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Object of the Month #15
Look for This Kitten Head
Corticelli Silk Cocoons (2013.01.255)
March 2016

Depending on how you feel about silk or silkworms, you might think this month’s object, a small cardboard box containing two silkworm cocoons, is luxurious or kind of disgusting. And I haven’t even gotten to the kitten heads yet.

The box, although only 6.5 cm long (2.5”), is covered with information, inside and out. On the lid is the title, “Corticelli Silk Cocoons,” with an illustration of a hungry silkworm eating green mulberry leaves. The short sides of the box alert the reader to “Look for this Kitten Head On Each Corticelli Spool.” While this sounds rather macabre, not to mention unrelated to silk, a kitten tangled in silk thread was actually the brand’s mascot.[1]

More information about Corticelli is printed inside both the lid and bottom of the box, and gives us our first indication that a box of silkworm cocoons in the NMH Archives isn’t quite as random as it first appears. The inside of the box lid reads, “SAMPLE OF Corticelli Silk Cocoons, Raised at Florence, Mass. The silk on each cocoon is over a quarter of a mile in length. Notice how brilliant, how fine in texture, and how very strong is the fibre on these cocoons. From any of these tiny tbreads [sic] the celebrated Corticelli Silk is made. The Corticelli Silk Mills use each day the product of more than three million cocoons made by Corticelli Silkworms. A box of these cocoons will be sent to any address for 5 cents in stamps.” Florence, a village of Northampton, is only thirty miles to our south.

After all of the buildup created by the packaging, the cocoons themselves are anticlimactic. Inside the box are two white, fuzzy, ovoid little blobs, one slightly longer than the other (the larger one is only 3.7 cm, or 1.5”, long), presumably with the silkworms still inside as there are no holes in the cocoons for egress. They do rattle a bit if you shake them.

Silk farming, or sericulture, has a long history, probably starting somewhere in China three to five thousand years ago. Farming silk is fairly straightforward on paper: hatch a bunch of silkworms, feed them until they start to spin cocoons, unravel the cocoons, then wind the raw silk on reels. What doesn’t come across in this bloodless description, however, is that silkworms happen to be some of the pickiest, fussiest, most demanding farm animals you could ever have the dubious honor of raising. Silkworms have actually been domesticated to a degree, and must be fed because they no longer forage for mulberry leaves, their only food, unaided.[2] The temperature had better be not too hot, and not too cold. Whatever you do, don’t run out of mulberry leaves. In the silkworms’ natural environment, this isn’t quite as difficult, but New England is not their natural environment and keeping a few million silkworms happy, warm, and well-fed is not easy.

While the silkworm can survive in our New England climate, this is not where it naturally does its best work. Sericulture struggled (it never really quite flourished) here in the Pioneer Valley for only a century before dying out, but not before leaving a mark on the area’s history and landscape.

Sericulture was first introduced to Northampton in 1838 when Samuel Whitmarsh built two greenhouses on his estate to grow mulberry trees for two million silkworms. He later built Northampton’s first silk mill for the Northampton Silk Company. It was not successful for long, and Whitmarsh went bankrupt in 1840.[3]

That might have been the end for silk in the area, but the thread was picked up in 1841 when Joseph Conant, one of Whitmarsh’s managers, bought the property and started a utopian community based on abolitionist sentiments called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NAEI).[4] Part of the reasoning behind NAEI supporting and promoting the silk industry was that it was a textile considered untainted by slave labor the way cotton was.[5] The NAEI had continuing problems producing high quality silk, and had to resort to importing cocoons and raw silk, and as a result of this and other organizational problems, it folded in 1846. From this point forward, the process of rearing silkworms for silk production would happen outside of Northampton.[6]

With a new focus on processing silk rather than producing it, the silk industry in Florence was revived once more, as part of a successful symbiotic relationship with Isaac Singer’s newfangled sewing machine. Samuel Hill, a member of NAEI, restarted the business as the Nonotuck Silk Company, using his patented “Smith-Hill Trebling Machine” to manufacture strong silk thread. At this time, Singer was in trouble because all other thread on the market snapped under the high tension created by his eponymous sewing machine. Nonotuck’s silk thread, however, did not break, and Singer was ecstatic.[7] In 1921 the Nonotuck Silk Company was renamed the Corticelli Silk Company.[8] After a few decades of success in silk thread manufacturing, a combination of the stock market crash of 1929, and worker strikes led to the closing of all silk manufacture in Northampton by 1932.[9]

