The “Hidden History” of the Sewing Machine

Demonstrations of the sewing machine by Ms. Eliza and other women disproved the widespread belief that women could not work machines.

“Demonstrations of the sewing machine by Ms. Eliza and other women disproved the widespread belief that women could not work machines…”

This afternoon, while searching for something completely different, I ran across a blog post chocked full of information about the history of the sewing machine. Sure there was mention of the generally known story of the sewing machine’s development but, for the most part, it was full of stories and details of which I was unaware. Of course, I just have to share it with you.

The following are excerpts from a series of blog entries written by Adam Mossoff in May of 2009, as a guest blogger for “The Volokh Conspiracy.” A very odd place for the history of the sewing machine, but it involves discussion of “patent thickets” and other legal issues related to inventions so there it is.

I’m not exactly riveted by pithy discussion of the implications of patent thickets, however relevant they may be to today’s patent laws. But if you are a kinda geeky-nerdy history buff, like me, the full story of the development of the sewing machine is great. If not, my apologies for any disappointment/boredom/loss of consciousness. Just remember – Your Weekend Wow arrives tomorrow. (And forgiveness wins extra brownie points.)

What follows is not my work, but a condensation and “rearranging” of the text as written by Mr. Mossoff to focus on the story behind the sewing machine as it pertains to Elias Howe and Isaac Singer. While they are the two gentlemen most often associated with the invention of the sewing machine, they are far from being the only inventors who played a role.  The original complete series is rather long – the full text can be found here.

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Given the basic human need for clothing, sewing has long been a skill valued by modern humans. Unfortunately, hand-sewing for long hours is extremely tedious and physically taxing, especially when clothing is demanded in mass quantities, as it was by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx recounted the story of a milliner who literally worked herself to death as an illustration of the vampire-like nature of capitalists. In 1853, the New York Herald opined about the working conditions of seamstresses: “We know of no class of workwomen who are more poorly paid for their work or who suffer more privation and hardship.”

In antebellum America [meaning before the American Civil War], Thomas Hood’s ditty, Song of the Shirt, was popular because it lamented the well-known working conditions of seamstresses:

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread,
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt;
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch —
Would that its tone could reach the rich! —
She sang this Song of the Shirt!

Impoverished and suffering ill health for much of his life, [Elias] Howe was working as an apprentice of little consequence in a machine shop in Boston in 1839 when he overheard an inventor and a businessman talking about how a sewing machine could not be made. As later recounted by Howe, the inventor asked, “‘Why don’t you make a sewing machine?’ ‘I wish I could,’ said the capitalist; “But it can’t be done.'” The “capitalist” then told the inventor that, if he could invent a sewing machine, “I’ll insure you an independent fortune.” Although having received no formal schooling in natural philosophy or mechanics (a common trait of most American inventors of the day), Howe was impressed by this remark and he began thinking of the problems entailed in creating a sewing machine.

With respect to the mechanical issue, the invention of a practical and commercially successful sewing machine comprised ten complementary elements. These ten elements were first explicitly identified by Andrew Jack in an oft-cited 1958 article: (1) the sewing of a lockstitch, (2) the use of an eye-pointed needle, (3) a shuttle carrying a second thread, (4) a continuous source of thread (spools), (5) a horizontal table, (6) an arm overhanging the table that contained a vertically positioned eye-pointed needle, (7) a continuous feed of the clothe (synchronized with the needle motion), (8) tension controls for the thread that give slack as needed, (9) a presser foot to hold the clothe in place with each stitch, and (10) the ability to sew in either straight or curved lines. The first sewing machine to incorporate all ten of these elements was the famous “Singer Sewing Machine,” which was first sold to the public in the fall of 1850. But Singer was neither the first person to invent all ten elements nor was he the first to patent them.

It is difficult to understand in the abstract how a sewing machine makes a lockstitch, especially if one has never operated a sewing machine. The Wikimedia Commons has an animated gif that shows how a lockstitch is made, click here. The diagram below also details step-by-step how a lockstitch is made with an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle carrying a second thread:

How a lockstitch is made by machine. Original source unknown.

How a lockstitch is made by machine. Original source unknown.

