Part IV, Chapter XIV
The Growth of the American Silk Manufacture
The silk manufacture is in a special sense the child of protection. Hazardous though it always is to undertake to say what would have happened if the conditions had been different, one may venture in this case to assert that if high duties had not been imposed during the civil war there would have been no considerable silk industry in the United States. The situation is different with the other textile manufactures. Cotton and woolen fabrics were made on a large scale under the moderate duties that prevailed for many years before the war; the régime of high duties during the last half-century has simply served to increase the volume and extend the range of industries already established. But the very existence of the silk manufacture is due to protection. To this general statement, it is true, there are some minor exceptions. Certain branches of the industry did develop before the war,—constituting exceptions which, as will appear presently, are instructive. But those parts of the industry which have come to be by far the most important, owe their rise to the tariff.
For other reasons than its origin under the influence of protection the history of the silk manufacture is significant. The industry not only was quite new in the United States, but soon developed along lines of its own. So great has been the transformation in some branches as to suggest at least the possibility of successful application of protection to young industries. Yet a parallel development on the Continent of Europe indicates that forces not peculiar to the United States, but of international scope, have been at work. Something like a belated industrial revolution took place in the industry, greatly altering the relations of the different producing countries. Further, the character and sources of supply for the raw material are unusual. And, finally, less attention has been given in our controversies to this industry than to others stimulated by protection. In many ways the case invites study.
During the civil war, the duty on manufactures of silk, which had before been moderate (25 per cent under the act of 1846, 19 per cent under that of 1857) was raised, and toward the close of the war, in 1864, was fixed at 60 per cent. The increase was solely for revenue, with no trace of that admixture of protectionism which was a factor in so much of the tariff legislation of the period. The 60 per cent rate remained in effect until 1883. In the general revision of that year, one of 50 per cent was substituted. The simple method of imposing a general ad valorem duty was retained (with a minor exception, presently to be noted) until 1897.
It is not to be doubted that undervaluation, largely fraudulent, was prevalent throughout this period, and that it caused the effective duty and the rate of protection to be less high than the figure on the statute book would indicate. As the domestic industry developed, those interested in it protested more and more strongly against this state of things and urged the adoption of specific duties. The extraordinary variety of silk fabrics, and the difficulty of grading them by external marks or physical qualities, were long thought to raise insuperable obstacles in the way of specific duties. Yet in 1897 specific rates were devised and applied; anticipated already in 1890 by rates of this kind on one special class of silks,—velvets and other pile fabrics. The elaborate system of specific duties applied in 1897, though advocated chiefly on the ground of checking fraudulent undervaluation, in fact served also the purpose of raising the duties on many goods, and even of making them quite prohibitory on the cheaper grades. A dragnet or stoppage clause was retained by which in any case silks were to be dutiable at a rate at least as high as 50 per cent; and the more expensive grades of silks, on which the specific duties might have been relatively low (such is always the tendency under specific duties), continued to be assessed for duty under this clause. No change in the system was made by the tariff act of 1909; the rates of 1897 were retained; the only change of some moment was that the dragnet
or minimum rate became 45 per cent, not 50 per cent.
The revision of 1913 brought less incisive changes in the silk schedule than in almost any other part of the protective system. It is true that the specific duties were entirely swept away. None but ad valorem duties remained. But these ad valorem duties were left comparatively high,—45 per cent on most fabrics, 5o per cent on velvets and plushes. These were almost the identical rates previously in force on the more expensive goods. On the cheaper goods, the reduction seemed considerable, yet in fact signified little. As will appear in the course of the discussion, the previous specific duties had been extreme,—above the point of prohibition. The change to the ad valorem rate left the tariff so high, even after allowance for probable undervaluation, as still to keep out all imports of the ordinary grades of silks.
Summing up, we may say that the silk manufacture during the half-century that followed the civil war was sheltered by a high barrier on imports. In this case, as in others, duties originally imposed for emergency revenue purposes became protectionist in their effect, and then, with the accentuation and systematization of the protective system, were made more rigorous. Even the supposedly radical revision of 1913 left them little abated.
