I love local history, and this time of year history is in bloom. Mulberry trees which are scattered all over the Salt Lake Valley and down as far south as St. George are getting ready to produce fruit this summer which can be used for jam or wine. These historic trees were planted by the first and second wave of white pioneers to the state who were determined to create a silk economy within the confines of our borders. Dr. Sasha Coles is writing a book: Nation’s Wealth Surrounds a Worm”: Mulberry Trees, Silk Cocoons, and Women Workers in Mormon Country, 1850s-1910s and I had the opportunity to hear her give remarks about this web of our past and her research.
During the 19th century, Utahns were looking at many different ways to create money making industries for their families and their church. Raising silk worms didn’t take a lot of capital investment-you could trade or purchase the worms for very little. Male run households in a myriad of cultures around the world found that women, children, elderly, native and enslaved peoples that were too old or too weak could generate capitol with this home business. Basically, anyone could be employed doing this business. Silk manufacturing kept them at home in modest home-factory operations. Plus, it was a self-sufficient industry, not like farming sugar beets, raising sheep for wool, planting cotton, mining silver, gold and iron. This home based industry didn’t rely on imported goods and Latter Day Saints created an economy by and for Mormons based on the fibers created by the insect. Silk industry-women and children planted trees, produced cocoons, invested in an economy “worthy of Christ’s second coming”. Saints synthesized cooperation’s and centralized planning with the incentives and infrastructure that fueled 19th century capitalism
Leaves of the white mulberry are silkworms’ food of choice. Latter Day Saints brought seeds with them across the plains. One home farmer, Pricilla Jacobs tried to time the silkworm hatching to trees getting their leaves but complained that once they started eating the leaves it sounded like “rain on the trees” as they kept their creatures in the attic munching on the freshly harvested mulberry leaves. Relief Societies across the state offered each other advice on how to keep the trees and worms alive. The trees were susceptible to heat. Worms were kept cool so they wouldn’t hatch. One woman put them against her chest to heat up and left services to run home and get them to their food source. The industry was touted as an automatic money maker for investors, but it really wasn’t easy to get the final product.
The railroad came to Utah in the later 1800’s and that helped get resources and product in and out of the state. The 1983 Chicago World’s fair had a ‘Utah Building’ which featured silk scarves, thread, upholstered items, drapes, and clothing and touted ‘See real live Mormon girls making silk!’. The industry died off in the early 1900’s despite a $.25 cocoon bounty authorized by the legislature to encourage production. The Saints couldn’t compete with Japan’s and China’s infrastructure and silk mills. Many of the trees died off but some do live on.