Thursday, August 6, 2009


Surprised to find out that many Victorian garments seem to be machine-stitched rather than
made by hand? Well, believe it or not, the sewing machine as we know it has been around since the mid-1800's.

The first sewing needles were made of animal bone and the first thread from animal sinew. In the 14th century, iron needles were introduced and in the 15th century, the eye-needle we know today was first used.

In 1755, a German immigrant living on London, Charles Weisenthal, was issued a patent for only the idea of combining a needle to be used for mechanical sewing, but no machine to go with it was ever mentioned

In 1790, English cabinetmaker Thomas Saint was issued a patent for what was called an "awl"; a machine that punched holes in leather and passed a needle through the hole. We don't know if the patent was only for an idea or if the actual machine was ever built.

In 1804, a French patent was granted to Thomas Stone and James Henderson for a sewing machine to "emulate" hand sewing. The invention failed.

Around 1810. German Balthasar Krems developed a machine for sewing caps, but it was never patented.

In 1814, Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger received a patent after producing a series of
machine prototypes that he continually worked on until 1839, aided by grants from the Austrian government. Unfortunately, he failed to create a working machine and died a pauper.

In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by Vermont churchman
John Doge and his partner John Knowles, but it only sewed a small length of fabric at a time and malfunctioned so often that it was deemed unreliable.
Finally in 1830, the first functional sewing machine was invented by French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier which used thread and a hooked needle made mostly of wood that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. With a factory that had 80 machines, he was given a contract to sew uniforms for the French Army.
Alas, Thimonnier was almost killed by an enraged group of fellow French tailors who stormed and burned down his factory, destroying every machine, causing Thimonnier to flee for his life. They feared that as a result of his new invention, unemployment would put craftsmen tailors out of work. Thimonnier started up again with a new partner, producing a new, improved machine but the tailors attacked yet again! He fled to England where alas, he died in the poorhouse in 1857.
In 1834, influenced by Thimmonier, American Quaker Walter Hunt built the first American machine that could sew straight seams and was reliable. Unfortunately, Hunt never patented the machine because he was also afraid that his invention might lead to American tailors’ and seamstresses’ unemployment.

In about 1843, American John Greenough produced a working machine and a model was made but he couldn’t raise enough capital to have it manufactured.

In 1844, Englishman John Fisher invented a lace-making machine that was essentially a sewing machine, but due to a misfiling in the patent office, the invention was eventually overlooked in the coming Singer-Howe legal battle.

In 1846, the first American patent was issued to Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe for a machine that did something no other past machine had done: it had a needle with an eye at the point that used thread from 2 different sources, which would push through fabric to create a loop on the other side. A shuttle on a track slipped a second thread through the loop, creating what we call the “lockstitch”.

He struggled to generate interest in the machine, even creating competitions between his machine and the finest hand-sewers in the land, but in spite of the fact that his machines always won hands-down, after months of such demonstrations he STILL hadn’t sold even one machine.

Desperate and in debt, he sent his brother to England to try and create interest in his invention but found only one backer, a corset maker named William Thomas who arranged for Howe to come to England to perfect
his invention.

The arrangement did not work out and a penniless Elias Howe returned to America, only to find out that not only had the sewing machine finally caught on, but stealing his idea was entrepreneurial upstart Isaac Merritt Singer, known as much for his reputation as a scandalous womanizer as he was as an ambitious inventor. NY Times writer Michael Pollak recently described him as “a foulmouthed, cantankerous polygamist who acknowledged 25 children in his will, only 8 of them born of marriage”.

Isaac Singer was a 6’4” unconventionally outrageous character who initially wanted to become an actor. Born in 1811 in upstate New York, he married Catherine Haley in 1830 and was working in a machine shop near Cooperstown when he first met New York lawyer Edward C. Clark, his future partner. He tinkered with inventions, even getting a rock-drilling patent in 1839.

After having a first child with Catherine, the acting bug bit him and he joined a troupe of traveling players and ended up in Baltimore, where he fell in love with 18-year old Mary Ann Sponslet and proposed to her (even though he was still married). Mary Ann and his wife Catherine each ended up bearing his children the following year. He went on to found his own acting troupe called “Merritt Players” and began performing as Isaac Merritt and his mistress Mary Ann worked under the name “Mrs. Merritt”.

Singer never claimed to have invented the sewing machine, but he improved upon it, making it more practical. He got his own patent in 1851, forming the “Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company”(named after the famous Swedish opera singer who was all the rage) and later formed “I.M. Singer & Company” with Edward C. Clark.

