Quick silk boom and bust in Delaware: Fleeting fascination in history

by Danica Brendon

Delaware’s History of Runaway Fads: From Mulberry Trees to Bitcoins

Bitcoins, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and other viral schemes have captured the attention of investors in recent years, driving prices to astronomical heights before crashing back down to reality. However, such frenzied fads are not a new phenomenon, particularly not in Delaware’s history.

Back in the 17th century, when Dutch settlers arrived at Cape Henlopen, Holland was in the midst of a tulip mania. The price of a single tulip bulb soared to astonishing levels, surpassing the annual income of an average person. This fevered rush for tulips in Holland mirrored the speculative frenzy that would later grip Delaware.

In the early 19th century, a similar boom occurred when southern Delaware became obsessed with mulberry trees and silkworms. It all began when the Wilmington Delaware Register reported on April 11, 1829, that the “Delaware Silk Company” would be accepting subscriptions for its capital stock in Georgetown, Sussex County. Excitement and speculation grew, but the boom quickly fizzled out. By August of the same year, the newspaper reported that “the affair has died away.”

The idea of establishing an American silk industry was not entirely new. Early attempts had been made in Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, with hopes of rivaling silk production in Europe. However, all of these attempts had failed. Nevertheless, after the American Revolution, the planting of mulberry trees to cultivate silkworms gained renewed interest.

On March 12, 1829, the “Society for the Promotion of Culture of Mulberry Trees and Raising of Silk Worms” published a pamphlet with detailed instructions on silk production, which likely inspired the Delaware Silk Company. Unfortunately, this venture also met a similar fate to its predecessors.

However, a few years later, in 1839, a Seaford resident named William Morgan reignited the cultivation of silkworms. He purchased mulberry cuttings and planted over 500 trees near his home. Despite setbacks caused by adverse weather conditions, about 4,000 silkworms hatched and produced ten pounds of raw silk. Nevertheless, this amount proved insufficient to cover the cost of Morgan’s trees.

As the silk market collapsed, Morgan tried to recoup his losses by selling cuttings from his trees. Regrettably, he found no buyers. The once promising speculation had turned into a sudden death for investors, leading Morgan to reflect, “Ah me, there is no sale for the cuttings or trees. The most complete death, sudden death, to this speculation that ever was to any kind of speculations in these United States.”

Delaware’s history is marked by its share of runaway fads, from the tulip mania of the 17th century to the silk boom of the 19th century. These episodes serve as a reminder that speculative bubbles are not unique to the modern era. Whether it’s the allure of cryptocurrencies or the promise of new technologies, the impulse to chase after quick gains has always been a part of human nature.

As we navigate the volatile world of investments and digital currencies today, we can draw lessons from Delaware’s past. It teaches us to approach the latest craze with caution, to not let ourselves get swept away by the hype, and to remember that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

So, the next time you hear about the latest and greatest investment opportunity or viral scheme, take a moment to reflect on Delaware’s history of runaway fads. And perhaps ask yourself, “Do I really want to buy into this non-fungible token?”

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