Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/The Possible Fiber Industries of the United States
|THE POSSIBLE FIBER INDUSTRIES OF THE UNITED STATES.|
THE wealth of any community is dependent on the variety and extent of its industries, the utilization of local natural resources, and the employment of the labor of all classes of its population. In locations of successful industrial operations the farmer derives increased incomes, the value of his products is greater, his lands of higher value, and the wages of agricultural labor larger. The rural population contiguous to large towns, therefore, is more prosperous than the larger farming contingent more remote from manufacturing or industrial centers. The farmers of the first class are prosperous because they have a home market for their dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and other "truck," which they are able to produce, for the most part, on small areas by high culture, while those of the second class are forced to expend their energies on commercial commodities such as cotton, wool, meat, grain, etc., with long hauls in transportation, and with heavy competition, international as well as domestic.
In times of depression, or when competition has grown too heavy, the cultivation of certain staples may cease to be remunerative, and the unfortunate producer is compelled to diversify his agriculture, or adopt some other means of livelihood.
Just such a misfortune has overtaken many farmers in the United States within the past few years. Within two years, in fact, wheat has been a drug in the market, while corn has been cheaper in some sections than coal, and cotton is now so low that it hardly pays to grow it, without considering the necessity, for the Southern farmer, of competing against the seventy-five thousand bales of Egyptian cotton which enter our ports in a year. Confronted with these conditions, there never has been a time when farmers were more anxious to discover new paying crops. Among the possible new rural industries that have attracted the attention of the agricultural class is that of fiber production, though the growth of certain kinds of fibers in past time has been a source of income to the country. Already there is a widespread interest in the subject throughout the West and South, and farmers are only seeking information regarding the particular practice involved in the cultivation of flax, ramie, and other fibers, cost of production, market, etc., but many are asking where the proper seed can be secured with which to make a start.
The importation of unmanufactured flax, hemp, textile grasses, and other fibers amounts annually to a sum ranging from fifteen million to twenty million dollars, while the imported manufactures of these fibers amount to almost double this value, or, in round numbers, approximately forty-five million dollars. With the establishment and extension of three or four fiber industries in this country, and with the new manufacturing enterprises that would grow out of such establishment and extension, an immense sum could be readily saved to the country, and the money representing the growth of these fibers would add just so much to the wealth of the farming class.
There are two ways in which we may arrive at a solution of this problem: by direct Government aid, and through the intelligently directed efforts of private enterprise.
Government experiments for the development or extension of vegetable fiber industries have been instituted, at different times, in many countries. In some instances these have been confined to testing the strength of native fibrous substances for comparison with similar tests of commercial fibers. Such were the almost exhaustive experiments of Roxburgh in India early in the present century. Another direction for Government experimentation has been the testing of machines to supersede costly hand labor in the preparation of the raw material for market, or in the development of chemical processes for the further preparation of the fibers for manufacture. The broadest field of experiment, however, has been the growth of the plants under different conditions, either to introduce their culture, or to economically develop the industries growing out of their culture, when such industries need to be fostered. The introduction of ramie culture is an example of the first instance, the fostering of the almost extinct flax industry of our grandfathers' days an illustration of the second.
The United States has conducted experiments or instituted inquiries in the fiber interest at various times in the last fifty years, but it is only since 1890 that an office of practical experiment and inquiry has been established by the United States Department of Agriculture, that has been continuous through a term of years.
In the present work the efforts of the Government have been mainly directed in the line of collecting and disseminating authoritative information relating to all branches of the industry, in importing proper seed for experimental cultivation, and in directing experiments, either on its own account or in co-operation with State and even private interests. The testing of new labor-saving machinery has also come within its province.
The subject in its details will be better understood by considering the list of the more important commercial fibers known to our market. The list is not a long one, for it barely reaches a total of fifteen species. The fibers of the first rank are the spinning fibers—namely, cotton, flax, hemp, jute; of the second rank, or cordage fibers, Sisal, Manila, Sunn and Mauritius hemps, and New Zealand flax; and of the third rank, Tampico, or ixtle, African fiber or palmetto, coir or cocoanut, piassaba, Mexican whisk, raffia, and Spanish moss, which are used in brush manufacture, in upholstery, and for other rough manufactures. Of these fifteen forms, only cotton, hemp, palmetto, and Spanish moss are produced in the United States in commercial quantity, though flax line has been produced to some extent in the past. Of those not produced in commercial quantity in this country, but which would thrive in cultivation, may be mentioned jute, New Zealand flax, Sisal hemp, cocoanut, and possibly Sunn hemp in subtropical Florida, with a few "substitutes," which will be mentioned hereafter.
