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Tilt Silk Mill, Pottsville

History of Pennsylvanian Silk

Silk spinning was the first major facet of the textile industry to begin in Pennsylvania and peaked in the 1920s. As Frank McNally, manager of a Pennsylvanian company that was once one of the largest silk weavers in the country, puts it, the high concentration of silk companies in northeastern Pennsylvania made a natural transition for the garment industries to settle in the region.

Silk production in the United States took off after tariffs on imported silk were enacted in the 1860s. In 1876, fewer than thirty silk producers operated in Pennsylvania; the number of producers rose by ten times between 1880 and 1925 making Pennsylvania the leading state in the industry by 1914. Similar to the coal industry and the rest of the textile industry, silk spinning was lucrative in northeastern Pennsylvania because it made use of the region’s labor force, many who were children, willing to work at low costs to support their families.

History of the Tilt Silk Mill

In April of 1887, the board of economic development in Schuylkill County announced plans to attract a mill and shirt factory, which would provide four hundred jobs for local citizens. Yuengling & Son Brewing Company was the project’s first investor buying $5,000 worth of bonds. Soon after, the community raised over $90,000 to recruit the mill.

In May of 1887, after searching throughout the region for a town with low labor cost and impressive waterpower, the leaders of Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company, including their president Albert Tilt, settled on Pottsville as the location for their new mill. The Tilt Silk Mill, on 12th Street and Laurel Boulevard, took one year to construct, and it began operating on July 17, 1888.  A journalist at New York Times had high hopes for the mill. A day after its opening, the journalist referred to the facility as “the most extensive and completely equipped establishment of the kind in the country, cost $250,000 and will employ 1,000 operatives.”

With another facility located in Allentown in the neighboring Lehigh County, Phoenix Silk Manufacturing used the Tilt Silk Mill facility to throw the raw silk, or, in other words, make the raw silk into a durable yarn for textiles. The silk yarns were then sent to looms in Allentown to create different silk fabrics, such as Jacquard fabric. With the silk fabric, they made dresses, handkerchiefs, scarves, gauze and pongee goods, ribbons, lining and silk braids. Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company prided itself on their fully American-made products. The Tilt Silk Mill was part of a vertically integrated company protected by tariffs on foreign silk imports.

At its peak, the mill employed 1,500 people. Demand for Tilt’s silk products waned until the mill was forced to shut down in the 1920s. At this point in time and into the 1930s, as garment production shifted from New York to Pennsylvania, the region was making a transition from textile to apparel manufacture.

After Tilt Silk

The facility that was once Tilt Silk Mill changed hands many times since the 1920s. From 1935 to the 1950s, clothing manufacturer Onyx Blouse Company operated in the same location. In more recent accounts, the property became Edward and Mary D. Keese’s who opened up an auto rental franchise there. Parts of the original facility have been removed and modified, but what is left symbolizes 125 years of changes that have occurred since the establishment of Tilt Silk Mill.