The growth of the silk industry under this long-maintained régime of high protection was not less extraordinary than that of the iron industry. It doubled in volume almost every decade. The appended tabular statement summarizes the story. The gross value of the domestic silk manufactures increased from an insignificant amount (and almost all of that attributable to a
single specialty) in 1860, to nearly 200 millions of dollars worth in 1910. It is true that these large figures (given in the first column) need correction. The methods of the industry have undergone a change similar to that in other textile industries, in the direction of specialization. Separate establishments now carry on some processes (e.g., spinning or "throwing") which formerly were combined with other processes (e.g., weaving) in one and the same establishment. Where yarn is made in one mill, and reckoned as its product, and then is used in another mill which reckons the whole value of the woven fabric as its product, the same "product" is counted twice; and where a change in the direction of specialization takes place between census periods, there is obviously an exaggeration of the total output in the later period, and a deceptive appearance of rapid growth. Allowance for this sort of exaggeration is made in the second column of the table, in which the corrected product is stated; the census authorities having excluded what was counted twice in the later periods. Even so, the figures show a growth from nearly nothing to 172 millions by 1910. Quite a different qualification is made in the third column, where allowance is made also for the raw material used (chiefly the imported raw silk). The value of the expensive raw material accounts for about half the value of the finished silks; what may be called the separate product of American labor and capital is indicated by the third series.
In striking contrast with the rapid and unceasing increase of the domestic product is the virtually stationary volume of the imports. The figure of imports for 1910 is precisely the same (33 millions) as that for 1860, half a century before. In the intervening years the imports sometimes were considerably larger than this, sometimes considerably smaller; they increased in times of activity, diminished in times of depression. For the fifty years as a whole, they show no tendency to rise or fall, fluctuating above or below the same general level. The constituent elements in the imports have indeed changed very much, as will appear presently; but their volume has been virtually constant.
It follows that the imports have formed a steadily decreasing proportion in the total of silks used in the country. The domestic product has formed a larger and larger proportion of the whole. Comparison of the domestic and foreign quotas is not so simple as might appear. The figures to be considered are those in columns 2 and 4; since the imports, as well as the domestic product, are reckoned in these two on the same plan. But the imports, when they reach the purchaser, are weighted with the duties; and in reckoning the share of imports and domestic products in the country's consumption of silk goods, the stated imports must be swelled by the duties. Allowance must also be made for the fact that the imports have been much undervalued at the custom house; the stated value of the imports formed the basis for the imposition of ad valorem duties, but sales to purchasers were often on a different and higher basis. For the purposes of a rough comparison (quite sufficient for the present purpose) it will serve to add 60 per cent to the stated imports. So enlarged, the imports will be found to be more than triple the domestic product in 1870, about one and a half times that product in 1880, actually less in amount for the first time in 1890, and then a smaller and smaller proportion, until by 1910 they are but 30 per cent. In 1860 almost all the silk goods used in the country, and quite all of the woven fabrics, were imported; whereas during the last twenty years over two-thirds of the silk goods of all kinds have been supplied by the domestic manufacturers.
So much by way of general survey. We may proceed now to a more detailed consideration of the different branches of the industry.
Raw silk has always been admitted free. In this respect the silk manufacture developed under conditions essentially different from those of the wool manufacture. The application of the protective policy to wool brought in the latter case a complication from which the silk industry was exempt.
This freedom as regards the raw material was not always uncontested. From sundry quarters, at various times, there were suggestions for a duty on raw silk. Both material and finished product have long had a certain fascination: both have been regarded by protectionists as peculiarly enriching, and the acquisition of the industries as peculiarly desirable. For the earlier period (before the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century) this attitude no doubt was explicable on the ground that the high value of silk fabrics for small bulk brought them readily within the range of international dealings, and so made it feasible to apply to them the mercantilist policy. Yet for the earlier periods, and also for the later stage which set in with the industrial revolution, the predilection for a silk industry has probably been intensified by the supposed preciousness of the product: very much as a gold mine is thought to yield greater riches than a coal mine. During our colonial times there were repeated attempts to foster the cultivation of the mulberry tree, the culture of silk cocoons, the reeling of raw silk; all this being favored, among other reasons, because the industry was one of the then cherished household occupations. In the nineteenth century, there were recurring efforts to promote mulberry growing and silk raising. One curious episode was the furore in the decade 1830-40 concerning a tree, the morus multicaulis, which was supposed to be as well adapted for the silk worm as the white mulberry (the "true" mulberry), and which gave rise to a speculative mania comparable to the famed tulip mania.
