Soft and luxuriant, silk may not seem to share much in common with Auburn Correctional Facility. But the fabric is the subject of a short but significant period in the prison's history — one that will be discussed at a Sept. 21 program, "Silk Mania in Auburn Prison," at the Cayuga Museum of History & Art.
Presenting the program will be Denise Nicole Green, an assistant professor at Cornell University and director of its Costume & Textile Collection in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design. The program takes its title from a paper Green authored with retired professor Nancy Breen, which they previously presented at the National Symposium of the Costume Society of America.
The professors also have a personal interest in the paper they authored: Green is from Auburn, and Breen currently lives in the city. Having grown up on Easterly and then Dunning avenues, walking past the Seward House Museum and the area's historical markers as a child, Green began looking for projects on local fashion history when she came to Cornell three years ago, she said.
She and Breen found their project in one of those historical markers. Located outside the prison, behind its barred gate, it says, "Convicts made sewing silk, 1841-1846. Here was principal cash market in U.S. for cocoons and raw silk." Green explained that the marker's date range is incorrect — silk production actually ceased at the prison in the summer of 1844. And that's precisely the type of information she and Breen sought to unweave about this little-known period in the history of Auburn Correctional Facility.
"It was hard to find a lot of primary documents from the prison itself from this era," she said Thursday. "It was an interesting challenge. We were able to piece together a lot of information."
Green said the roots of the prison's silk production lie in the shrubby mulberry tree, which was imported locally by a Flushing nursery in 1826. The leaves of the fast-growing, cold-hardy plant are the major food source of silkworms. So with sudden access to that food source, domestic silk cultivation surged. It was the "perfect cottage industry" for New England farm families, Green said.
The New York State Assembly took note in 1835, ordering prisons to start silk production as soon as it was convenient, Green said. And, four years later, it was Auburnian and Gov. William H. Seward who suggested his hometown prison start production in an effort to diffuse its tension with local manufacturers. Silk, he reasoned, wouldn't threaten any of them, Green said.
By 1841, the first throwing mill had been built at the Auburn prison. Its warden (then called an agent) was Henry Polhemus, who advocated strongly for the project, later showing spools of its finished product at the New York State Fair. Using a mill, Green said, Auburn prisoners would take raw silkworm cocoons and reel (unwind) their singular threads into sewing silk, also known as twist. The spools would then be sold to dressmakers, who still worked by hand — whether it was at a shop making someone else's gown or at home making their own.
By the end of 1842, Green said, the prison had 41 inmates working at 10 throwing mills and a dye house. At that point, she continued, it was indeed the country's principal cash market for raw silk.
But the project unraveled in almost equal time. In 1843, Polhemus was replaced by John Beardsley, who wrote to the Assembly that the prison's silk was "more or less imperfect, badly twisted, badly assorted, defective in color, and consequently unsaleable." The origins of the silk were also a problem for its buyers and wearers, Green said. As men, the producers' hands were less nimble than those of the women and children who often made sewing silk — and as prisoners, they threaded a social stigma into the material. Meanwhile, imported silk remained cheaper due to ineffective tariffs.
Additionally, Green said, silk production was a problem for prison discipline. Log books show prisoners were punished for wasting or stealing silk, and talking during work time. She and Breen theorize that prison officials disliked the project because the sound of the machinery made it difficult for guards to overhear inmate conversations, but they have not been able to substantiate the theory.
Despite acknowledging the damage it would do to local silk cultivators who sold cocoons to the prison, Beardsley shut down silk production there in the summer of 1844, Green said.
The professor finds the Auburn prison's short period of silk production part of a greater tapestry of local fabric history that she'll cover Sept. 21 at the Cayuga Museum. Along with current wool and alpaca concerns, she'll also talk about the Auburn Button Works and Logan Silk Mills, which in the late 1800s made the material in the inaugural ball gown worn by first lady Caroline Harrison.
"Who knows that the future holds in terms of what's possible around fiber production in this region," Green said. "I think it's important for us to know the history of the places where we live and what people have been able to make and do in the hundreds of years before us. It can provide us with an interesting perspective as we look forward into the future."