In 1843, he [Howe] began working on the invention in earnest, hoping to become as wealthy as the capitalist had promised. By the fall of that year, he at last invented a sewing machine, although it would take a few more years of tinkering to improve its performance and to confirm its functionality. A few years later, he filed for a patent, which issued on September 10, 1846, claiming the use of an eye-pointed needle in combination with a second thread carried by shuttle to create a lockstitch. The Scientific American promptly published the patent claims on September 26, 1846, under the heading “New Inventions.”

It sewed 250 stitches per minute — seven times faster than sewing by hand. Yet firms and the buying public had been disappointed too often by earlier inventors claiming to have solved the sewing machine problem; thus Howe’s attempts at commercializing his invention were met with a resounding defeat by a skeptical business world and wary consumers.

They were not entirely wrongheaded in rejecting Howe’s sewing machine, as it did have some faults, some of which were described in a subsequent patent issued to John Bradshaw in 1848. For instance, Howe’s sewing machine used a vertical surface, which did not permit easy passage of the clothe past the curved eye-pointed needle. Also, the curved eye-pointed needle, which moved horizontally against a vertical surface, was brittle and often broke. Lastly, the mechanism for feeding the clothe through the vertical sewing machine, called a “baster plate,” made it impossible to either sew in a single continuous motion or to sew curved seams. Howe’s invention was pivotal in terms of his combination of three elements — an eye-pointed needle, a shuttle, and the creation of a lockstitch — but it was not yet a fully practical sewing machine. In October 1846, Howe set off for England to try to convince British tailors of the importance of his invention, and he would not return to the United States until 1849, having failed miserably in his efforts and even poorer than he was when he left.

The American inventor who at last completed the development of the sewing machine was Isaac Merritt Singer. Singer was an irascible fellow who lived a very colorful life; he was a polygamist who married at least five women over his lifetime, lived at times under false names, fathered at least eighteen children out of wedlock, and whose violent temper often terrorized his family members, business partners and professional associates. Yet Singer was also a brilliant businessman with an innate sense of mechanics and a strong financial motivation. As he liked to quip, he was interested only in “the dimes, not the invention.”

Among the various defects in the preceding sewing machines, including the curved eye-pointed needle that was brittle and easily breakable, the Lerow & Blodgett machine’s rotating shuttle also caused the thread to unravel, making the thread more prone to break as well.

Singer corrected these problems by replacing the curved needle with a straight needle that was positioned vertically rather than horizontally. He also replaced the rotating shuttle with a reciprocating shuttle. Unfortunately, at that point, the sewing machine would still not sew what Singer referred to as “tight stitches.” With the assistance of Zieber, he struggled with this last-remaining issue, and, in his words, then “it flashed upon me” what he needed to do to make the sewing machine work. At this point, the problem was simply one of tension in the thread as it was fed by the spool to the eye-pointed needle. After fixing this last problem, he then produced “five stitches perfectly,” after which, he testified, he “took it to New York and employed Mr. Charles M. Keller to patent it.”

Singer’s sewing machine was invented in September 1850, and his patent ultimately issued on August 12, 1851. Singer never pretended that he invented the sewing machine ex nihilo [meaning from nothing, i.e., from scratch], and his patent confirms this. His invention was an improvement on pre-existing sewing machines, such as the Lerow & Blodgett machine on which he worked in Phelps’s workshop.

Specifically, Singer claimed and described a sewing machine in which the clothe rested on a horizontal table underneath an overhanging arm containing a vertical, reciprocating, straight eye-pointed needle. The eye-pointed needle was synchronized with a reciprocating shuttle carrying a second thread to make a lockstitch in the clothe, which was held in place by a presser foot as it was stitched. A pedal provided continuous motion to the sewing machine through a series of drive belts, which now made it possible for a sewing machine operator to exert seamless control over the continuous movement of the clothe. Moreover, with the synchronization of the shuttle and needle, which produced the necessary tension in the thread for continuous sewing in straight and curved lines, the invention now contained all ten elements necessary for a practical and commercially successful sewing machine. The ultimate utility of Singer’s final improvements was irrefutable: A trained seamstress could sew by hand 40 stitches per minute, and whereas Howe’s machine could sew up to 250 stitches per minute, Singer’s machine could produce 900 stitches per minute. [The bolded italics are mine.]

