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article number 488
article date 09-24-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Invention and Emancipation, the Sewing Machine, 1850
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

SINCE the beginning of America and probably since the beginning of the world, men had produced the raw materials of the home and women had manufactured and refined them. The odd designation of the female as the “weaker” sex is of very recent application.

It has been traditional in the history of the human race for women to do at least twice as much physical work as men and this estimate leaves out the entirely and arduously physical job of viviparous reproduction.

Men in these uncounted generations had been the thinkers, planners and designers; the dreamers, the romantics, the inventors and promoters of “causes,” reasons, movements, campaigns, conquests, governments, social organizations. ethics, codes and abstract philosophies.

The women had been too busy maintaining for the men a physical freedom essential to these exercises to engage in them themselves and thus came the conventional assumption that the feminine mind was inadequate to them.

Occasional and usually accidental exceptions gave startling proof that this was a convention and not a fact. It took a highly heterodox convulsion of what was supposed to be normal biology to put Cleopatra on her barge and Elizabeth on her throne.

The sporadic failure of an old, reliable system to provide male heirs has sometimes brought about a situation which threatened the male-designed plan of hereditary succession and in such moments the men have given in to the demands of their code.

Other supposed political crises have elevated women to power. But usually men have tried desperately to adjust the conflicts so as to maintain the power in male hands and some highly indecorous behavior has resulted of which the conduct of Henry VIII and Bonaparte is typical.

Once there, however, in their barges, thrones, palaces, poison laboratories and even battlefields, not to mention innumerable backstage vantage points, women have proved themselves easily the mental equals of men in many of man’s provinces and, being more realist, far less vulnerable to pomp amid power.

No hard, steely thinking Agrippina, Caterina Sforza, Catherine de’ Medici or Elizabeth Tudor would have lapsed into such wallowing desuetude as overcame Caligula, Louis Bien Aimé and the aging King Hal when wealth or mastery dissolved their intelligences.

It was only with the aid of mechanics, however, that men finally invented women out of this convention. The ultimate performance began near the middle of the nineteenth century and men have been consciously or subconsciously regretting it ever since. This was brought to perfection in America and, from the resulting convulsion which shook the civilized world to its social foundations, America has suffered (or profited) the most.

The reason for the extremity of the sexual revolution in America was that here, more than in Europe, the old convention had been especially restrictive. The position of women in an agricultural society is usually more confined than in an industrial or urban one.

On a subsistence farm for instance, the woman was a Jill-of-all-trades as much as the man was a Jack. The man provided her only with implements and the rawest materials: the wheel, the loom, the churn, the kitchen equipment, the broken flax, the uncarded wool, the milled grain, the butchered meat, the firewood, the malt, the mutton fat and so on.

The wife spun, wove, cut and sewed, churned, baked, salted, preserved, brewed, made the candles, milked the cows, bore, nursed, reared and clothed the children and even, if she had any time left, assisted in certain seasonal male jobs like haying, threshing or seeding.

On the frontier, notwithstanding her exaltation for reasons of chastity, she was even busier. Here prolific reproduction was essential and its conditions were harder. The men were so occupied with the axe or with defense that many of the duties they might have performed in the homestead fell back on the women.

In the South the hardest physical labor was done by slaves, so the woman’s position was easier, yet here, too, it was harder than the man’s.

Romantic stories of the “old South” give us charming pictures of the “belles” lying back in languorous attitudes cajoled, waited on and defended by chivalrous colonels and “bloods,” but they do not take us into spinning and sewing rooms, nor do they take us much outside the great plantation houses into little farms or villages where poverty was lethal in an intermediate white population.

It was true, however, that this condition in the South was somewhat ameliorated by the large importation of manufactured goods, notably textiles.

The extended manufacture of textiles was unquestionably a help.

Yet, as the quantity of textiles increased, so did the elaborate nature of clothes. In the nineteenth century, when the moral pendulum swung back from the loose fin de siècle interval and female chastity became such a shibboleth that such matters as legs above the ankles were never supposed to impinge upon the male mind or even upon the female except perhaps in her bath (a rare event), the most elaborate textile devices were promoted to disguise feminine anatomy.


That these disguises had abundantly the contrary effect from that intended was kept delightfully inarticulate and an enormous industry of prostitution maintained the biological balance.

Nevertheless, the fashions in clothes called for a good deal of hard work and this was done, at home, by the women. On top of it came the clothes for the men. The tailors who handled the broadcloth of outer garments did nothing about the inner ones.

