This unit examines the economic boom and crisis in Greater Syria in the 19th century that propelled many Arabic-speaking men and women to immigrate to the United States. The production of silk thread was a very important cottage industry in the region that peaked after 1860s, though the first “factory” was established by a Frenchman in the village of Btater in 1838. Peasants in Mount Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa Valley discovered that they could make money by breeding silkworms, which fed on mulberry leaves. Mulberry trees grew abundantly on the hillsides where little else did. Moreover, water for removing the glue off the cocoons and pinewood for boiling and heating water were plentiful in Mount Lebanon. Their children and teenage daughters went to work in silk factories, to generate cash income. The parents and young men were engaged in subsistence farming, an indispensable activity for the survival of the household. The silk factories: small, rectangular, stone structures, became ubiquitous in the countryside. Once the eggs were hatched, the factory hands fed the worms mulberry leaves. When the worm spun a cocoon around itself, they put them in boiling water. Then the young workers unraveled the threads and wound them on reels preparing them for export. Bales of raw silk were transported to the Port of Beirut where they were loaded on ships departing to France. At the time, Lyon was a major center for silk manufacturing where Syrian silk was made into all sorts of cloth and fabric.

When a disease ruined French and Italian worms in 1865, the owners of the factories in the Lyon region looked to Mount Lebanon for a steady supply of silk. This resulted in an drastic increase in the cultivation of silkworms across the Mediterranean Sea. The arrangement suited the interests of the French and the people of Mount Lebanon, including the local elite in Greater Syria. For the first time, a cash crop in Mount Lebanon became an integral part of the world capitalist system. Peasants in the countryside grew cocoons to supply Europe’s need for raw silk.

Though the French generally controlled the price of Syrian silk, it fluctuated over time. Production costs in Mount Lebanon were advantageous to Europeans including labor, fuel, and transportation. However, the amount produced also mattered. High yields of raw silk required specific conditions in the factory depending on the life cycle of the silkworm, from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to moth; even the weather was a factor. To insure a steady supply of raw silk, France, England, and Russia interfered with the Ottoman government in Constantinople as well as local politicians in Mount Lebanon and Damascus.

Silk production for export created an economic boom in Greater Syria in the last three decades of the 19th century. Many people who were involved in the silk business were enriched ranging from the peasants in the countryside to the merchants, bankers, moneychangers, translators, and shipping contractors in Beirut. Many classes in the society benefitted. Consumers visited markets and modern stores to buy luxury items such as rice, sugar, coffee as well as watches and fashionable Western-style outfits and furnishings for their homes. Even the government increased its revenues. This lucrative crop was and remains today part of the very important textile industry which dominates the economies of many Middle Eastern nations (for example cotton production in Egypt) as well as Asian countries, and the United States.

When China and Japan were able to deliver cheaper and steady supply of silk to the French, prices of Syrian silk dropped precipitously and never recovered. The region experienced an economic crisis in the 1890s. Many people were in debt, but more dramatically the peasant and the middle classes had aspirations for their lives. For a short period, they had a taste of a modern life; they liked rice and coffee; they were proud of their new watches. In particular, peasant women in Mount Lebanon had contributed much-needed cash to their family’s income. Their labor in the silk factories had enhanced their status and empowered them. Going back to the pre-silk life style was not an option. Young men and women looked for other ways to earn income to sustain the innovations they enjoyed.

Though silk was an important component in the financial downturn, other factors aggravated the situation. Better nutrition and health care produced a population increase. Fertile land was not sufficient to sustain all members of the family. By the latter part of the 19th century, the schools, universities, hospitals, and printing presses established by French, English, American, and other missionaries in Greater Syria had a significant impact on the local population. More people were literate, some even spoke French or English, they had heard about world beyond their borders and aspired for a better life: economically, socially, and politically. They found Ottoman regime unjust; taxes were too high, conscription of Muslim subjects or the exemption charge for other religious groups demanded exorbitant sacrifices from people who did not feel loyalty to the Sultans in Constantinople. Sectarian conflicts between Maronite Christian and Druze villagers in Mount Lebanon escalated in 1860 into a civil war because of the ineptitude of the Ottoman government and the meddling of European powers. The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 offered Arabic-speaking musicians, performers and merchants an opportunity to visit America and tell folks back home about their experiences. Last but not least, the advent of steamboats made travel cheaper, shorter and safer. Unhappy about the situation in Greater Syria, and having enjoyed aspects of modern life during the silk boom, many men and women from Mount Lebanon looked for other opportunities to sustain their newly acquired appetites and dreams of a better life.

Immigration to the Americas, in particular the United States, Brazil and Argentina, was a viable solution for their dilemma. While people from Greater Syria had already traveled and settled to the New World, after the 1890s the numbers increased dramatically. By the beginning of World War I, one third of the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon had chosen to cross the Atlantic Ocean in search of economic and social opportunities.


1. Students will be able to locate on a map the modern day nations that made up Greater Syria.
2. Students will be able to explain the connections between various Asian, Middle Eastern, and European nations during period 1870-1920.
3. Students will be able to describe the main steps in the production of silk thread.
4. Students will be able to list the effects of the silk industry on the women and children of Mount Lebanon.
5. Students will be able to explain the “cause and effect” relationship between the economy of Mount Lebanon and immigration to the United States.
6. Students will be able to identify various types of textiles and document their prominence in the economies of contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian countries as well as the United States, past and present.

