About common things: The progress of the sewing machine
by Gussie P du Bois
As long ago as we read anything about human history we read about needlework. We do not know what kind of a needle Mother Eve used, but we do know from our bibles that when the tabernacle was built, needles of some kind were used.
The first one to attempt the making of a machine to sew with was a German tailor; the needle that he used was double pointed, with an eye in the middle. This was in the year 1755, and 50 years later, a Glasgow machinist made a machine which had the begin ning of the loop stitch idea. Neither of these, however, was a sewing machine; they were made for embroidery.
The third man to try his luck at this invention was a London cabinet maker. He was of an inventive turn of mind, and spent all his spare hours on inventions of various sorts. He was quite successful and took out several patents that had to do with leather work. A man who is given to inventing seldom stops with one success, so he went on with his thoughts in the air searching for more wonders and taking out patents of one sort or another. Later on, another man who had the sewing machine bee buzzing in his bonnet was surprised to find out that among these patents was one for a sewing machine. Crude, to be sure, but working on the chain stitch principle. This patent had lain forgotten for 80 years, one of the curious incidents in the history of this invention.
The next man to try his luck was a Frenchman, who invented a machine for stitching gloves, and went into business in Paris. But the people who made a living by stitching gloves by hand thought this machine was des tined to ruin their business. They grew more and more angry day by day, and at length a mob invaded his shop, smashed all his machines and he had to flee for his life.
It was three years before he dared to return; then they received him coldly and he heard angry threats muttered against him and his invention; so he left Paris and traveled through France, making his living by exhibiting his machine as a curiosity. A few years earlier than this, Walter Hunt of New York made a lockstitch machine, but this invention is rather indefinite, for it was incomplete and he never patented it.
About Elias Howe
The first man to make a really practical lockstitch sewing machine was Elias Howe, and he is given credit for this important invention.
His life reads like a story. He was born in Spencer, Mass., in 1819. His father was a farmer and miller, and all the children (there were eight) were taught to do something to help along. It fell to the lot of little Elias to be set to sticking wire teeth through the leather straps used for cotton cards, so he was taught to use his hands. There was a little schooling in summer, but he was not able to do farm work for he was not a very strong boy and was slightly lame. When he was 16 years old, he went to work in one of the big cotton mills at Lowell, then at the age of 21 he married, moved to Boston and went to work in a machine shop.
He knew now that his invention was practical, but he had no money to buy the steel and iron required to make such a model as would interest capital. For three years he waited, then he fell in with an old schoolfellow who had some money and offered to advance the funds in return for a half share in the invention should it prove a success.
He obtained his first patent, and to boom it, he challenged five of the most expert tailors in a great clothing house to a sewing match. Each one was to sew five strips of cloth, but to the wonder of everybody, he finished his five seams before the others were half done with one.He was always inventive, full of resources, suggesting better ways of doing a job. At last he began to nurse the idea of a sewing machine, but he hid the thought deep in his own breast. He made his first machine with a needle pointed at both ends and an eye in the middle, and worked upon this a year before he decided that it would not do. Then he tried to imitate sewing by hand and failed. Finally he caught the idea of passing a thread through cloth and securing it on the under side by another thread, and here came his success. In 1844, he made a rough model of his sewing machine and found that it would sew.
Do you think, they were glad of his success? No, they were angry and threatened to smash his machine, so that he barely escaped with his precious invention. Then came hard times. The friend was discouraged and withdrew his money, and, like the Frenchman, he exhibited his machine at county fairs to make a bare living. Then a brother in England thought he could help him, and for two years he tried there for a foothold, but failed and returned to New York, landing with less than $1 in his pocket, having pawned his machine for his ticket.
Many a man would have given up in despair, but not he. His wife had died, unscrupulous people had imitated his machine and he was penniless, but his patent was so strong that money was found to bring suits, which ended in his victory. In six years, his royalty grew from $300 to more than $200,000 a year, and in 1863, were estimated at $4,000 a day. The Paris exhibition of 1867 awarded him a gold medal and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. So in his last years, he had both money and fame.
Other ingenious men developed the invention. Allen Wilson, Isaac Singer, Grover and Baker, James G Gibbs and others — far too many to name, for since Howe’s patent, more than a thousand others have added to this machine that is so great a blessing in the world of labor.
Photos: Top – Elias Howe’s original patented sewing machine; second: Elias Howe
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Publication: The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California)
Publication date: December 18, 1909