Shirts, underwear, socks, work-clothes, the denims, fustians, coarse cotton stuff worn by laboring men were fashioned at home as were the fantastic pantalets, frills, petticoats and trousers which obscured the children.

Thus the burden continued. Textiles were made in factories but clothes were made by the laborious repetition of the tiny needle moved by worn fingers. As usual the burden bore heaviest on the lowest class, for here women and children were inducted into the factories and had their household duties besides, though this condition was presently alleviated for Americans by the importation of foreign labor, male and female.

But psychologically the burden came heavier still on the woman of the bourgeoisie. As the soft tentacles of the Victorian era reached America, her position grew well-nigh intolerable.

The physical labor which might easily be managed by a robust farm girl with an uncritical society about her became another matter when the girl was expected to be soft, sweet, alluring, subject to shock, demurely coquettish, moral, an example of purity and the complete chattel of the husband who must support her.

She was expected to be intensely domestic and it was inevitable that she should be. Never, for an instant, could she leave the home. She might retch at the sight of her casual, loose-living or drunken husband, but sleep by his side she must until death them did part, and while he supported her she must make his shirts.

Nostalgists still proclaim that this was biologically sound and that such home bodies were happier than their counterparts today who sit in the houses of the legislatures or as peers in the jury boxes, drink, smoke, eschew the home and commute by plane with Nevada, but nostalgists are rarely familiar with the more intimate details of the past they so desire.

The facts, in any case, remain and they are our focus here; our story is concerned with a group of men who formed the vital factor in their evolution and it is concerned with the consequences of those facts apart from their moral values.

The sewing machine came, like many other inventions, from New England.

§ 2

Any one who has given analytical attention to the manual operation of sewing knows what complex motion it involves. To translate such motion to a machine—of irregular, reciprocal movement to a wheel-actuated regular mechanism was still, in the 1840’s, a prodigious mental feat.

The needle enters the cloth at an angle which is altered after it has penetrated and at the same time the cloth, held in the other hand, is slightly bent in the direction of a fold, the needle penetrates again and comes back, whereupon the fingers leave it and grasp it anew in another place.

Now extension occurs as the arm comes into play, the thread is drawn and the tension tells the arm when to stop drawing. This is an orthodox simple stitch in thin cloth.

The motion varies when the cloth thickens: the hand leaves the needle after its penetration, moves around to the under side of the cloth, the fingers again grasp the needle near its point, pull it through, after which half a stitch is completed and the motion must now be repeated from the under side.

Thus for any stitch the hand must leave the needle at least once, sometimes twice, grasping it again, before the stitch is finished. It is in this act especially that the machine encounters insuperable difficulty and it is no wonder that several young men watching their women at this exercise and trying to think it in mechanical motions gradually went mad.


To avoid this, the inventor was obliged to forget that he had ever seen a manual stitch made. With his mind moving only in vertical and horizontal planes, he must take two pieces of cloth, a piece of pointed metal and a piece of thread and try to figure how the cloth may be joined together from first principles.

That was what Elias Howe did. Once his mind was free of the orthodox needle and the orthodox hand stitch he invented a new means of binding the cloth together. He did it, of course, in rigidly vertical and horizontal planes.* There could be no alteration from the right angle between the tool and the work.

* Howe’s first machine held the work in a vertical plane while the needle moved horizontally.

Having cleared his mind of the familiar needle he constructed a new sharpened tool with the eye at the point which, after it had penetrated would leave an open loop of thread on the under side through which another thread-carrying tool might move.

What he had done as to substitute two needles for one, two threads for one and two simple operations for one complex one. The Second operation he had borrowed from the loom for the second needle—the underside horizontal needle—was, in fact, a shuttle.

The change of the machine needle from the hand needle by shifting the position of the eye was basic and overcame the primary mental difficulty; after that the rest evolved easily enough. Once the loop was there the loom suggested itself.

The completion of the machine was a matter of adjustment: a perfectly precise adjustment to be sure and made with the delicacy, the fragile and recalcitrant materials demanded. A loop of thread is almost as perverse and wayward a thing as McCormick’s stalk of wheat.

The adjustments were difficult for a man who was not a trained mechanic. Howe was undoubtedly gifted, though he sometimes disclaimed even this, but he solved his problems by prolonged trial and error.

Nowadays inventors are thoroughly schooled men who have learned mechanical principles so completely before they start to design that they know precisely what a machine will and will not do. The day of the confusion between manual and mechanical operations is long past.

