The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Straw

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STRAW, the stem of cereal grasses. On the farm it is used as fodder, for littering animals, as manure, and for thatching outhouses and stacks of hay and grain. It is much used for mattresses called palliasses (Fr. paillasse, from paille, straw). It is employed to some extent for ornamental purposes, as for picture frames and baskets for cut flowers. The Japanese use many-colored straws in ornamenting the exterior of cabinets, work-boxes, &c. In the arts the chief uses of straw are for paper making (see Paper) and for the manufacture of hats and bonnets. The art of plaiting straw and similar materials is very ancient, and is found in various stages of perfection in every quarter of the globe. In Europe it remained in a comparatively rude state down to the end of the 16th century, when it began to attain commercial importance in France and northern Italy. James I. introduced it into England. The Leghorn plait of Tuscany began to acquire a European celebrity late in the 18th century; it is still unsurpassed. In that portion of Italy a peculiar variety of wheat (triticum turgidum) is grown solely for the straw, which is distinguished for its slenderness and strength. The seed grain is grown in the Apennines, and the straw crop on the lowlands, for which it is sown very thickly. The plant is cut before maturity, and left on the ground to dry in the sun, and then tied in bundles and stacked. It is afterward spread out on the ground again to be bleached in the sun and dew, and is finally steamed and fumigated with sulphur. In Tuscany the straws are sorted by women, who can instantly by the touch detect the slightest shades of difference in their thickness. In other countries the sorting is done by means of a series of graduated sieves. The Tuscan straw, owing to its fineness, is plaited as it comes from the hands of the sorter; other kinds must be split into splints for fine work. At first the splitting was done with a knife, but it is now done by passing into each straw a wire with several cutting edges, or more expeditiously by drawing the whole straw over a sharp steel comb. As the split straw when plaited presents alternately its inner and outer surface, the work lacks that uniformity of appearance produced by the whole straw. To secure this, the plan was devised, in the plait called the “patent Dunstable,” of laying two splints with their inner surfaces together, which also increases its durability. The plaits are of various widths, depending on the number and thickness of the straws. The usual length in Italy is about 50 metres (54 yards), in England 20 yards. In Tuscany the plaits are coiled spirally into a flat, the edges being knit together and held fast by a thread concealed within the fabric; elsewhere they are usually wound around a block of the shape required, the edges overlapping and the successive coils stitched together. The first straw bonnet braided in the United States is said to have been made in 1798 by Miss Betsey Metcalf, of Providence, R. I. Large numbers of women and children were employed at one time in this country in plaiting straw, but now almost all the braid used is imported. Straw hats and bonnets are sewn in the United States almost entirely by the Bosworth straw-sewing machine, on which when run by steam 100 ordinary hats can be made in a day. There are four companies in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut each of which employs about 100 of these machines, and they are also used by several smaller companies. The hats are pressed by another machine, also of American invention, which smooths them ready for trimming at the rate of four a minute. The value of the straw goods manufactured in the United States in 1870, as reported in the census, was $7,282,086, distributed among nine states: California, $60,700; Connecticut, $1,026,000; Massachusetts, $4,869,514; New Jersey, $54,530; New York, $1,006,000; Pennsylvania, $189,242; Rhode Island, $40,000; Vermont, $1,600; Wisconsin, $34,500. The number of men employed was 1,988; women, 12,594; youths under 16, 343. During the year 1874-'5 the value of the product of Massachusetts increased about 25 per cent., while that of most of the other states has remained nearly the same. In Ecuador, Colombia, and other parts of South and Central America, a straw is obtained from the Carludovica palmata, called by the natives jipijape or portorico, which is largely used in the manufacture of the hats known as Panama hats, from the principal port of their shipment, cigar cases, &c. The leaves of the plant, which resembles a palm, are gathered before they unfold, and after the ribs and coarser veins have been removed are cut into shreds. These are exposed to the sun for a day and then tied into a knot and immersed in boiling water until they become white, when they are hung up in the shade and afterward bleached for several days. The straw is then distributed through the districts, especially in Peru, where the manufacture is carried on. Whole colonies of Indians are engaged in this manufacture. The men, women, and children plait the straw upon a block of wood which they hold between their knees, finishing an ordinary hat in two or three days; but the finest hats occupy several months to complete them, and require especial care in the selection of the straw and the plaiting. The best are made in Ecuador.