In 1890, at the time when the McKinley tariff bill stimulated the extension of protection in every direction, there was a movement for a duty on raw silk. It was opposed, of course, by the manufacturers; and, a duty being hopeless, a bounty of one dollar a pound was actually provided for in the bill as passed by the House, but was eventually dropped by the Senate. In later years, our Department of Agriculture, ever awake, under the policy so long dominant, to the possibilities of "acquiring" new industries, made experiments with mulberries and raw silk. Eggs and mulberry seedlings were procured from Italy, and manuals of instruction widely distributed. For a while the Department went so far as to buy cocoons from domestic growers (paying for them at current European prices) and caused the filaments to be reeled from the cocoons by its own employees. Finally Congress wearied of the fruitless efforts, and in 1908 discontinued the appropriation for them; and the country relapsed into untroubled acquiescence with the importation of every ounce of raw silk used by the domestic manufacturers.
The explanation of this complete failure to develop the production of raw silk is to be found in the principle of comparative advantage. The usual statement, especially by protectionists, is that the cheapness of foreign labor makes competition impossible with the countries whence the silk is imported. Here, as in other cases, this statement means simply that we do not find here an advantageous way of applying our labor.
The production of raw silk divides itself into two parts: raising the cocoons, and reeling the filament from them. There is no climatic obstacle to growing mulberry trees in the United States or to raising the cocoons. But the tending of the larvae, worms, and cocoons requires minute attention and wearisome labor. No use of labor-saving implements is feasible. It is carried on, in China, Japan, Italy, in rural districts, largely as an incident to other agricultural occupations. Even more clearly than in the case of the sugar beet, a comparative advantage is lacking. In other agricultural work, the American farmer uses agricultural machinery and those labor-saving devices which are adapted to extensive cultivation. The impracticability of applying them to cocoon raising means that here there is, not indeed a disadvantage, but complete lack of any special advantage.
This is still more the case with reeling. Raw silk differs from all other textile fibres in the length of the fibre unit. From the cocoon a long delicate filament is unwound; a number of filaments are combined into the thread, still delicate, which forms the raw silk of commerce. It comes on the market in a skein very like that of the loose-spun wool or "worsted" which women use for their knitting. The unwinding and combining of the filaments take place in filatures, with use of a reel on which is wound the thread or strand of raw silk. Filatures were long very small household affairs,—adjuncts to peasant agriculture; but in modern times have come to be, in Japan and in those European countries (Italy, for example) which produce raw silk, establishments of some size, with power for moving the reels. But whether small or of comparatively large size, they depend on deft handiwork and meticulous labor. The filament needs to be watched every instant. "In the treatment of the cocoons, the formation of the thread,—in short in the spinning and treatment of the silk itself,—no noteworthy change has been wrought, in spite of incessant study.... The winding of the single thread from the cocoon demands such a delicacy of treatment that so far only the manual dexterity and intelligence of the women reelers has (sic) been able to cope with it. All mechanical processes proposed in substitution of hand labor have failed."
It is a striking and curious fact that silk reels have been greatly improved by American ingenuity, yet are not used by Americans at all. A type of reel devised by an American mechanic, a foreman in an American silk mill, has made its way all over the world. Yet no reeling is done in the United States. It remains essentially a handicraft operation, precisely of the kind to which American labor does not find it worth while to turn.