Superficially, the story of Howe reads like that of any other whittling boy. It requires what some one has called “creative reading” to detect the subtle difference in character. All the familiar trappings are there and the biographies show the poor farm boy eagerly watching mill machinery, sitting for hours analyzing the movement of its parts, whittling away by himself and so on.

The fact probably was, however, that he was not intensely fascinated by these matters, that he was naturally lazy, that his main incentive to invention was fear of poverty and the desire for means to indulge leisure and that, once started on the problem of the sewing machine it held him in much the manner of a Chinese puzzle.

Nevertheless the dominant motive in Howe’s activity was the desire to make money and, as his debt and poverty increased, so did the stimulus. It is possible that this conscious impulse was more heartening to his unhappy wife, who was, eventually, sacrificed, than if he had expressed a vaguer desire to bring release to the whole of womankind.

In Howe’s boyhood nothing was of great moment before he found himself in the Boston workshop of Ari Davis. Davis was what the French call an original. His trade was the making of precision instruments. A century earlier he might have been regarded as a magician and possibly he was sensible of his own magic gifts; at any rate, he assumed enough mannerisms and eccentricities to mark him apart from the run of men even in Boston.

Elias in his late teens was his assistant. The boy was handy with tools and could cope with the delicate machines Davis produced for the scientific use of Harvard professors. And he seems to have been happy that the job took him away from the heavy work of farming. Elias was congenitally lame and hard labor easily exhausted him.

The first sewing machine, constructed by Elias Howe, Jr., in April, 1845.

He was not a serious boy like so many inventors we have met. He had a quick and exuberant humor—no doubt this pulled him through his dark years. He enjoyed talking to customers. The story is that a wealthy one said to Davis while the talk was on machines, “Why not a machine to sew, too?” or something to that effect.

Davis replied that that would be easy, and the Customer said there would be a large fortune for the man who should invent it. Davis seems to have forgotten this, but Howe did not. Evidently he believed that the customer himself would invest in such a machine if it were invented. The customer, of course, never turned up again.

Howe married soon after this and a rapid succession of children made it more than ever necessary for him to earn a fortune. Always it was the golden dream that lured him and kept him at the puzzle that other men had long abandoned as hopeless.

Through many nights he worked at the needle that would make the new stitch. One by one he eliminated the motions of hand sewing and finally hit on the basic factors, the point-eyed needle and the shuttle. His wife became interested and so did his father and a brother, Amasa.

So when Elias quit Davis’s nine-dollar-a-week job to give all his time to the new machine, his father paid his board in Cambridge. By the time he was twenty-six he had a machine that would sew. At a public exhibition, it sewed two hundred and fifty stitches a minute; the spectators smiled, delighted by this magical thing and went away feeling that they had seen a good show.

Such was the attitude of the time that it never occurred to any one that he or she might possess such a machine or use it for a useful purpose. It is essential that we try to understand this attitude, for we are approaching the change in that trend which determined the inventional and industrial future of the country.

At the moment, England was ahead of us in this matter. Her mechanic arts were better and the common man was more used to their products. Communications were better, distribution and merchandising were systematized and many mass-produced goods of one part of the little island were sold and advertised in the remote other parts.

The population of England was more compact if not more homogeneous, and many conventions were no longer sectional. So, while Howe could excite scarcely any practical interest in his machine in America, it immediately appealed to an English manufacturer.

It was taken to England by Amasa Howe, the interested brother of Elias. Interested as he was, Amasa had so little sense of its value that he sold it along with the English right to manufacture to William Thomas, this English corset maker, for £250.*

* There was also a promise of royalty (purely oral) of £3 on every machine. Thomas patented the invention in England and the royalty was never paid.

Thomas was a sharp trader, the type of man for whom unhappy inventors were so long a magnet. Not content with the machine and the rights, he must draw further on the skill that designed it. He wanted it adapted to corsets and wanted also a means of sewing leather.

So he gave a message to Amasa for his brother: Thomas would pay Elias’s passage to England and then pay Elias £3 a week to make another machine.

It is queer that a man so tormented by the dream of a large fortune should have swallowed this little, dead bait. He probably said to his poor Elizabeth, “Look, here at last is a man who appreciates me.”

At any rate he went, took her along and their three children. He took also the letters patent he had received from Washington for his invention.

Thomas got what he wanted before Howe came to the point of quarrelling with him. The Howe family was reduced to one room in a London slum and Elias finally used his last penny to send her and the children home.