Yet, after I.M. Singer & Co. began selling the Singer Sewing Machine in late 1850, Blodgett reportedly told Singer that he was an idiot for trying to manufacture and sell sewing machines. Sewing machines simply would not work, Blodgett told him, and the only profit a sewing machine patentee could make was in selling territorial licenses in the patent itself.

Singer’s early sales experiences confirmed Blodgett’s pessimism, as he would later write: “I met with continual objections to the introduction of my machine from persons who had bought those of prior inventors and had thrown them aside as useless, and in some cases was showed out of the stores where I called as soon as my business was made known by me.”

Second, in addition to the well-grounded skepticism of the buying public about the practicality of a sewing machine, there were cultural forces at work in nineteenth-century America that created roadblocks to the efficient adoption of sewing machines throughout the sewing trade. Thimonnier’s story [French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, widely recognized as the first person to use a sewing machine for commercial profit; by 1841, he had eighty machines operating in his Paris shop stitching French army uniforms.] was well known to Americans, and the spirit of the French luddites who had destroyed Thimonnier’s Paris workshop and had hounded him out of the country was appearing in pockets of American resistance to the sewing machine. One nineteenth-century article observed how tailors opposed the sewing machine, because they “thought it would beggar all hand sewers, and refrained from using it on principle”

Moreover, there was a strong cultural bias against the use of machines by women — the principal source of hand-sewing labor in the nineteenth century. For instance, Singer at first dismissed the entreaties of his business partners in 1850 to tinker with the Lerow& Blodgett sewing machine, responding in his usual hotheaded manner, “What a devilish machine! You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing!”

Although Singer eventually acted against his chauvinism, he was not alone in thinking such things, and the luddites who were agitating the sewing unions used these widespread prejudices to reinforce their arguments. An address to the Shirt Sewers’ and Seamstresses’ Union warned of the “disastrous consequences” to the hand-sewing female laborers resulting from the mass adoption of the sewing machine in the sewing trade, arguing “that peculiar branch of industry which exclusively belonged to women — that industry which developed itself in the facile and pliant use of the fingers — would be totally extinguished.” In sum, in the early 1850s, the financial success of the sewing machine was still an abstraction, but the prior failures, the skeptical public, and existing cultural prejudices were a concrete reality.

First, Singer recognized very early on that the success of the sewing machine was predicated on his convincing the public that his new sewing machine was not merely a repeat of the past failures of prior inventors. He thus pioneered mass marketing and advertising; in essence, he was the nineteenth-century equivalent of Billy Mays and the “as seen on TV” approach to advertising. One historian has noted that, at that time, Singer’s mass marketing techniques represented an entirely “new concept of selling.” This entailed a concerted and sustained marketing campaign directed to bringing his sewing machine to the public’s attention and to convincing them of its practical virtues. He traveled the country, giving free demonstrations at fairs, carnivals, and in rented halls. In addition to these free demonstrations, he performed renditions of Thomas Hood’s Song of the Shirt, reminding his audiences of the toils from which seamstresses would be freed by his new invention.

But Singer also recognized that he had to do more than just sell the public on the practicality of his sewing machine, he also had to address the prejudice that women were incapable of working machinery, or, if they could, that it was improper and unwomanly for them to do so. Driven by his own pursuit of fortune, and thus setting aside his own personal bigotry, Singer hired women to demonstrate his sewing machine, as well as teach other women how to use it. One of I.M. Singer & Co.’s first employees was Augusta Eliza Brown, who was hired in 1852 for solely these purposes.

Demonstrations of the sewing machine by Ms. Eliza and other women not only disproved the widespread belief that women could not work machines, they also played an important role in Singer’s new concept of splashy, eye-catching marketing. In 1852, Edward Clark wrote to a company agent that “we have got possession of a front window under our office [in Boston] at the moderate rent of one thousand dollars a year, and a nice little girl is operating a machine in it, to the great entertainment of the crowd.”

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And the rest, as they say, is history. Hope you enjoyed the story, despite the mechanical engineering, pervasive sexism and Mr. Singer’s generally poor personal conduct. If you’d like to learn about all of the players in the history of the sewing machine’s development, settle in with a nice cup of tea and click here.

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