde the silk.” He found the entire process “less difficult than I imagined.” Yet readers did not need to take his word for it. “Some of the raw silk,” Baldwin confided, “I sent to the society for encouraging arts, sciences and commerce in Great-Britain, where it was examined, and found equal to the Italian silk.” As a result, he had a vision that depended on colonizers purchasing the mulberry trees he advertised. “I am fully of the opinion,” Baldwin asserted, “that the culture of silk may be effected and brought to at least the state of raw silk, which we may export to great advantage.” Yet he did not confine that vision merely to producing raw materials. Instead, he believed that colonizers could “then procure Weavers, and other tradesmen, and carry on the whole manufacture amongst ourselves.”
Both politics and commerce likely influenced Baldwin’s vision. Within the past several years, colonizers objected to new imperial regulations, including the Stamp Act and duties on imported goods imposed in the Townshend Acts. In response, they adopted nonimportation agreements and encouraged the production and consumption of “domestic manufactures,” goods made in the colonies, as alternatives to imports from Britain. In an age of homespun cloth signaling resistance to abuses perpetrated by Parliament, cultivating mulberry trees for the purpose of producing silk had the potential to further safeguard both the political and commercial interests of the colonies.