When, later, he sailed himself he had to pawn a machine he had made and his precious American letters patent and work his way home in a ship’s galley. He arrived just in time to say good-bye to Elizabeth, who was dying of Consumption (tuberculosis).

It was not until infringement began that Howe came into his own. Usually inventors are ruined by infringement; Howe was made by it.

Sewing machines of various makes and designs came on the market soon after Howe’s return. They all used his principles as, indeed, they must. The injustice aroused a capitalist friend who backed Howe’s complaint and released him to make machines.

By 1850, he had made fourteen machines and had a workshop in New York. A year later began the aggressive and effective activities of the most important infringer; it was he who, without meaning it, made Howe’s fortune.

Elias Howe Sewing Machine Patent Drawing.

§ 3

There can be no question that Isaac Merrit Singer was an important inventor, but as a promoter he achieved greatness. He devised many improvements on the sewing machine which are still in use. But if one of his promotional, business inventions should suddenly be withdrawn from us, the major part of next year’s industrial products would remain in the factories.

Singer’s plan of instalment buying has probably had as profound a social effect in America if not in the world as almost any other commercial design in our history.

His life from the beginning had a far brighter color than Howe’s. His early life had more of the “wild boy” about it than Colt’s. At twelve he left his home in one of the Dutch counties of New York State and hitch-hiked for some sixteen years.

Perhaps it would be fairer to call him a journeyman than a wanderer, for he was working all the time. “Odd jobs” were in better repute in those days than now.

In his wanderings he traced some of the progress his machines would one day make, for the Singer business reveals its most remarkable aspect in its geographical achievement.

Generally his work was mechanical; he may have had more native skill or less than Howe; he surely had a wider variety of experience.

Our interest first centers on him in a machine shop in Boston. This was in 1851; Howe was already in New York.

One of Howe’s infringers, a company called Lerow and Blodgett, had made a kind of sewing machine. One of them was brought by an exasperated owner, to be repaired in the shop where Singer worked.

Singer saw what was wrong; it was fundamental. Within two weeks, he had constructed a machine of his own. The feat would have been more remarkable if the basic principle of all sewing machines had not been included in the crude, ineffectual product of Lerow and Blodgett.

We shall come, presently, to the distinction between a basic invention and an improvement. We cannot, of course, deprive the improver of the title of inventor especially when, as in Singer’s case, the improvements were so radical.

Singer patented his machine and, as Lewton says, “he borrowed a few hundred dollars from friends, to enable him to manufacture machines in Boston where . . . he began work under the firm name of I. M. Singer & Co.” This has an easy sound, but why had not Howe begun by founding a successful company by borrowing a few hundred dollars from friends?

The fact is that, in the intervening years, the public attitude had profoundly altered. The magic of the telegraph had become a familiar fact. The locomotive had attained a size and speed which were no longer regarded as “marvellous” aspects.

Factory-made goods of an elaborate nature had become commonplaces. Gold had run into fluid capital. The colossal growth of the country increased the capacity of the imagination to believe that anything was possible.

The press, through some inventions which we have already met and others we are about to meet, had gigantic new power. A large number of machines. including the sewing wonder, had come out of the “museum,” extracted thence by prophetic men who already felt the stimulus of these other revolutions.

Singer’s “few hundred dollars” were therefore easier. His own strenuous effort was harder. But there was a place for such effort in the world. What we call the “go-getter” was already recognized, though he had, as yet, been little applied to the machine.

Singer was a go-getter and with a new machine-consciousness coming to meet him and so many other vibrant forces lined up to help him, he “went and got” in short order. It cost him $15,000, down—in the courts as we shall see—and a great deal more in instalments, but by the time he came up against Howe he had built an immense and far-reaching business and had to put his own and Howe’s machines permanently on the map of the world.

§ 4

This is an exceedingly pleasant story, this record of the Sewing machine quite in the romantic magazine and Hollywood tradition. The sobs, smiles, catches at the throat and spinal shivers come in precisely the right places.

One man plods and suffers, nearly starves, loses his money, his wife, almost his mind and heart; another man uses his genius to create crowds of eager prospects, makes an incidental fortune for himself.

But, lo! Enter the Law, justice is done, the unhappy victim on the threshold of starvation is rewarded and can sit back at last from his labors to profit forever from the infringer’s work.

Then, in the end, Fate, relenting again, admits the infringer too to a place in the sun and both die rich and happy. The “sex interest” is inherent.