It may be noted at this point that the situation is quite different with another grade of silk,—spun silk. "Raw silk" proper is that just described,—the continuous thread reeled from the interior of the cocoon. The exterior hull of the cocoon, however, has broken fibres; in the innermost part of the cocoon, the fibre becomes so attenuated as not to be unwound profitably; and there are also pierced and imperfect cocoons whose filaments are broken. These "waste" fibres, as well as some other "wastes," are used in making spun silk. "In working spun silk there is no effort to use the continuous thread as spun from the silk worm within the cocoon; but the cocoon is treated as a bundle of fibres and spun the same as cotton and wool by special textile machinery, adapted to the characteristics of the particular fibre." Spun silk is more amenable to treatment by fast-moving machinery than reeled silk; and this circumstance, has had important consequences in the development and geographical distribution of the spun silk branch of the manufacture.
Raw silk proper, however, differs essentially from the other textile fibres. The filament from the cocoon, though continuous, is not even. Nature is always irregular, and the silk worm's thread has not the mechanical regularity of man's product. For this reason the silk manufacture retained its ancient characteristics for a century after the other textile industries had been transformed. Raw silk was not so readily amenable to the machine processes. The very fact that cotton and wool have short fibres, and that the fibres must be separated and evened by carding, then twisted together methodically by roving and spinning, makes these materials a ready prey to the machine. The tenuous and comparatively uneven silk fibre long resisted. The main processes in the manipulation of raw silk,—"throwing" (the process corresponding to spinning) and weaving,—remained handicraft and household industries long after power-driven machinery had conquered in the cotton and woolen industries.
For this reason, the industry had no hopeful prospect when introduced into the United States under the stimulus of the war duties. The peculiar qualities of the raw material seemed to make it ill adapted to the prevailing manufacturing methods. Apparently it was likely to be for an indefinitely long period at a comparative disadvantage, and therefore to remain in unceasing dependence on protection. During the early stages of the industry attention was repeatedly called to the special difficulties of the industry by a highly competent observer, Mr. W. C. Wyckoff, the first secretary of the Silk Association of America. The raw material, he pointed out, is uneven and irregular. It is likely to break in the course of weaving, indeed in any of the processes. "A loom may have to be suddenly stopped. It is always the same story,—breakage, stoppage, waste of time (labor) and material. The loss of time when machinery, running at high speed, has to be stopped, becomes a serious matter, from the mere fact that there is no production during the stoppage. 'It costs,' said a manufacturer, 'fully five times as much to tie a knot in this country as in France.' " And again: "it is necessary to have all the threads of warp and woof as perfect as possible, so that there shall be no stoppage of the power loom." In Europe, "the silk manufacturer is a mere contractor. He buys the tram and organzine—i.e., filling and warp—which have been made in a separate factory. He sends this material to another establishment, a dye-house. Finally he puts it out to weavers who have looms in their own homes." This is the familiar domestic system. The American manufacturer, however, was compelled by the social and industrial conditions surrounding him to try to substitute for it concentration in the factory, power-driven machinery, wage labor; yet the nature of the raw material imposed obstacles to carrying out the change with advantage.
Commenting on this situation, I remarked in 1889, in a passage which the subsequent course of events has not contradicted: "A struggle seems to be going on in the silk industry between large factories and machinery, on the one hand, and household industry and manual labor, on the other.... The nature of the silk fibre is an obstacle to that extensive use of labor-saving machinery which is characteristic of American industry. The field is not promising for the ingenuity and inventiveness which give American manufactures their distinctive advantages.... It may indeed happen that Yankee ingenuity will revolutionize the conditions of this industry. The attempts of the American manufacturers to get a more even supply of raw silk, and to apply machinery to its conversion into silk goods, may prove successful, if not throughout the industry, at least in many parts of it.... Should there continue in the future a progress such as has undoubtedly been made in recent years [1880-1888] in the American silk manufacture, it may happen in the end that most sorts of silks will be made here as cheaply as abroad, and that the abolition of protective duties would affect the silk manufacture as little as it would now affect the bulk of the cotton manufacture. If this proves to be the case, we shall have an example, and a striking one, of the successful application of protection to young industries."
