Abstract: Coining Foliage into Gold: Speculation, Value, and the Mulberry Bubble, 1838-1839

Emily Pawley

Abstract

In the winters of 1838 and 1839, advertisements for the <i>Morus multicaulis</i> mulberry tree clogged the pages of American commercial and agricultural newspapers. With its vast, copious leaves, and its useful habit of sprouting wherever a cutting had been dropped, multicaulis seemed to promise a fast-growing wealth at a time when other forms of wealth had failed. Speculators crippled by the Panic of 1837 dazzled themselves with visions of an American silk industry and bought thousands of trees to supply billions of anticipated silkworms. In October of 1839, however, the bubble popped. Within a few months the <i>multicaulis</i> mulberry became a byword for folly, an emblem of the speculative mania that had characterized the late 1830s. Investigating <i>multicaulis</i>'s public career, in this paper I will illuminate the connections between the manias that marked agricultural improvement in the 1830s and 1840s and the wider instabilities of the antebellum economy. In particular, I will examine the interactions between the physical form of the plant and the requirements of speculative capitalism. The paper will argue that sold by the bud, the joint, and the inch, <i>multicaulis</i> became both accessible to particular kinds of calculation and projection and, ultimately, vulnerable to challenge and devaluation.