Within 2 years of aggressive marketing, Singer became the leading manufacturer and marketer of sewing machines in the United States.

By 1853, Singer sewing machines were being manufactured in New York and were
sold for about $100-125, a huge amount of money at the time. In 1855 the machine
was awarded 1st Prize at the World's Fair in Paris and by 1870, 170,000 machines
a year were being sold.

One brilliant marketing concept Singer pioneered was the hire-purchase system, which offered monthly installments with a down payment of only $5, at which time you could take the machine home immediately and start sewing.
Singer’s version of the sewing machine was wildly successful, and though Singer had added new features such as a foot-pedal operated machine rather than the earlier hand-cranked version, Howe sued him for patent infringement for using the same lockstitch that he had originally invented.
Howe won the dispute in 1854. For the rest of Howe's life, he earned royalties on every Singer machine sold and his income jumped from $300 to more than $200,000 a year, becoming a millionaire. It is interesting to point out that a great portion of his royalties were contributed to equip an infantry regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War, in which he served as a private for 3 years. He died at 48 in 1867, the year his patent expired.
Singer also became a millionaire, and his machine came to be known as the“Singer Sewing Machine”. In 1889 a machine was created for home use and an electrically-powered machine was created in 1905.
The now-wealthy Singer lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue from the 1850’s through the 1860’s, resuming his scandalous life: still married to Catherine; living with his mistress Mary Ann (and ultimately, their 10 children); having yet another child with a 3rd woman, Mary Eastwood (who lived in lower Manhattan and later adopted the name “Merritt”) and becoming romantically involved with one of his employees, Mary McGonigal, secretly setting up house with her in yet ANOTHER home, calling themselves the Matthews Family (and having 5 MORE children with her!). Mary Anne never had a clue about Singer's "double household" until she saw Singer and Mary McGonigal driving together in an open carriage. She became enraged and had him arrested for bigamy, though she wasn’t technically married to him (yet she called herself Mrs. I.M. Singer).
Amazingly, it was not until 1860 that he divorced his first wife Catherine on the grounds of, believe it or not, HER adultery, with one Stephen Kent!!!
When he got released on bond, his reputation was ruined and in 1862, he fled to Europe with Mary McGonigal, ending up in Paris. There he met and fell in love with a Frenchwoman Isabelle Boyce, who he actually married in 1865. They had a son named Paris and moved to an estate in England where several of his assorted children lived with them until he died at 63 in 1875. Different sources claim he had between 19-25 children by at least 5 “wives”.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that an Maine woman, Helen Augusta Blanchard patented the first zig-zag stitch machine in 1873, in addition to 27 other inventions, 22 of them sewing machine-related. She was so admired that she was referred to as “Lady Edison”. That zig-zag machine is now on display at the Museum of American History in Washington D.C

POSTSCRIPT: There has always been a mystery as to the identity of the two people in the bas-relief portraits above the main entrance of famed NYC apartment building The Dakota (known for its most famous tenant, John Lennon).
It is believed that the man is Isaac Merritt Singer and the woman was the last Mrs. Singer, Isabella Bower.
It so happened that Singer’s
business partner, Edward Clark had also been the developer of the Dakota, and though the free-wheeling Singer and patrician Clark detested each other, they DID make each other very rich.
After Singer died in 1875, Isabella Boyer Singer put in a legal claim (which Clark supported) to be his widow and won the case. She moved back to Paris and later married a Duke from Luxembourg.
She was credited by many (including in a recent 1978 biography of one of Singer's daughters, Winnaretta) to have been the model and inspiration in 1878 for Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. She was 36 at the time.
Some of Singer’s offspring were equally notorious. His son Paris ended up fathering a child by another free spirit, American dancer Isadora Duncan. Sadly, their 3-year old son drowned following a freak 1913 car crash by the Seine.
His 18th child Winnaretta married a French Prince in 1887, divorced and subsequently married another French Prince in 1893. She became a prominent patroness of avante-garde music, even commissioning Eric Satie in 1918 to compose his “Socrate”. Later, as a lesbian, she became involved romantically with Violet Trefusis in 1923.
Another daughter, Isabelle-Blanche married a Duke but sadly committed suicide at age 30.

copyright © 2009 by helen uffner


Pipeking said...

The Clark Family founded and run The baseball Hall of Fame in Coopertown,,and The farmers Museum and NYS historical society,,,The Clark Museum in Williamstown,,,I think Clark university in Worcester Mass..i dont think the founded he Clark Bar,,or Clark kent

Cynthia Karalla said...

Thank you, love love this.