I have neglected to mention in this list the sponge cucumber, a species of Luffa used as a bath sponge, which is imported from Japan in quantity, and which grows in the United States.
Passing the list of recognized commercial fibers, we come to a large number of species, forms allied to the above, that are either employed locally, chiefly by the natives in the countries where grown, or that would be capable of employment in the world's manufacture were they not inferior to the standard commercial forms at present recognized, and with which they would necessarily compete at a disadvantage. This list is a long one, for in the single genus Agave, to which belong the plant producing the Sisal hemp of commerce, there are over one hundred species in Mexico alone, more than one half of which would produce good fiber. In our own country it would be possible to enumerate twenty species of plants that are recognized as American weeds, the fibers of which could be employed as hemp, flax, or jute substitutes were these materials unobtainable, besides half as many structural fiber plants similar to the agave, the products of which could be employed as cordage fiber substitutes in the same manner. Many of these uncultivated plants have been known to the aborigines for years, possibly for centuries, as we find their fiber, produced in varied forms of rude manufacture, in ancient tombs or other burial places.
After exhausting the list of plants that may be termed commercial fiber substitutes, in different countries where they grow, there still remains a much larger list of species that are chiefly interesting in a scientific enumeration of those plants which produce in their stalks, leaves, or seed vessels what may be termed fibrous substance. My own catalogue of the fibers of the world already foots up over one thousand species of plants, and the complete catalogue for all countries might extend the list to a thousand more.
In considering the undeveloped fibers of the United States, it will be seen we should only recognize the actual commercial forms which we do not produce, but which may be produced within our borders, or such native growths as may be economically employed as their substitutes, and which possibly might be brought into commercial importance.
The hemp industry is already established, though it should be extended in order to recover its lost position among American rural industries. Where in the past we produced forty thousand tons of hemp in the United States, we now produce less than a fifth of this quantity. The cultivation of flax in the United States before the days of the present factory system was so widespread that it was of national importance. Its manufacture was largely a home industry, however, conducted by the fireside, and, as in ancient Greece and Rome, the work was performed by the women of the household. With the advent of the factory system came competition; the housewife laid aside her spinning wheel, the clumsy home-made loom fell into disuse, and the farmer grew no more flax for fiber. Then the flaxseed industry was extended, and after the close of the war a large demand sprang up for coarse fiber for the roughest of uses—for bagging and upholstery, in connection with hemp—and hundreds of little tow mills came into existence in the Middle and Western States.
The introduction of jute opened another chapter, and the decline of this crude attempt at a flax industry is recorded. Meanwhile some line flax was produced, but the extension of spinning and weaving establishments made a larger demand for this fiber, which was chiefly imported. Land in the old flax-growing States became more valuable for other crops, especially with the low prices brought about by foreign competition, and gradually the flax culture in the United States became a thing of the past.
In recent years similar causes have served to operate against the industry in foreign flax countries where old and plodding methods are still in vogue, with additional factors in impoverished soils and high rental for land, and the cultural industry abroad is declining. With the opening of new and fertile Western lands in this country, and with the employment of the finest labor-saving agricultural implements in the world, the conditions are again changed, and are now favorable for American agriculture to re-establish this industry, and to make good a declining foreign supply. Our farmers are ready for the work, but they have not only lost their skill and cunning in producing the straw and preparing the fiber for the spinner, but new and more economical methods must be adopted to place the culture on a solid basis.
