Singer Manufacturing Company

According to author Richard Cavendish “Isaac Merritt Singer was no introverted back-room inventor, but one of the most forceful, flamboyant and unscrupulous tycoons in American business history. Though he did not invent the sewing machine, he designed the first practical and efficient one, used mass-production techniques to manufacture it and pioneered the hire-purchase system of buying on credit in easy installments, which revolutionized consumer behavior.”

Bottle embossed "THE SINGER MANFG CO. TRADE MARK"

Bottle embossed “THE SINGER MANFG CO. TRADE MARK”.  The bottle was for sewing machine oil.


The Singer Sewing Machine was invented by Isaac Merrit Singer, an American.  According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “He developed and brought into general use the first practical domestic sewing machine.  At the age of 19 Singer became an apprentice machinist, and in 1839 he patented a rock-drilling machine. Ten years later he patented a metal- and wood-carving machine. While working in a Boston machine shop in 1851, Singer was asked to repair a Lerow and Blodgett sewing machine; 11 days later he had designed and built an improved model, which he patented and sold through I.M. Singer & Company. The first to embody features allowing continuous and curved stitching, his machine employed an overhanging arm holding the needle bar over a horizontal table, thus making it possible to sew on any part of the work. His basic design features have been followed in almost all subsequent machines.

Because Singer had embodied in his machine the basic eye-pointed needle and the lock stitch developed by Elias Howe of the United States, Howe won a patent-infringement suit against him in 1854. The suit did not prevent Singer from manufacturing his machine, however, and in June 1851 he formed a partnership with Edward Clark. By 1860 their company had become the largest producer of sewing machines in the world. Singer secured 12 additional patents for improvements to his machine. ”

Singer’s Perpendicular Action sewing machine, an engraving from Illustrated News, June 25, 1853, which states: “The sewing machine has, within the last two years acquired a wide celebrity, and established its character as one of the most efficient labor saving instruments ever introduced to public notice.... We must not forget to call attention to the fact that this instrument is peculiarly calculated for female operatives. They should never allow its use to be monopolized by men.” (Smithsonian photo 48091-D.)

Singer’s Perpendicular Action sewing machine, an engraving from Illustrated News, June 25, 1853, which states: “The sewing machine has, within the last two years acquired a wide celebrity, and established its character as one of the most efficient labor saving instruments ever introduced to public notice…. We must not forget to call attention to the fact that this instrument is peculiarly calculated for female operatives. They should never allow its use to be monopolized by men.” (Smithsonian photo 48091-D.)

PBS’s series Who Made America notes “Importantly, [Singer’s] new design caused less thread breakage with the innovation of an arm-like apparatus that extended over the worktable, holding the needle at its end. It was the first practical replacement for hand-sewing, and it could sew 900 stitches per minute, a dramatic improvement over an accomplished seamstress’s rate of 40 stitches a minute on simple work.

While the first Singer machines were relatively expensive and bulky, the inventor soon adopted a mass-production system of interchangeable parts, and worked to reduce the machines in size and weight. From the start, he looked past the commercial market into households, aiming to sell to housewives. After a series of refinements, Singer was able to sell his machines for $10 each, making them accessible symbols of status and self-reliance for the average American family. His partner, Edward Clark, pioneered installment purchasing plans and accepted trade-ins, causing sales to soar.

Singer supported its sales with beautiful showrooms, repair mechanics, sewing instructors, and rapid parts distribution, creating a nationwide service network. And it expanded into foreign manufacturing of its products.”

Singer’s new Family Sewing Machine, illustration from a brochure dating about 1858 or 1859 which states: “A few months since, we came to the conclusion that the public taste demanded a sewing machine for family purposes more exclusively; a machine of smaller size, and of a lighter and more elegant form; a machine decorated in the best style of art, so as to make a beautiful ornament in the parlor or boudoir; a machine very easily operated, and rapid in working.... To supply this public want, we have just produced, and are now prepared to receive orders for, ‘Singer’s new Family Sewing Machine.’” (Smithsonian photo 48091-H.)

Singer’s new Family Sewing Machine, illustration from a brochure dating about 1858 or 1859 which states: “A few months since, we came to the conclusion that the public taste demanded a sewing machine for family purposes more exclusively; a machine of smaller size, and of a lighter and more elegant form; a machine decorated in the best style of art, so as to make a beautiful ornament in the parlor or boudoir; a machine very easily operated, and rapid in working…. To supply this public want, we have just produced, and are now prepared to receive orders for, ‘Singer’s new Family Sewing Machine.’” (Smithsonian photo 48091-H.)

Smithsonian Institution curator Grace Rogers Cooper, author of the exhaustive 1968 work The Invention of the Sewing Machine notes “Singer’s aggressive selling had begun to overcome the public’s suspicion of sewing machines. He pioneered in the use of lavishly decorated sewing-machine showrooms when the company offices were expanded in the mid-1850s. These were rich, with carved walnut furniture, gilded ornaments, and carpeted floors, places in which Victorian women were not ashamed to be seen. The machines were demonstrated by pretty young women. The total effect was a new concept of selling, and Singer became the drum major of a new and coming industry that had many followers.”

M. Singer & Co. New York showroom of the mid-1850s, as illustrated in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 29, 1857; only manufacturing machines are shown in this illustration. (Smithsonian photo 48091-B.)

M. Singer & Co. New York showroom of the mid-1850s, as illustrated in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 29, 1857; only manufacturing machines are shown in this illustration. (Smithsonian photo 48091-B.)

Author Richard Cavendish adds that “Lady demonstrators were hired to disprove suggestions that women were too fluffy and incompetent to work a machine and Singer’s hire-purchase deals caused Scientific American to reflect in the 1850s on the curious psychological fact that customers preferred to pay $100 in monthly instalments of $5 rather than $50 outright, even though they had the money.

In New York, Singer liked to drive about in a grandiose vehicle of his own design, painted canary yellow and black, drawn by six or sometimes nine horses, with a small band playing on board. It had seats for thirty-one people, beds for the children and a water-closet. His attitude to women could be conservatively described as enthusiastic. He married for the first time at twenty-nine and after a few years left his wife and their two children for a mistress with whom he had ten more. Later he set up two more households with women by whom he had respectively one child and five.

The company vigorously developed markets abroad and by 1860 it was the world’s biggest producer of sewing machines, but rows between his women folk and the prurient attentions of the press became so tiresome that Singer took refuge in Europe, where in 1863 he married his second wife, a Parisian boarding-house keeper named Isabella Boyer, by whom he would have six more children. In his early fifties, he settled in England and built Oldway House at Paignton in South Devon in majestic French Renaissance style for himself and some of his brood of twenty-four offspring – he was very fond of them all. He had always wanted to be an actor and he had his own private theatre in the house, which he called The Wigwam. He died there in 1875, aged sixty-three.

The business went from strength to strength and Singer’s took the lead in marketing electric sewing machines. A household name, the company later diversified into other product lines and lost its way. In 1988 it fell prey to financiers who broke it up for the spoils.”

Singer Sewing Machine advertising from 1851

Singer Sewing Machine advertising from 1851

French Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

French Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Shop advertising sign. Date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Shop advertising sign. Date unknown.

Ad for Singer Sewing machines, date unknown.

Ad for Singer Sewing machines, date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, date unknown.

Trade Card from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair

Trade Card from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

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About Jessica

I am the supervisor of the analysis of the archaeological collection recovered from the Old Main excavation.
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