Sewing machines - History of Business in the U.S.Definition: Mechanized devices using needles and thread to fasten fabric together
Significance: The American sewing machine industry was one of the first industries to use nearly interchangeable parts and mass production techniques.
In early America, garments were hand-sewn in the home or in garment factories by tailors and seamstresses. From the mid-eighteenth to midnineteenth centuries, inventors patented various mechanical devices for stitching, but none was successful. In 1846, Elias Howe received the first of several American patents for his version of such a device. However, garment factories would not buy Howe’s machine, because its needles broke easily, the $300 cost was prohibitive, and many believed the machine would lead to unemployment for tailors and seamstresses. Still, imitators copied aspects of Howe’s design and tried to rectify its problems.
One inventor who succeeded was Isaac Merrit Singer, who received a patent in 1850 for an improved version of Howe’s sewing machine. Singer used a straight needle instead of a curved one, and his device moved the needle vertically instead of horizontally, resulting in less needle breakage and greater operator flexibility. In 1851, Singer patented the foot-operated treadle, another improvement that substantially affected user operation. Singer simplified the production process by using nearly standardized parts, resulting in economical mass production and a more attractive price of $125.
Singer was a marketing master. He demonstrated his machine nationwide and reassured tailors and seamstresses that the new technology would enhance their output. The Singer Sewing Machine Company produced approximately 2,500 machines in 1856. Selling to Union and Confederate uniform factories, Singer boosted the number of sewing machines manufactured in 1860 to 13,000, making his company the largest sewing-machine manufacturer in the world. By 1863, Singer had tapped into the successful woodworking industry to marry the sewing machine to wood cabinetry and was promoting the sewing machine as an essential household product; production rose to 30,000 machines.
A young woman operates a treadle sewing machine in the 1920’s. (Library of Congress)
By 1882, Singer’s company had sold approximately 800,000 sewing machines, exemplifying successful mass production techniques, use of nearly interchangeable parts, and worldwide marketing. Although the Singer Company was not the only sewing-machine manufacturer in the United States, its sales drove the American industry, and Singer’s penchant for suing competitors spawned the highly publicized “sewing-machine wars.” Because all sewing machines used elements originally patented by Howe, Howe successfully sued Singer and other manufacturers for patent infringement, guaranteeing him a share of every American-made sewing machine sold. The Singer Company continued to lead sales, producing 2.5 million sewing machines in 1913.
The sewing machine’s mid-nineteenth century mechanics remained virtually unchanged for over a hundred years, except for electric-powered advancements that eliminated the foot-operated treadle. By the late twentieth century, sewing machines had incorporated computer technology, such as memory cards and LED advice messages. In 2001, Singer introduced digitizing software, which became an industry standard for top-of-the-line sewing machine models. Three of America’s founding sewing machine companies remained in business into the early twenty-first century: Singer, White, and Wilcox and Gibbs.
Cooper, Grace Rogers. The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Smithsonian Institution. Sewing Machines: Historical Trade Literature in Smithsonian Institution Collections. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2001.
See also: Automation in factories; International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; Retail trade industry; Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.