A million acres of flax are grown for seed annually, but the growth of flax for seed and flax for fiber are two very different things; Hackling Flax. moreover, Old World methods do not coincide with the progressive ideas of the educated farmers of the United States, for the peasant class does not exist in this country. A practice essentially American must be followed in order to make the culture profitable, and to equalize the difference in wages on the two sides of the Atlantic. This difference is more apparent than real, for it can be readily overcome by intelligently directed effort, by difference in soil fertility and rentals, and especially by the use of certain forms of labor-saving machines that already have been devised and are being rapidly improved. The "American practice," then, means, first, an intelligent practice, with a view to economy of effort and involving the use of machinery in the place of plodding foreign methods; and, second, the co-operation of farm labor and capital to the end of systematizing the work—i. e., the farmers of a community growing the flax, and capital, represented by a central mill, turning the straw when grown into a grade of fiber that the spinners can afford to purchase. Here is the solution of the flax problem in a nutshell. The scheme has already been tested in practice with favorable results, but the farmers in any community can do little until capital is more generally interested.
This brings up an important point and presents another obstacle, for great harm has been done to all new fiber industries in recent years by the misdirected California Hemp. efforts of some professional promoters. In certain instances the organized fiber companies have been mere stock-jobbing concerns. They have had their rise and fall, men with idle money have burned their fingers, and the particular industry has received a "black eye."
The story of Government effort toward the establishment of the flax industry need not be told here; there has been widespread prejudice to overcome, with the opposition of the importers, discouragements to be studied and explained, the unvarnished truth to be told, and practical and authoritative information to be given to all who may seek it. The literature of the subject has been disseminated by thousands of copies, and new editions are being ordered.As to the results: Superior flax has been produced in this country in limited quantities since the work began, and through extended field experiments flax regions have been discovered that are thought to equal the best flax centers of Europe. The department experiments in the Puget Sound region of Washington have demonstrated that we possess in that State a climate and soil that bid fair to rival the celebrated flax region of Courtrai, and from these experiments scutched flax has been produced that is valued by manufacturers in Ireland at three hundred and fifty dollars per ton, and hackled flax worth five hundred dollars per ton. Much has been done, but a great
deal more remains to be accomplished in bringing together the farmer and capitalist in the practical work of growing, retting, scutching, and preparing for market American flax fiber, for questions of culture are settled.
We should restore our hemp industry to its former proportions by producing high-grade instead of low-grade fiber. The growth of a grade of American hemp that will sell for six to eight cents per pound, instead of three to three and a half cents per pound, as at the present time, means that our farmers must follow more closely the careful practices of Europe, and especially that they must adopt water retting in place of the present practice of dew retting, which gives a fiber dark in color and uneven in quality. A careful consideration of the practices of Italy and France as set forth in Fiber Report No. 11, Department of Agriculture, will materially aid those who desire to change their product from the cheaper dark hemps, for which there is small demand, to the higher-priced light hemps, which will compete with the imported commodity.
One of the most interesting problems of the day in the utilization of the new fiber material, and one that is attracting the attention of all civilized countries, is the industrial production of that wonderful substance known in the Orient as China grass, in India as rhea, and in Europe and America as ramie. They money spent by governments and by private enterprise throughout the world, in experiments and inventions, in the effort to establish the ramie industry, would make up the total of a princely fortune. Obstacle after obstacle has been overcome in the years of persistent effort, and now we stand before the last barrier, baffled for the time, but still hopeful, and with efforts unrelaxed. The difficulty may be stated in a few words: ramie culture will only become a paying industry when an economically successful machine for stripping the fiber has been placed on the market. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in efforts to perfect a machine, but no Government fiber expert in the world recognizes that we have such a machine at the present time, though great progress has been made in machine construction.
The world's interest in this fiber began in 1869, when a reward of five thousand pounds was offered by the Government of India for the best machine with which to decorticate the green stalks. The first exhibition and trial of machines took place in 1872, resulting in utter failure. The reward was again offered, and in 1879 a second official trial was held, at which ten machines competed, though none filled the requirements, and subsequently the offer was withdrawn. The immediate result was to stimulate invention in many countries, and from 1869 to the present time inventors have been untiring in their efforts to produce a successful machine. The commercial history of ramie, therefore, does not extend further back than 1869.
The first French official trials took place in 1888, followed by the trials of 1889, in Paris, at which the writer was present, and which are recorded in the official reports of the Fiber Investigation series. Another trial Growth of Jute in Louisiana. was held in 1891, and in the same year the first official trials in America took place, in the State of Vera Cruz, in Mexico, followed the next year by the official trials of American machines in the United States, these being followed by the trials of 1894. Since that year further progress in machine construction has been made, and a third official trial should be held in the near future.
