Dery Silk Mill Marker
Location: South side of Race St at Front
Silk, the ancient luxury fiber, provided some of the shine of the so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. While it was expected that the Astors and Vanderbilts would be wearing silk, it was also becoming popular with the expanding middle class. After the Civil War, an American silk industry became established in Paterson, New Jersey. The silk manufacturers relied on skilled British workers, who were able to demand good wages and working conditions.
By 1880, the Paterson silk mill owners were looking to build new mills in areas that had a large supply of low-cost labor to tend the new machines that were changing the way in silk was spun, knitted, and woven. (The silk itself came from the cocoons of silk worms, which were becoming a major crop for Chinese and Japanese farmers.)
The coal mines and heavy industries of eastern Pennsylvania were providing work for immigrant men, whose wives and children were available to work in silk mills. The first silk mill in the Lehigh Valley opened in 1881 and many others soon followed. By 1900, there were twenty-three silk establishments in the Lehigh Valley, making Pennsylvania second only to New Jersey in silk production.
Among the silk entrepreneurs who moved to the Lehigh Valley from Paterson was Desiderius George Dery, who built a mill on the Lehigh River just north of Allentown in 1897. Dery had been born in Austria in 1867 and had graduated from the Vienna Textile Academy. At the age of twenty he arrived in Paterson and served as a mill superintendent for five years. By 1892, he was able to build a plant of his own, setting up operations in the Lehigh Valley. His new three-story brick mill originally contained 150 looms and employed 200 people to make colored and black dress silks. Not only did the mill use the latest machinery, but it was also designed to provide good lighting and ventilation. Almost immediately, Dery began the construction of a large addition that doubled his output.
Over the next fifteen years, he became the owner of fifteen silk mills making him the largest individual silk manufacturer in the world. Eight of his mills were in the Lehigh Valley. In spite of the size of his business, Dery did not have extensive financial resources. In 1923 he was forced into bankruptcy when the price of silk declined dramatically. Dery had just bought a large quantity of much higher priced silk, which he could only sell at a loss. The original Dery silk mill shut down at this time.
The silk industry in Pennsylvania and the United States peaked in the late 1920s. After that the Great Depression, increasing labor unrest, and competition from rayon began to affect the industry locally and nationally. The Lehigh Valley lost at least fifty-eight silk mills from 1929 to 1939. As was happening with the textile industry generally, many new mills were opening in the South to take advantage of still cheaper labor there. During World War II the supply of silk disappeared because nearly all of it had been imported from Japan. After the war, new synthetic fibers, especially nylon, replaced silk in many garments.
By 1953, Allentown had replaced Paterson as the number one silk city, but even there the number of looms had decreased by 80 per cent. Only six mills continued to work with silk exclusively. Other mills shut down, shifted to synthetic fibers, or began sewing operations. By this time the textile industries in the Lehigh Valley were attracting new immigrants, especially from Puerto Rico.
Over the next few decades, however, increasingly international competition from low-wage countries would eliminate most of the textile employment in the Lehigh Valley. The same economic factor–low wage labor–that brought the industry to the Lehigh Valley in the 1880s led to its demise in the post-World War II era.