These extracts anticipate in part what is to come; but they serve to show what are the special problems in the history of the American silk industry. The nature of these problems will appear more in detail as we proceed to consider step by step the several stages in the manufacturing operations.
After reeling, the next process is throwing. The long filaments of the raw silk,—continuous threads from beginning to end of the skein,—are doubled and tripled, and so given strength and consistency for enabling them to be used in weaving. Thrown silk, the material turned over to the loom, is sometimes called yarn, since it corresponds to cotton or woolen yarn; it is especially so called by Americans in very recent times, because the power-driven machine has succeeded in taking possession of silk throwing. But the term silk yarn is more commonly used to denote the spun silk which is really spun from the shorter fibres of the cocoon. Thrown silk is quite a different thread, and is generally known by names of its own. That used for weft, which is soft and comparatively open, is called "tram"; that used for warp, more closely twisted, is called organzine.
Silk throwing continued to be a handicraft operation until the latter part of the nineteenth century; just as carding and spinning had so remained until the corresponding part of the eighteenth century. It was carried on in the throwsters' homes, often as an accessory to agriculture or other occupations. Two generations ago the silk throwster was as important and characteristic a figure for this industry as the hand loom weaver was a century ago for the other textile industries. Like the hand loom weaver, he has been displaced by machinery. Not indeed entirely; for in some parts of Europe, and almost throughout the Orient, the silk throwster, like the silk weaver on hand looms, still holds a considerable place. But in the countries of advanced industrial methods, he has quite disappeared; more particularly in the United States and in England.
The significant fact for our inquiry is that the American industry has gone ahead independently, not following the lead of other countries. Newly invented throwing machines came on the market in the United States during the decade 1880-0,—all in the direction of automatic action and great speed. As early as 1890 throwing spindles were operated at a speed no less than that of cotton spindles, 10,000 revolutions per minute; ten years later, by 1900, the number of revolutions had been raised to 11,000 and 12,000. A natural consequence of the perfection of the machines was a change in the character of the persons employed to tend them. The silk throwsters had been men. The new throwing machines were operated largely by women and children. The change had consequences similar to other historic transitions in textile manufacturing,—from hand loom weaving to power loom weaving, from the power loom to the automatic loom, from mule spinning to ring spinning. In its social aspects, it opened grave questions. But its cheapening effect was great and rapid. The cost of converting raw silk into tram and organzine was lowered to one-quarter and one-fifth of what it had been a generation before.
Similar changes took place in weaving. Silk woven fabrics are divided into two classes, sharply separated as regards manufacture and commercial dealings: dress silks (broad goods) and ribbons (narrow goods). Of these, the latter, the ribbon branch of the industry, has proved the more amenable to the machine processes. The first ribbon looms in the United States were of German or Swiss pattern. In 1889 a high-speed automatic ribbon loom was invented in this country. It proved the beginning in a series of improvements in ribbon weaving. Double-deck looms succeeded single-deck looms. The "weaver" became, as he (or she) inevitably does with a perfected power loom, a mere machine watcher and tender, whose duty is mainly to keep up the supply of spools and tie broken threads. And the same sort of social consequence ensued as in throwing: in larger and larger proportion there was resort to the labor of women.
Similar changes took place in the manufacture of broad goods. Here too, the first looms, brought over from Europe, were soon superseded by looms of American make. As is known to every one conversant with the history of the textile industries of the United States, weaving machinery was from the outset and has remained a peculiarly inviting and fertile field for American ingenuity; and the advances in silk weaving have apparently been no less marked than in other industries. There have not been, indeed, such striking triumphs as those of the automatic loom in the cotton manufacture. But silk looms have been steadily improved in the direction of lightness, simplicity, swiftness of running, steadiness of product. The stage was reached before long where the weaver could be called to tend to more than one loom; a change which, as ever, caused rebellion among the operators, who nevertheless in the end had to accept the inevitable consequences of the march of invention. The rate of progress seems to have been especially rapid for broad looms in the opening years of the present century. Then an exceptional era of general activity and prosperity led to a sharply increased demand for silks,—these being among the articles which are peculiarly subject to fluctuations in demand between good times and bad times. It may be, also, that the high specific duties levied by the tariff act of 1897 added to the demands on the American silk makers, since they served to shut out effectually foreign competition in the grades which were chiefly made at home. The rate of advance hence was extraordinarily rapid in quantity of output; while invention improved both the efficiency of the machinery and the quality of the products.
