Homespun Respectability: Silk Worlds, Women's Work, and the Making of Mormon Identity
- Author(s): Coles, Sasha
- Advisor(s): Jacobson, Lisa
- et al.
This dissertation examines silk production in western Latter-day Saint (Mormon) settlements from the 1850s to the early 1900s. After Latter-day Saints began to colonize the Great Basin region—the homelands of Ute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Goshute peoples—in the late 1840s, church president and prophet Brigham Young tasked his followers with building a self-sufficient economy independent of “Gentile,” or non-Mormon, influences. Young and other male church leaders envisioned silk as a viable source of employment for women, children, and other household “dependents.” From the 1850s to the early 1900s, Mormon women attempted to plant mulberry trees, raise silkworms, and produce cocoons, thread, and cloth of a high-enough quality to use and sell. By most measurements, they failed. Even so, there is much to learn about Mormon women’s working lives, market entanglements, and political engagements from this silk experiment. Women Latter-day Saints mobilized silk work and goods to satisfy a range of needs and desires. The industry provided them with a venue to make their own money, shape transnational labor and commodity markets, and understand ever-changing environmental conditions. These and other material realities shaped the cultural values assigned to homemade silk. Mormon women embraced the exotic mystery typically attached to silk imports from “the Orient” as well as the image of silk as tasteful, refined, and suitable for middle-class women. They also generated meanings unique to their religious, political, and economic circumstances. At church assemblies, homemade silk laces and dresses communicated obedience to church leaders, commitment to building God’s earthly kingdom, and their status as an elect, “chosen” people. In public forums like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Mormon-made silk communicated church members’ white, middle-class respectability, American citizenship qualities, and central role in bringing “civilization” and “productivity” to the Great Basin region. As producers and consumers of silk, Mormon women reconciled tensions between economic cooperation and competition, market isolation and integration, and religious exceptionalism and national belonging. By centering Mormon women’s economic experiences, this dissertation brings to light how gendered acts of production and consumption shaped constructions of Mormon identity and how economic ideas and exchanges animated debates over religion, sovereignty, and citizenship in the American West.