There was room enough for every one in the sewing-machine business because the market which Singer created grew endlessly. To the student of invention, however, the solution of the patent difficulties must be especially interesting.

Sewing machine and cabinet combined. “This arrangement guarantees convenience, economy of space, and protection to the machine when not in use.” From the Howe Sewing Machine Co.’s catalogue.

Although we have usually found: up to this point, that it simplifies understanding of an invention and of its social consequences to leave out the legal battle surrounding it, that of the sewing machine had such an effect on the whole of patent history and had, therefore, such important social consequences of its own that its inclusion here seems imperative.

To follow this battle from its beginning we must leave Singer with his much-advertised and highly successful company and go back to Howe’s period of struggle.

When Howe returned from his tragic sojourn in England and found his American patent being infringed right and left, he knew at once that he could do nothing about it until he could recover his letters patent and one of his machines from the Surrey pawnshop where he had left them.

To adjust such a matter today would be easy and could be accomplished in a few weeks. In the late forties, it was exceedingly difficult. To be certain, some one had to go to England.

It happened that a young Cambridge lawyer, a neighbor and acquaintance, was about to sail and he offered his services. This was an index of Howe’s change of luck.

With the backing of another friend, George V. Bliss,* Howe began his suits in 1849 and by 1851, when Singer got his patent, he had been successful in several cases.

* Bliss was not motivated by generosity. He demanded an interest in the machines and took a mortgage on the Howe parental home as security.

Incidentally at the same time, he had made and sold so many machines of his own that he was now in a position to face the formidable Singer himself. It was not easy. Singer had an excellent lawyer, Edward Clark, who was able to prolong the suit until Singer got his business well started on the road to success.

Early in the suit, Singer’s lawyers saw that it would be impossible to prove that the Singer machine did not infringe on Howe’s patent. They therefore tried to invalidate the patent by proving that a sewing machine had been invented before Howe’s. This is an old resource of patent lawyers, and in this case they found evidence of a machine as far back as 1832.*

* Sewing machines of a sort had been patented in Europe by Thomas Saint in 1790, Barthélémy Thimmonier in 1830 and others.

It had been invented by William Hunt, who had neglected to patent it. He had, indeed, after considerable consultation with a friend named Arrowsmith, who at first thought something might be made of it, entirely abandoned it. Arrowsmith bought it and abandoned it too.

Exhaustive research finally revealed several incoherent pieces of it in Arrowsmith’s cellar under a heap of junk and rubbish. The pieces could not be assembled and so, financed by Singer, he constructed a new machine.

Having, in the meantime, seen several other machines, it appeared to the court that he probably incorporated several features which were not in the original built twenty years before and abandoned.

Singer introduced as much evidence as could be collected about this Hunt invention and the case went on for three years. Eventually all the evidence was of no avail against Howe. In February, 1854, Judge Sprague gave one of the most interesting and important decisions in the history of American patent law. The first paragraph was final as far as Howe was concerned:

"I. There is no evidence in this case that leaves a shadow of doubt, that, for the benefit conferred upon the public by the introduction of a sewing machine, the public are indebted to Mr. Howe.”

But the second paragraph threw a new and much-needed light upon the whole legal aspect of invention:

“A machine, in order to anticipate any subsequent discovery, must be perfected—that is, made so as to be of practical utility, and not merely experimental and ending in experiment. Until of practical utility, the public attention is not called to the invention; it does not give to the public that which the public lays hold of as beneficial.”

So Singer lost the suit. He was required to pay $15,000 settlement and a royalty on future machines which underwent some changes during the years.

Early Singer sewing machine.

The royalties did not prevent him from making Singer machines in large quantity and establishing the largest sewing machine company in the world.

The collector of “first” inventions and the angry exponent of adequate credit to inventors is delighted at this outcome. Justice has moved and the infringer has got his comeuppance. If this process were carried to its logical conclusion as the “credit” school would wish, there would never be any improvement in any technology.

Fortunately, by an arrangement of royalty, Singer was able to continue. He had used two of Howe’s inventions in a machine of many parts: the eye-pointed needle and the shuttle necessary for the lock stitch. But he had introduced such vital inventions of his own as the yielding vertical presser foot which held the work on the table and the continuous wheel feed.

Singer had also adapted another old invention, the treadle, to his machine. In addition, he did a superb job of promotion and, as Fulton and Morse had done with other devices, was the first to bring the sewing machine before a wide public, to break down that public’s lethargy (a somewhat easier task in the fifties) and to make the demand universal.

