Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

The True History of the Sewing Machine

~ Isaac Singer, scoundrel or genius ~

The idea of women having sewing machines to ease their sewing burden was not as well received as you might think. In the middle of the 19th century women were considered to be much too delicate to run anything mechanical. Now mind you they were not too delicate to work day and night keeping their family in food and clothing.

It was also thought that women might be too excitable and perhaps not quite bright enough to manage such a complicated instrument. In addition there were concerns that women would go wild and spend their days shopping, playing cards with friends and who knows what else if they no longer had to spend much of their time making bedding and clothing.

Although other inventers were working on developing a sewing machine, when it was suggested to Issac Singer that he might be able to devise superior one his response was to shout, "You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet - their sewing!" *

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But Singer was always ready for any scheme that was likely to make money so he did proceed with the project. In fact he developed a machine so sophisticated that it had all the basic features found on sewing machines today. Unlike Elias Howe who invented an earlier model because he saw how hard his wife slaved away sewing, Singer simply saw the machine as a business venture.

In spite of his less than respectful attitude toward women Singer was ready to do whatever was needed to sell his machines. To convince people that women really could operate these intricate mechanisms he used women to demonstrate his sewing machine to potential buyers. He advertised that even a child could handle one. Sewing machines were also promoted as a timesaver that would leave women with more time to take care of their families. Gradually the public was won over.

Another challenge in selling sewing machines was that the original price was equivalent to the cost of a car today. In some cases several families would share in the buying and using of a sewing machine. But in 1856 the Singer Company offered the first installment plan. This precursor of today's credit economy multiplied sales and made owning a sewing machine possible for many more families.

The possession of a sewing machine became quite a status symbol. Piecing was often done by machine and some women even machine stitched their quilting or appliqué. These visible stitches advertised that the quilter was a proud owner of a sewing machine.

Thus Isaac Merritt Singer inventor, actor and tycoon changed not only how we sew but also the way we manage our money.


© 2001 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

electric sewing machines became popular in the 1920s Singer Featherweight

Online history on the sewing machine:

The Sewing Machine and Quilters in the 19th Century
by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

The Non-Electric Sewing Machine, People Powered Sewing Machines, Not Just for the Amish
by Anne Kusilek

For a far more extensive article on the sewing machine read
"The Sewing Machine and Visible Machine Stitching on Nineteenth-Century Quilts"
by Suellen Meyer. It is in the book, "Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths".
* The above quote is found on page 114.

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