The first records of Chinese shipments of this fiber to European markets show that in 1872 two hundred or three hundred tons of the fiber were sent to London, valued at eighty pounds per ton, or about four hundred dollars. India also sent small shipments, but there was a light demand, with a considerable reduction in price, the quotations being thirty pounds to forty pounds per ton for Chinese and ten pounds to thirty pounds for the Indian product.
Those who are unacquainted with the properties and uses of this wonderful textile may peruse with interest the following paragraph from Fiber Report 7, on the Cultivation of Ramie, issued by the Department of Agriculture:
China is at present the source of supply of the raw product, and the world's demand is only about ten thousand tons, nine tenths of this quantity being absorbed in Oriental countries. The ramie situation in the United States at the present time may be briefly summarized as follows:
The plant can be grown successfully in (California and in the Gulf States, and will produce from two to four crops per year without replanting, giving from two hundred and fifty to eight hundred pounds of fiber per acre, dependent upon the number of cuttings, worth perhaps four cents per pound. The machines for preparing this fiber for market are hardly able at the present time to clean the product of one acre (single crop) in a day, and the fiber is quite inferior to the commercial China grass. A new French machine produces a quality of fiber which approaches the China grass of commerce, but its output per day is too small to make its use profitable in this country. All obstacles in chemical treatment of the fiber and in spinning and manufacture are overcome, and the world is waiting for the successful device which will economically prepare the raw material for market.
The part the United States Government is taking in the work is to co-operate in experiments, to issue publications giving all desired information regarding culture, the machine question, and the utilization of the fiber. It tests new decorticators and reports to the public upon their merits or demerits. It cautions farmers and capitalists, for the present, to go into the industry with their eyes open, for the professional promotor has seized upon this industry, above all others in the fiber interest, as one in which he can more readily gull a gullible public. Nevertheless, responsible capitalists are making every legitimate effort to place the manufacturing industry on a solid basis in this country, and to attain to the progress made in other countries where manufacture has already been established, and where the Chinese fiber is employed as the raw material.
Thus far I have only considered spinning fibers. More than one half of the raw fibers imported in the United States are employed
in the manufacture of rope and small twine, or bagging for baling the cotton crop. Cordage is manufactured chiefly from the Manila and Sisal hemps, the former derived from the Philippine Islands, the latter from Yucatan. Some jute is also used in this industry, though the fiber is more largely employed in bagging; and some common hemp, such as is grown in Kentucky, is also used.
We can not produce Manila hemp in the United States, and this substance will always hold its own for marine cordage. Jute will grow to perfection in many of the Southern States, but it is doubtful if we can produce it at a price low enough to compete with the cheaper grades of the imported India fiber. Rough flax and common hemp might be used in lieu of jute, in bagging manufacture, but the question of competition is still a factor. Sisal hemp, which has been imported to the value of seven million dollars a year, when prices were high, will grow in southern Florida, and the plant has been the subject of exhaustive study and experiment. This plant was first grown in the United States on Indian Key, Florida, about 1836, a few
plants having been introduced from Mexico by Dr. Henry Perrine, and from this early attempt at cultivation the species has spread over southern Florida, the remains of former small experimental tracts being found at many points, though uncared for.
The high prices of cordage fibers in 1890 and 1891, brought about by the schemes of certain cordage concerns, called attention to the necessity of producing, if possible, a portion of the supply of these hard fibers within our own borders. In 1891, in response to requests for definite information regarding the growth of the Sisal hemp plant, a preliminary survey of the Key system and Biscayne Bay region of southern Florida was made by the Department of Agriculture, and in the following year an experimental factory was established at Cocoanut Grove with special machinery sent down for the work. With this equipment, and with a fast-sailing yacht at the disposal of the special agent in charge of the experiments, a careful study of the Sisal hemp plant, its fiber, and the possibility of the industry was made, and the results were duly published. About this time the Bahaman Government became interested in the industry, and with shiploads of plants, both purchased and gathered without cost on the uninhabited Florida Keys, the Bahamans began the new industry by setting out extensive plantations on the different islands of the group. The high prices of 1890 having overstimulated production in Yucatan, two or three years later there was a tremendous fall in the market price of Sisal hemp, and Florida's interest in the new fiber subsided, though small plantations had been attempted. In the meantime, American invention having continued its efforts in the construction of cleaning devices, two successful machines for preparing the raw fiber have been produced which have, in a measure, superseded the clumsy raspadore hitherto universally employed for the purpose, and one of the obstacles to the production of the fiber in Florida is removed. The reaction toward better prices has already begun, and the future establishment of an American Sisal hemp industry in southern Florida is a possibility, though there are several practical questions yet to be settled.
