Post-World War I tales: A silk surplus, armistice fashion, and a philanthropic innovator

Even before the United States entered the First World War in 1917, procurement officers for the armed forces began to look for sources for the vast array of goods that the American military would need to go to war across the ocean. A particular kind of silk fiber was high on their list of necessary goods.

Spun silk yarns and silk noils (short or uneven fibers that can't be used to make the most expensive dress silks) were required by the army and the navy. Both services had tried to find a substitute for silk in one vital product, and failed. When burned, silk vanishes completely, leaving no ash residue behind. So the bags that held the powder charges that fired off every shell from the big artillery guns, on land or sea, during the First World War were made of silk. And spun silks and noils were much less expensive than premium silk yarns.

The American silk industry responded to this call, providing about five million square yards per month of undyed, unbleached, plain weave cartridge bag silk to the U.S. War Department during 1917 and 1918.

A swatch of silk. It is rough in texture and oatmeal-colored.

One of the prime movers in the acquisition of silk for cartridge bags was Moses Charles Migel, who had begun in the silk business as a salesman, started his own silk textile manufacturing firm in his 20s, and had retired from that and opened a new company to manufacture spun silk yarns in January 1913. At the outbreak of war, Migel became head of the Allied Silk Trading Corporation, which handled importing raw silk from Japan and China to meet war production needs.

Circular pin with a gold or grass colored frame. Inside, a black and white portrait of a women, like an ID badge. Her hair is tucked back and face is serious. Her ID number is 9897.

A close-up of a swatch of silk. It is oatmeal colored with a rough texture and there are black threads throughout the fabric.

When the war ended, on November 11, 1918, the long struggle to take the economies of the combatant nations off a war footing and back into peacetime production began. The Ordnance Department of the U.S. War Department viewed its stock of 18 million yards of cartridge bag cloth, now surplus to requirement, and called on some silk industry executives for help. The cloth was tested, analyzed, and finally pronounced usable for apparel and furnishings with proper finishing. By March 1920, 11 million yards of cartridge cloth had been washed, dyed or printed, and finished for presentation to the consumer.

A magnified look at a piece of silk that has been dyed royal blue

An exhibition of garments by 40 American ready-to-wear houses, and several firms from Paris, France, was held in the Bush Terminal Sales Building on 42nd Street in New York City. The fashion show moved around the country, introducing the cloth to consumers. Called "Armistice Silk," it was used to make children's clothes, men's summer suits, women's sports clothes and suits, lingerie, even drapery and slipcovers. The cloth sold from between 64 cents and $1.25 per yard, depending on the quality and how it had been finished. The federal government and the manufacturers split the profits from the sales.

A piece of silk with a paisley and floral pattern on it. The background is a rich blue and the designs are from fuschia, green, black, and white threads.

The Textiles Department holds 16 samples of "Armistice Silk" in a variety of qualities, finishes, and colors, donated by the War Surplus Board. The samples illustrate both the original cartridge cloth and the cloth as "converted" to civilian use.

a black and white photograph of a woman in a cream colored dress with a draped skirt, laid on top of pieces of fabric of varied textures and colors

M.C. Migel's contribution to the manufacture of cartridge bags was not to be his only service—in war or peace—to his country. Just after the armistice, Migel, who before the war had taken an interest in assisting people who were blind, was asked by the American Red Cross to organize aid to American servicemen who had been blinded and were awaiting transportation home from hospitals in France. Migel spent nine months in France, contributing his time, business acumen, and significant amounts of his own money to serving the wounded.

On his return, Migel stayed actively involved with rehabilitation efforts and helped found—and fund—the American Foundation for the Blind. The foundation's library is named after Migel, and the Migel Medal that he established in 1937 for "improving the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired" is still awarded annually by the foundation.

The role that silk and its manufacture played in the First World War and its aftermath is easy to overlook now, but fortunately these silk samples remain to pique our curiosity and suggest new avenues for research.

In this black and white photo, two men and one woman stand together. They are in formal attire. The woman holds a brick and a mason's tool in her hand.

Madelyn Shaw is Curator of Textiles in the Division of Home and Community Life. She has also blogged about the history of khaki, a possible trend for black and white patterns during World War I, and National Park-inspired silks.