Lewton goes so far as to give Singer credit for being “the first to furnish the people with a successfully operating and practical sewing machine. After the introduction of the Singer machine, other inventors, with patents of earlier date, were forced to alter their machines to meet the approval of the public.”

An important factor in the development of the sewing machine was Howe’s wide sale of licenses to manufacture. He did this instead of enjoining the infringers against the sale of their product because, from the beginning, Howe’s object was to make money rather than to gain fame as an inventor.

But when other manufacturers had bowed to the decision to pay Howe a royalty, they began to fight among themselves. The controversy finally became so complex that the principal manufacturers got together in what they called “The Combination” and, in effect, pooled their patents.

Outsiders paid to the Combination a royalty over and above the royalty which every one was obliged to pay to Howe. Originally this royalty was $15 and Howe’s royalty $5 per machine. This was reduced as the price of the machines was reduced.

An arrangement in 1860 provided that “every sewing machine honestly made pays Elias Howe one dollar; and every sewing machine made, which includes any device or devices the patent for which is held by any other member of the Combination, pays seven dollars to the Combination.”

This is an early example of patent pooling—now so common— and sets a kind of landmark in our history. It shows that simultaneous invention of the same device was becoming commoner and that new facilities made it possible for many such inventions to come upon the market at once.

When we examine more elaborate products like the automobile embodying many inventions and several technologies, we observe that patent pooling has become a virtual necessity.

The combination” also foreshadowed that bugbear of later days, the trust. It was prevented, however, from becoming monopolistic in practice by one of its by-laws designed by Howe which provided that at least twenty-four licenses to manufacture must be issued. The manufacturers in the combination were, in addition to Howe, I. M. Singer and Company, The Wheeler and Wilson Company, and the Grover and Baker Company.

§ 5

The listing of the names suggests many other improvements that it might be pleasant to discuss. We might go into the double-locked chain-stitch made by Grover’s machine or the revolving hook devised by Gibbs. But we might, for that matter, go on indefinitely into the elaborate improvements and attachments which have made it possible for machines to hem, pleat, embroider, make buttonholes, stitch leather, and so on.

That is not the province of this history. We are interested in what happened to the country and to the trends of society when this extraordinary invention appeared upon the mid-century scene.

Nevertheless, the most cursory technical survey would be incomplete without the name of Allen Benjamin Wilson. Wilson invented the sewing machine independently. He had never heard of one or seen one when the idea came to him.

Though Wilson was born at Willet, N. Y., he must be considered a New England inventor as his work was done in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he arrived at twenty-four after a wandering career something like Singer’s. His father had died suddenly when he was eleven and he had been indentured to a farmer-carpenter.

Like Singer he had gone on his own at twelve doing blacksmithing and journeyman cabinet-making. The life was hard on him and when he began his sewing machine he was sick and poor.

The basic principles of his machine were like Howe’s though, like Singer, he put his work in the horizontal plane while the needle moved in the vertical.

His innovation was the double-pointed shuttle. This had a curved motion and with each stroke, forward or backward, a lock stitch was completed. Wilson developed this into a rotary hook and finally into his celebrated four-motion feed by which the hook carried the loop of thread about a stationary bobbin in forming the lock-stitch.

Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine.

Wilson’s financial backer was Nathaniel Wheeler, a Connecticut carriage maker. Together they formed the famous Wheeler and Wilson company which in 1856 built in Bridgeport, a factory said to be the largest plant of its kind in the world.

The growth of the sewing-machine industry from Singer’s beginning was very rapid. An article in the ’Scientific American’ which appeared in 1852 gives a suggestion of this growth and from it also we get a detached view of Howe in his melancholy years and a hint of why Singer moved into a quick success while Howe floundered.

“In 1847,” editorially comments the ’Scientific American,’ “when we first noticed the Sewing Machine of E. B. Howe, Jr. of Cambridge, Mass., we had a number of communications on the subject afterwards, from persons wishing to know where Mr. Howe resided, many of them having written to Cambridge, but got no answer.

"We did the same, but received no answer, and concluded that Mr. Howe had removed his place of residence . . . It would have been well for Mr. Howe had he given publicity to his invention at that time and had it illustrated in our columns . . . Since that time we have illustrated no less than seven sewing machines in the columns of the Scientific American.”

