In the 1940s, the small, wildflower-studded town of Yucaipa, California, was home to one of the most successful spider silk refineries in the country. There, Nannie “Nan” Songer, a self-taught naturalist, housed thousands of venomous spiders in jars in the front room of her small farmhouse, from which she harvested silk for her many clients—most notably the US government, which used Songer’s silk in military weapons.
Born in Cookeville, Tennessee, in 1892, Songer spent her youth hunting insects and arachnids in the garden of her childhood home. After her family moved to California, Songer built a life in Yucaipa, raising two children and taking biology classes at the nearby University of California, Riverside. Eventually, she began breeding arachnids.
Around the time that World War II broke out, Songer heard from a friend that the US Bureau of Standards had put out a call for spider silk that was 1/10,000th of an inch thick, roughly 10 times thinner than a human hair. Songer’s friend had been supplying her own hair for use as crosshairs in aircraft bombsights but, because human hairs freeze and break at high altitudes, the military now wanted spider silk, which can be stronger than steel.
Songer began experimenting with black widows (genus Latrodectus), which produce a silk dragline composed of six strands to stabilize themselves in midair and control their landings. By separating this thread into individual strands with a needle, she achieved the width that the military needed. “The strands were virtually invisible to the naked eye,” Sahara Quinn, a historian and vice president of the Yucaipa Historical Society, tells The Scientist. Yet they carried illumination better than silk from other species, helping the crosshairs stand out against a background.
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Through her experiments, Songer also devised a novel technique for extracting silk in greater quantities. She carefully pinned living spiders belly up and then used a hairlike yucca strip to stroke their abdomens until they produced strands, which she collected with a small hook. Using this “silking” technique, Songer was able to harvest reams of silk that she wrapped around frames for transport. The US government quickly became her biggest client; its couriers traveled to Yucaipa with empty briefcases handcuffed to their wrists to prevent theft.
Over the years, Songer tested more than 50 species of spiders, further refining her skills. Writing in an article for Natural History in 1955, Songer noted that her operation was “the only business in the world where spiders are reared and silked for webs of specific size, strength, and elasticity.” She was eventually able to produce silk that was 1/500,000th of an inch thick by silking week-old spiders, she wrote, noting that even at these widths, the silk was “possibly one of the strongest materials made by a living creature.”
Songer continued to supply silk for weapons, telescopes, microscopes, and medical instruments following the war, until her product was supplanted by synthetic alternatives. Even then, her passion remained, and Songer carried on collecting and studying arachnids until her death in 1956. “She was amazing,” says Quinn. “Quite a woman to never be afraid of a spider.”