No change in the silk industry of the United States, nay of any other country or any other industry, has been more striking than the rapid and complete displacement of hand looms. During the decade after the civil war, hand looms and their weavers were brought over from Europe. But the power loom appeared as a rival at once, and the hand loom rapidly disappeared. The contrast with other countries, as will presently appear, is marked: elsewhere the hand loom maintains a place almost equal to that of the power loom. The figures given below tell their own tale for the United States. The difference is strictly analogous to that in other industries, and the explanation is the same. In a country where labor is made effective and wages are kept high through the wide-spread use of labor-saving devices, a strictly handicraft occupation succumbs because it suffers under a comparative disadvantage. The power loom offers at least the chance of a comparative advantage on a par with the rest of the country's occupations.
It has already been pointed out that a natural consequence of these technical advances was a greater employment of women and children. This in turn affected the geographical distribution of the American manufacture. Being able to use in greater degree the labor of women and children, the industry has tended to move to the regions where such labor is easily got and the laws regulating it are loose or loosely enforced. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have the unenviable distinction of having become, partly for this reason, the important silk manufacturing states of the Union. In New Jersey, just one-half (49.6 per cent) of the employees in silk establishments are women; in Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds (67.8 per cent). In New Jersey, the city of Paterson has long been a "silk town," and especially a ribbon center. Here as elsewhere, newly arrived immigrants, eager to swell the family incomes, send their women and children to the mills, where they are able to tend the quasi-automatic machines. In Pennsylvania, oddly enough, the anthracite region formed a favorable field for the silk manufacturers. The miners were mainly foreign born, recently arrived; they were more than willing to send women and children to the mills; labor laws were lax, the conditions of enforcement almost farcical. There could be no better illustration of the need of curbing and bridling the industrial forces of the time. The machine immensely increases the effectiveness of labor; but legislation and a strong conserving standard among the laborers are needed to prevent it from contributing to evil conditions. And yet, so far as the bare matter of advantage in production is under consideration, the case has but one side: perfected machinery, that needs to be tended only by a slip of a girl, means effectiveness and cheapness, and the country in which the greater mechanical perfection is reached has a comparative advantage in the industries where it is found.
Still another consequence of the progress of invention, in quite a different direction, has been a change in the sources of supply for raw silk. Japan has largely supplanted China; and this under the influence chiefly of American demand and American suggestions. The irregularity of the raw silk fibre is, to repeat, an obstacle to its manipulation by power-driven machinery. Spindles and looms can be adjusted to the most tenuous threads, so long as they are homogeneous. No doubt the finer grades of goods always remain less easily subjected to rapid machinery; but as long as the material is even, the possibilities of delicate balance and adjustment are astonishing. Irregularities, however, always mean breakage, stoppage, loss of time, incomplete utilization of plant; they mean, also, greater need of specialized skill on the part of the individual operative. Hence the American manufacturers sought to secure supplies of uniform raw silk. The Chinese, who had long been the main producers and exporters, proved unwilling or unable to supply such raw silk as the Americans wanted; partly perhaps from pervading stolid conservatism, largely because of the impossibility, under existing political and social conditions, of spreading and enforcing the needed instructions. The Japanese rose to the opportunity. There is no more characteristic illustration of the industrial and intellectual uprising of that remarkable people,—the coöperation of a guiding oligarchy with a responsive mass. Instructions on the proper methods of reeling silk were spread through the country by the government and by the leading export firms. Model filatures for reeling were established. The Japanese prepared raw silk such as the American manufacturers could more advantageously use. Their country took the place of China as the main source of supply. Raw silk became a great article of export from Japan, and American supplies came preponderantly from that country.