But Howe for all his dream of a fortune was no man of the world. He moved, left no address, the interested letters by which he might have profited were lost. One of them might have contained the offer he was so hungry for.

But such, in 1847, was still the vague condition of society in the sense of communication notwithstanding the infant telegraph and the young railroad.

Five years later we get the feeling that this last mist before the dawn has cleared. We find such a thing, for instance, this great periodical well-established and well—known. Those of us whose boyhoods were tinged with a mechanical shade remember it with delight in its old weekly form.

Perhaps no other single factor has been a greater boon to old-school inventors than the ’Scientific American’ with its up-to-the-minute lists of patents its lucid illustrations and diagrams, its sometimes over-enthusiastic articles about innovations some of which came to naught but most of which stimulated some amateur mechanic or incipient engineer.

In the fifties the ’Scientific American was a sign of the changing times. It was a prophet of a world enlightened by a new publishing era based on new communications. We shall have much to say of this in the next chapter.

In the year 1860 about 111,000 sewing machines were made in the United States. This was a little less than ten years after the invention came on the open market.

We see here the index of many developments:
- One is the development of mass-production of machines from Whitney’s beginning and Colt’s perfection of the process.
- Another is the advance of metal-working which we shall trace presently.
- Another is the growth in the power of advertising helped by communication methods and increased publishing based on those methods.
- Another is vast improvement in means of transport,
- still another is the new adjustment of labor and the final disappearance of the spinning-school tradition.

We are, indeed, at this point, precisely at the turn of the road. From the vantage-point of the historian of today it looks like a sharp turn.

The interesting thing is that it looked sharp even to the people of the fifties. They could not tell exactly where the new direction would lead. But they knew that something had happened to the world and felt that it had happened suddenly.

This happening had, of course, been preparing for long ages. The thing that made it conscious was that the world had become articulate. This indeed was sudden.

From seeing and talking about the trees, people now saw and talked about the woods. The electric telegraph had produced a new vision of the country as a whole. With the submarine cable, there would be such a vision of the world. Abstractions grew real, almost tangible.

The North, the South, Industry, the People, the Nation, the Masses, Labor and other words which now distress the students of semantics, were assuming round solid form in the mind of the common man.

This is why the turn in the road seems sharp. But we must go back to the important consequence of machine-sewing: the altered position of woman in society.


This position was not altered because the sewing machine came into the home, nor was the effect even much assisted by that introduction.

It did, of course, enter the home in great quantity, Singer with his instalment plan (which may have brought even greater social consequences than the machine itself) saw that it got into small-budget homes as well as large ones.

But women who owned machines (or thought they owned them) simply made more things and made them more happily. They also made different kinds of things. They made things which implied more creative expression and less drudgery. They made more, perhaps, of their own clothes and made them more fancifully, but they made far less dull garments for their men.

Presently they stopped making men’s clothes entirely. It was the introduction of the sewing machine into the factory that helped alter the position of women in society.

With this began the ready-made garment industry. Men were soon content with the underwear, shirts, suits and overcoats which poured out of a factory and could be cheaply bought.

Women were not. For them clothes must be individual and expressive. With the drudgery of making men’s attire gone, sewing attained a kind of prestige which, in earlier history, has been absent from women’s occupations.

There were two effects from this. One was the increased demand for women in industry (to operate the factory machines) which tended to give them an independent earning position. The other was to increase the leisure of the woman whose career was still that of wife and mother. In both cases prestige of a sort developed.

In the industrial group, the impulse soon came to the women as it had come to the men to fight “conditions” and obtain some sort of control or voice. Here they soon came up against the hard blank wall of man-made tradition.

In the leisure group (we are speaking relatively, of course) women began to interest themselves in the conduct, social, economic and political, of their husbands as it affected the home and their new prestige gave them a sense of the right to make new demands.

Perhaps we are loading too much responsibility on the shoulders of Howe, Singer. and Wilson. It would be impossible to ignore other factors: other industrial demands, other prestige such as that which sometimes derived from the life of the frontier.

The fact remains that the great movements in which women played a preponderant part got their momentum at the precise time that the sewing machine came abundantly into industry.


§ 6

Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had organized a convention for woman’s rights as early as 1848—the first, according to one authority, in the history of the world. A riot had gathered round the building where they met and the building was burned after the convention to destroy the germs of this new disease.

In 1855, many women applauded the act of Lucy Stone in demanding that the word “obey” be omitted from her marriage service. She also retained her maiden name and there is, today, an organization bearing her name which is still agitating for this aspect of matriliny.