Pineapple culture is already a flourishing industry in the Sisal hemp region. A pineapple plant matures but one apple in a season, and after the harvest of fruit the old leaves are of no further use to the plant, and may be removed. The leaves have the same structural system as the agaves—that is, they are composed of a cellular mass through which the fibers extend, and when the epidermis and pulpy matter are eliminated the residue is a soft, silklike filament, the value of which has long been recognized. Only fifty pounds of this fiber can be obtained from a ton of leaves, but, as the product would doubtless command double the price of Sisal hemp, its production would be profitable. How to secure this fiber cheaply is the problem. The Sisal hemp machines are too rough in action for so fine a fiber, and, at the rate of ten leaves to the pound, working up a ton of the material would mean the handling of over twenty thousand leaves to secure perhaps three dollars' worth of the commercial product. Were the fiber utilized in the arts, however, and its place established, it would compete in a measure with flax as a spinning fiber, for its filaments are divisible to the ten-thousandth of an inch. The substance has already been utilized to a slight extent in Eastern countries (being hand-prepared) in the manufacture of costly, filmy, cobweblike fabrics that will almost float in air.
Another possible fiber industry for Florida is the cultivation of bowstring hemp, or the fiber of a species of Sansevieria that grows in rank luxuriance the subtropical region of the State. The fiber is finer and softer than Sisal hemp, though not so fine as pineapple fiber, and would command in price a figure between the two. The yield is about sixty pounds to the ton of leaves. Many other textile plants might be named that have been experimented with by
the Government or through private enterprise, but the most important, in a commercial sense, have been named.
There is a considerable list of plants, however, which are the subject of frequent inquiry, but which will never be utilized commercially as long as other more useful fibers hold the market. These for the most part produce bast fiber, and the farmer knows them as wild field growths or weeds. They are interesting in themselves, and many of them produce a fair quality of fiber, but to what extent they might be brought into cultivation, or how economically the raw material might be prepared, are questions the details of which only experiment can determine. But the fact that at best they can only be regarded as the substitutes for better, already established, commercial fibers has prevented serious experiment to ascertain their place. They are continually brought to notice, however, for again and again the thrifty farmer, as he finds their bleached and weather-beaten filaments clinging to the dead stalks in the fields, deludes himself in believing that he has made a discovery which may lead to untold wealth, and a letter and the specimen are promptly dispatched to the fiber expert for information concerning them. In such cases all that can be done is to give full information, taking care to let the inquirer down as easily as possible.
The limit of practical work in the direction of new textile industries is so clearly defined that the expert need never be in doubt regarding the economic value of any fiber plant that may be submitted to him for an opinion, and the long catalogue of mere fibrous substances will never demand his serious attention.
In studying the problem of the establishment of new fiber industries, therefore, we should consider "materials" rather than particular species of plants—utility or adaptation rather than acclimatization. We should study the entire range of textile manufacture, and before giving attention to questions of cultivation we should first ascertain how far the plants which we already know can be produced within our own borders may be depended upon to supply the "material" adapted to present demands in manufacture. If the larger part of our better fabrics—cordage and fine twines, bagging, and similar rough goods—can be made from cotton, flax, common hemp, and Sisal hemp, which we ought to be able to produce in quantity at home, there is no further need of costly experiments with other fibers. Unfortunately, however, it is possible for manufacturers to "discriminate" against a particular fiber when the use of another fiber better subserves their private interests. As an example, common liemp was discriminated against in a certain form of small cordage, in extensive use, because by employing other, imported fibers, it has been possible in the past to control the supply, and in this day of trusts such control is an important factor in regulating the profits. With common hemp grown on a thousand American farms in 1890, the price of Sisal and Manila hemp binding twine, of which fifty thousand tons were used, would never have been forced up to sixteen and twenty cents a pound, when common hemp, which is just as good for the purpose, could have been produced in unlimited quantity for three and a half cents. The bagging with which the cotton crop is baled is made of imported jute, but common hemp or even low-grade flax would make better bagging. A change from jute to hemp or flax in the manufacture of bagging (it would only be a return to these fibers), could it be brought about, would mean an advantage of at least three million dollars to our farmers. Yet in considering such a desirable change we are confronted with two questions: Is it possible to compete with foreign jute? and can prejudice be overcome? For it is true that there are, even among farmers, those who would hesitate to buy hemp bagging at the same price as jute bagging because it was not the thing they were familiar with. But
some of them will buy inferior jute twine, colored to resemble hemp, at the price of hemp, and never question the fraud.