As usual for the archives, we don’t know who donated the object. In this case, however, I think there’s a chance the donor is NMH itself. The inside of the bottom of the box is at least as wordy as the top and gives us another lead. Part of the text reads, “Our booklet, ‘Silk—Its Origin, Culture and Manufacture,’ tells all about the Corticelli Silkworms and how silk is made. Finely illustrated. Very interesting.”[10]

I found a copy of the booklet, and on one of its back pages is an ad for a “Box of Two Corticelli Cocoons,” with an illustration of the very box we have in the archives. The ad helpfully notes that, “These boxes make very attractive souvenirs and many scholars are only too glad to buy these to take home. Teachers will please notice that we make a special offer on orders for large lots.”[11] The box we have may have been procured for a science classroom as a teaching tool, as suggested by the ad. I don’t know when it came to the archives, but now that it’s here, it is again a teaching tool for the school.[12] Our cocoons probably date to about 1911, the same year the booklet was published, or maybe a bit earlier.[13]

Traces of the silk industry still exist in our area today. The seal of Northampton is ringed with silk moths to commemorate this part of the city’s history. The village of Florence was actually named for the Italian city of the same name, known for its silk weaving (although a related attempt to rename the Mill River the Arno failed).[15] Part of Corticelli Street in Florence runs along this same Mill River, and is in the area where, at its peak, many silk industry buildings were located. Although few are extant today, if you drive through Florence you might notice businesses with names such as “Silk Mill Condominiums” or the like.[16]

So if you ever find yourself in a dark, neglected corner of Cutler, remember to “Look for this kitten head,” because you never know if there are a few more boxes of silk cocoons at NMH yet to be found.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] In 1910 one of the first electric signs on Broadway in New York City was an advertisement for Corticelli Silk, depicting kittens playing with spools of thread. Senechal, M. (2004). Northampton's Century of Silk. Northampton, Mass.: 350th Anniversary Committee of the City of Northampton, Massachusetts, p. 40.

[2] Senechal, Northampton’s Century of Silk, p. 2.

[3] Senechal, M. (2002). The Invention of Machine Twist: The Nonotuck Silk Company, from Moths to Millions. Paper presented at the Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts, unpaginated.

[4] Field, J., Senechal, M., & Shaw, M. (2007). American Silk 1830-1930: Entrepreneurs and Artifacts. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, pp. 6, 30.

[5] Soujourner Truth was a member of the association for a time. Ibid., p. 35.

[6] Senechal, Machine Twist.

[7] Senechal, Northampton’s Century of Silk, pp. 18-21.

[8] Ibid., p. 51.

[9] Ibid., pp. 53-57.

[10] I think the copy is a tad misleading. If I didn’t know better, I’d read it to mean that silkworms were being raised in Florence, which by this time hadn’t been true for decades. Those famous “Corticelli Silkworms” were no longer local.

[11] Sheffeld, C. A. (1911). Silk; Its Origin, Culture and Manufacture. Florence, Mass.: The Corticelli Silk Mills, p. 46.

[12] How very meta.

[13] Charles Arthur Sheffeld, the author of the booklet, was Samuel Hill’s grandson. He was responsible for creating the famous Corticelli kittens, which gradually replaced the earlier logo of the silkworm and mulberry leaf (Senechal, Northampton’s Century of Silk, p. 32). That both silkworm and kittens are represented on our box makes me wonder if it might have been produced on the earlier end of the kittens’ reign, and may represent a kind of “transitional fossil” in Corticelli’s advertising.

[14] Sheffeld, Silk, p. 46.

[15] Field et al., American Silk, p. 66.

[16] Most of the research material for this column came out of the Northampton Silk Project, a multi-year project started in the late 1990s and based out of Smith College dedicated to uncovering the history of silk in the Pioneer Valley. You can read more about the project here.