National Standards

See Eras 6 and 7

California Standards

History/ Social Science


Examine the location and effects of renewed immigration, industrialization, and urbanization (e.g., the effects on the social fabric of cities, wealth and economic opportunity)


Understand the connections among natural resources, entrepreneurship, labor, and capital in an industrial economy.

English Language Arts

Writing, 8th grade

1.0 Students write clear, coherent, and focused essays. The writing exhibits students’ awareness of audience and purpose. Essays contain formal introductions, supporting evidence and conclusion. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed.

Comprehension and Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text, 10th grade

2.5. extend ideas presented in primary or secondary sources through original analysis, evaluation, and elaboration.


1. Emigration: When people move away from one nation to live in another.

2. Immigration: When people enter a new nation.

3. Exports: Goods or raw materials that are produced in various parts of the world and are sold to other nations.

4. Imports: Goods or raw materials that are produced in other parts of the world that brought into a nation.

5. Missionaries: People who try to convince others to join their religious group.

6. Textiles: Cloth or material.

7. Mandate: A territory or colony that is governed by another country with the "permission" of an international organization such as the League of Nations.

8. Agriculture: Farming or growing plants.

9. Cocoon: A soft outer coating produced by worms or caterpillars that protects it from the environment.

10. Economy: A nation’s system of production and distribution of goods and services.



Activity #1

PDF  Handout #1

  • Ask the students to read Handout #1: The Broken Thread: The End of an Industry and the Beginning of a New Life.
  • Discuss with the class the following questions:

a. What causes people to leave their home and emigrate to another country?
b. What is the drawback with having one, key product as a source of income?
c. Identify the various types of cloth (silk, cotton, linen, wool) and the leading producers of textiles, then and now.
d. Make lists of the positive and negative effects of the silk industry in Mount Lebanon.
e. Have the students make a cause and effect graphic organizer that shows the various causes and reasons of emigration from Lebanon to the United States from 1865 to 1920.

Activity #2

PDF  Handout #1

PDF  World Political Map

  • Have the students read Handout #2: Report of the French Consul.
  • Ask the students to answer the following questions:

a. Why did the people of Mount Lebanon turn to mulberry trees as an important part of their economy?

b. Why would a representative of the French government have an interest in the silk industry in Mount Lebanon?

c. According to the French Consul what conditions allow the industry to be successful?

d. What proof does the French Consul give that the silk industry has benefits?

Activity # 3

PDF  Handout #3

PDF  Handout #4

  • Ask the students to read Handout #3: Boyhood of George Haddad and examine the photograph in Handout #4: Pulling the Threads of the Boiled Cocoons.
  • Working in groups, have the students write an editorial that might appear in a Mount Lebanon newspaper in 1870. The editorial should be about the following query: "Should children and young women work in silkworm factories?"
    Every decision a group makes should be supported by facts. Consider the following arguments:

a) Children and young women should work in the silk factories, their labor is important for the survival of their families and the society.
b) No children and young women should be employed.
c) No children should be employed.
d) The government should regulate safety in the factories.

  • Have students complete a research project on an immigrant group that came to the United States because of economic problems in their native nation. Options include: Swedes, Irish, Italians, and Chinese. The project should include the following information:

a) What was the economic problem that propelled immigration? (e.g. famine)
b) Create a timeline that shows the beginning of the problem, the start of immigration, the height of immigration, and the slowing down of immigration.
c) Draw a map showing areas of the United States where the group settled.
d) Develop a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts that immigrant group to those who emigrated from Lebanon between 1870 and 1920.

Activity # 4

PDF  Handout #5

  • Have students examine the photograph in Handout #5: Golden Caskets Containing the Lifework of the Deal Pupae.
  • As a quick writing exercise, have the students imagine they are the girl in the middle of the photograph and describe what they would be thinking at that moment.
  • Have the students share what they wrote with the rest of the class.
  • As a creative writing assignment, ask the students to write an entry in a diary from the point of view of the girl in the photo. This should include information about her job, her hopes, her family, and her future. The diary entry should reflect what the students have learned about the Mount Lebanon, silk production, and Lebanese/Syrian immigration in the 19th century.

Activity #5

PDF  Handout #6

PDF  Handout #7

1. Using the map in Handout # 6: Map of Modern Nations of the Middle East. Handout #7: Map of the Ottoman Empire 1880. Have the students trace the nations that were part of Greater Syria on the map.

2. Using a map of the world with no writing, have students locate and label the following present-day countries that engaged in the silk commerce in the nineteenth century.
a. Lebanon
b. Turkey
c. Syria
d. France
e. England
f. China
g. Japan
h. United States

Have students draw lines with direction arrows between the nations that were economically connected in the 19th century. On the line the students should write the nature the interaction in the silk trade. For example, Mount Lebanon sold raw silk to Lyon; Arabic-speaking men and women from Greater Syria immigrated to the Americas.

Resources Used to Create this Unit

Khater, Akram Fouad. 2001. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Issawi, Charles. 1995. Middle East Economy: Decline and Recovery. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.

Naff, Alixa. 1980. “Arabs” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Edited by Stephan Thernstrom, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Naff, Alixa. 1985. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Younis, Adele L. 1995. The Coming of the Arabic-Speaking People to the United States. Edited by Philip M. Kayal. Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies.






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