Our farmers waste the fibrous straw produced on the million acres of flax grown for seed. It has little value, it is true, for the production of good spinning flax, yet by modifying present methods of culture, salable fiber can be produced and the seed saved as well, giving two paying crops from the same harvest where now the flaxseed grower secures but one.
In summarizing the situation in this country, therefore, it will be seen that, out of the hundreds of fibrous plants known to the botanist and to the fiber expert, the textile economist need only consider four or five species and their varieties, all of them supplying well-known commercial products that are regularly quoted in the world's market price current, the cultivation and preparation of which are known quantities. Were the future of new fiber industries in this country to rest upon this simple statement, there would be little need of further effort. The problem, however, is one of economical adaptation to conditions not widely understood in the first place, and not altogether within control in the second.
Twenty flax farmers in a community decide to grow flax for fiber, and two of these farmers are perhaps acquainted with the culture. They go to work each in his own way; ten make a positive failure in cultivation for lack of proper direction, five of the remaining ten fail in retting the straw, and five succeed in turning out as many different grades of flax line, only one grade of which may come up to the standard required by the spinners. And all of them will have lost money. If the failure is investigated it will be discovered that the proper seed was not used; in some instances the soil was not adapted to the culture, and old-fashioned ideas prevailed in the practice followed. The straw was not pulled at the proper time, and it was improperly retted. The breaking and scutching were accomplished in a primitive way, because the farmers could not afford to purchase the necessary machinery, and of course they all lost money, and decided in future to let flax alone.
But the next year the president of the local bank, the secretary of the town board of trade, and three or four prosperous merchants formed a little company and built a flax mill. A competent superintendent—perhaps an old country flax-man—was employed, a quantity of good seed was imported, and the company contracted with these twenty farmers to grow five, ten, or fifteen acres of flax straw each, under the direction of the old Scotch superintendent. The seed was sold to them to be paid for in product; they were advised regarding proper soil and the best practice to follow; they grew good straw, and when it was ready to harvest the company took it off their hands at a stipulated price per ton. The superintendent of the mill assumed all further responsibility, attended to the retting, and worked up the product. Result: several carloads of salable flax fiber shipped to the Eastern market in the winter, the twenty farmers had "money to burn" instead of flax straw, and the company was able to declare a dividend. This is not altogether a supposititious case, and it illustrates the point that in this day of specialties the fiber industry can only be established by co-operation.
In all these industries, whether the fiber cultivated is flax, ramie, or jute, the machine question enters so largely into the problem of their successful establishment that the business must be conducted on a large scale. Even in the growth of Sisal hemp in Florida,The Luffa, or Sponge Cucumber. should it be attempted, the enterprise will only pay when the necessary mill plant for extracting the fiber is able to draw upon a cultivated area of five hundred acres. In other words, the small farmer can never become a fiber producer independently, but must represent a single wheel in the combination.
The subject is a vast one, and, while I have been able to set forth the importance of these industries as new sources of national prosperity, only an outline has been given of the difficulties which are factors in the industrial problem. Summing up the points of vantage, the market is already assured; through years of study and experiment we are beginning to better understand the particular conditions that influence success or failure in this country; we have the best agricultural implements in the world, and American inventive genius will be able, doubtless, in time, to perfect the new mechanical devices which are so essential to economical production; our farmers are intelligent and industrious, and need only the promise of a fair return for their labor to enter heart and soul into this work.