From Silk to Straw: Nantucket Women in Manufactories
The First Post in The Nation of Nantucket, by Jascin Finger
As I walk around Nantucket, I often think about what the houses and buildings were used for in the past and what the neighborhoods were like. Sounds that could be heard up and down the streets, the sights, and even the smells. While just about in the center of Town, Academy Hill is always quiet and an area that I like to walk. But the area was once probably not as quiet as it is today when it was the home of the Atlantic Silk Company.
Situated at the top of Gay Street, the Atlantic Silk Company (ca.1835) was one of several island businesses that relied upon the labor of women for its successful operation. Silk was preferred by Quakers because slave labor was not required for its manufacture and the use of silk served as a way of boycotting cotton and protesting slavery in the American South. Unfortunately, it was likely the difficulties of cultivating silkworms on Nantucket that led to the company’s closure in 1844. The building was then converted into a duplex residence that still survives today, in part as the Sherburne Inn and I suspect some of the mulberry trees in Town are also remnants of that era – silkworms only eat mulberry leaves – and only a certain kind. Very picky.
A few blocks away, in a busier section of Town stood the Atlantic Straw Company, on Main Street, just beyond the Pacific Bank. Like the Silk Company, it also relied on women laborers during its almost twenty years of operation. Originally built as a Hicksite Friends Meeting House, the building was sold to the Nantucket Straw Loan Association (NSLA) for two thousand dollars on August 29, 1853. The company was a subsidiary of the Union Straw Works in Foxboro, Massachusetts and was originally known as the Nantucket Straw Works or Nantucket Straw Company. Advertisements were run in the newspaper asking specifically for women to apply. It appears from an article in the Inquirer and Mirror that straw works were a popular manufactory for women to work in on the mainland, and perhaps NSLA saw this as a perfect fit for the already independent-minded working women of Nantucket. This same article mentions that Nantucket women were “proverbial everywhere for their industry.”
By 1854, the plant was in operation with some women working on site making hats while others worked at home. The women were given a list of twelve rules that they must follow while at work. While rules were strict, a poem published in the newspaper alludes to much mischief and chatter, with little work completed among the women of the Straw Company.
The Straw Company employed between two and three hundred women, many of whom may have left their children at neighborhood dame or cent schools. Cent schools – given the name “cent” because a child brought a penny a day as payment – were run by women in their homes or above shops and served working families in the community much as day-cares do today. The schools were run on Saturdays, as well as minor holidays, and attendance was not obligatory. In the cent schools, children were taught the basics of reading and writing, and craft-like projects were conducted with the children as well as art, drawing, and sewing. Many of the children returned home for lunch, but those who did not were charged an extra penny to warm their dinners. Likely, these children had mothers who were working outside of the home. Infants, pre-schoolers, and children up to the age of twelve or thirteen could be found in the cent schools. Once they were of the age for earning money or for attending the public or private schools on the island, they would leave the cent schools.
By 1857, the Atlantic Straw Works had only one hundred and eighty women working and by 1858, it had closed its doors. Nantucket’s economy was in a rapid decline with the loss of its position as whaling capital. Island women were also employed in sewing shops that fabricated products such as dusters (long coats), a manufactory that made twine, and a woolen factory. In 1811, the twine factory fabricated 23,000 pounds of twine with a value of $12,000! While men were employed by this manufactory as well, women comprised all of the twenty spinners.
So, the next time you are walking around near the Pacific Bank and Academy Hill, think about what may have happened behind those doors and in those neighborhoods.
The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847. It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820. Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea. I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels. I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world. My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well. Stay tuned!
Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999. She holds a Master’s in History. Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture. The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents. She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.