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Monday, November 19, 2012


Singer Model 27 Treadle Table, Singer Manufacturing Co.
As a very young child, I used to take my dolls for seesaw rides, not on the playground but on a movable metal grate attached to a cabinet in the second floor hallway of my grandmother’s home. Years later, I learned that my makeshift seesaw was my great-grandmother’s Singer treadle sewing machine.

I have a feeling I used the machine more than she ever did. Great-grandmother preferred doing things the old fashioned way -- by hand. And grandmother owned an electric version.  I can imagine the circumstances by which great-grandmother came to own her machine, though.  Like many families in the late 1800’s, mine probably bought their machine from Mr. Singer by paying five dollars down, half an average weekly salary in those days, and three to five dollars a month thereafter until the principal and interest were paid off.

The sewing machine was the first machine to enter the American home and was seen as somewhat of a miracle when first introduced. An 1860 issue of Scientific American called it the most important invention to the world after the spinning Jenny and the plough. Godey’s Lady’s Book dubbed it “The Queen of Inventions.” The sewing machine reduced the time it took to make an average shirt from ten to fourteen hours down to a little more than an hour.

Early machines were expensive, though, and even with payment plans the price was out of reach for many households. For this reason, communities and organizations often pooled their money to purchase a single machine for communal use.  As sewing machine production and sales increased, the price dropped, and more families were able to afford a sewing machine of their own. By 1905 the electric powered machine was in wide use, and by 1910 there was a sewing machine in most working class homes.

The sewing machine was seen as a mixed blessing, though, reflecting both the advantages and social problems of the Industrial Revolution. The advent of the sewing machine moved garment work from cottage industries into factories. By 1862, three out of four sewing machines were bought for use in factories. Because production increased, prices fell, and clothing became more affordable. However, factory workers often found themselves laboring under harsh conditions in what became known as sweat shops. Many others lost their jobs. The social upheaval created by the introduction of the sewing machine fomented unrest which eventually led to the advent of workers’ unions and the establishment of government standards in the work place.

Most school text books credit Elias Howe, Jr. with the invention of the sewing machine.  However, many individuals, going back to Thomas Saint in 1790, contributed to its development. Earlier inventions had many design flaws and were never put to practical use until French tailor Barthelemy Thimmonier produced a workable machine in 1829. By 1841 eighty Thimmonier machines were producing uniforms for the French army until an angry mob of tailors, fearing the loss of their livelihood, broke into his factory and destroyed his machines. Thimmonier died penniless.

At about the same time American Walter Hunt developed a practical machine but abandoned production, fearing his invention would put seamstresses out of work. Howe, who was issued a patent in 1846, found little market for his machine. In 1850 Isaac Merrit Singer developed the first practical sewing machine. Previous machines employed a hand crank to power the needle. Singer developed a treadle mechanism to replace the hand crank.

Howe wound up suing Singer and others for copyright infringement. A compromise was reached whereby Howe received royalties. Singer went on to become the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing machines at the time. He was awarded twenty additional patents. In addition to establishing the installment plan for purchasing his machines, he implemented a company-wide policy of destroying trade-in machines to reduce the second-hand market. By 1876 Singer was selling twice as many sewing machines as his nearest competitor. By 1890 Singer had produced nine million sewing machines.

To date, over 46,000 sewing machine patents have been awarded, including one to Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland, Maine in 1873 for inventing the zig-zag stitch. Today there are more than 4,000 different types of sewing machines manufactured.

I have no idea what happened to my great-grandmother’s treadle machine. My grandmother sold her house and moved into an apartment when I was in my mid-teens. The treadle didn’t make the move with her. But I never forgot the joy of crawling under that cabinet and taking my dolls for a ride.

Years ago, I happened upon a yard sale. There on the lawn sat a Standard treadle machine. “How much?” I asked the owner. “You can have it for fifteen dollars,” he replied. Although I prefer to sew on my ultra-modern machine, for over thirty years that old treadle machine has had a place of honor in my home.

Post a comment for a chance to win a book from our Book Club Friday guest author. -- AP

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. It has given me ideas on how to incorporate early sewing machines into a historical adventure story. Thank you.