In this same year came Elmira Female College, the first educational organization whose degrees had a full academic status. In 1861 Vassar Female College was founded and presently the word “female” was struck out of the name because of the protest of a woman who objected that it degraded her sex to an animal level.

In view of another phase of woman’s activity which we are about to mention, there is a faint irony in the fact that Matthew Vassar was a prominent brewer.

These institutions and others which immediately followed presupposed a decreasing need of household functions performed by girls. They became popular as the immense movement for the higher education of women—an undreamed-of idea in the first half century—-advanced.

Literature had long been a field in which women might play though it was regarded as strictly avocational, but a political aspect was added with the immediate, fantastic success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. This book has always been supposed to have crystallized abolitionist sentiment in the North. During the fifties, northern women everywhere were taking part in anti-slavery organizations and campaigns.

In the Civil War, for the first time, women took an active, recognized, organized part in war. Few of them fought and those who did disguised themselves as men. But they formed themselves into highly efficient units for hospital work, bandage making, and most of the other activities in which their effort has ever since been essential to the conduct of campaigns.

It was not so much the fact that they did this work as the fact of their organization and the executive, business functions they performed that marked the change. In the War of Independence this would have been impossible when women were still bound to the home.

The making of the soldiers’ clothes (as well as the furnishing of other supplies) had been removed from the home province by the machine. Its work in the war, by the way, had much to do with its development.

After the war, the suffrage movement was resumed with a new violence added by the granting of the vote to Negroes. A great amount of lobbying by women tried to get the word “sex” added to the fifteenth constitutional amendment which read “the right of the citizens of the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

In 1868, the first bill for women’s suffrage was introduced in the Congress. The following year such a bill was passed in Wyoming, and in 1870 in Utah.

The temperance movement, begun in the thirties with an attempt to disseminate “moral suasion,” never gained any speed until the women entered it. For moral suasion, the "weaker sex" immediately substituted the hatchet.

There was undoubtedly good reason for their savagery in this matter and it had been pent up a long time while the exigent demands of the home had obliged them to await the return of their intoxicated husbands and take their abuse.

The sewing machine and other things released them so that they could attack the sources of their misery. Cole tells us that “enraged female victims of the saloon oftentimes raised their standard and led in bold assaults upon the offending groggeries. Armed with hatchets, rolling-pins, broomsticks, kitchen knives and fire shovels, they routed the enemy, leaving empty kegs and broken glasses to litter the streets.”

The Daughters of Temperance was founded in New York State in the 1850’s. To the men who began such movements, temperance had meant moderation; to the women it meant total abstinence, which if it could not be enforced by prayer must be enforced by law.

Thus the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, became a militant organization with legal prohibition as its goal. Women were in a peculiarly good position for this activity because convention still frowned so darkly upon their drinking themselves that they could fight from a vantage point of personal detachment.

In 1873-74, the Women’s Temperance Crusade had the most widespread effect of any movement ever before launched in this cause. Women paraded, prayed in the streets, sang, ranted, and waved banners until a real fear of being seen entering a saloon seemed to haunt every married man.

This was probably the first time the sex became openly dominant over personal male liberty. Under the pressure, many men took the pledge and many others resorted to subterfuge.


Undoubtedly the crusade did much to modify the extreme habits of Americans inherited from their hard, physical epoch and not adapted to the new social scheme. It probably started us toward that temperate mood we had reached when, in 1920, was destroyed by the introduction of sumptuary law into our instrument of government.

The women, though as yet they had no vote, were probably primarily responsible for that amendment and, curiously enough, having got suffrage in the meantime were largely responsible for its repeal in 1933.* Meanwhile, they had also overcome the convention against drinking by women.

* The Woman’s Association for the Repeal of Prohibition was the most militant organization in the field in the late 1920’s and early ‘30’S.

In the fifties and sixties, then, women provided a good deal of news and an immense amount of editorial comment.

At the same time, a large number of magazines devoted to women’s interests came into being. With new leisure women became eager readers and the publishers came to count more and more on their support. The strange tradition by which “culture” and appreciation of the arts came, in America, largely into their hands, began in these years.

We must come now to the way some of this enlightenment was advanced by the invention of other machines. The real cultural impulse which swept the country came later when society became more settled and more prosperous.

But the way was prepared in the forties. In the fifties, the nation became conscious of itself. It did so, first through the medium of the press, through which, indeed, America began.

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