Who invented the sewing machine?

Sewing machine history at ClickAmericana com

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Who invented the sewing machine? That really depends on how much progress has to be made for something to be considered “invented.”

There is a contention that the hero of this article, Elias Howe, was little more than an opportunist — a man willing to take credit for being at the right place at the right time, which you can read about here.

Still, it’s Howe’s name that has gone down in history as the inventor of the sewing machine, the tale of which is told below.

1846 - Elias Howe Jr's Sewing Machine Patent Model (National Museum of American History)
1846 – Elias Howe Jr’s Sewing Machine Patent Model (National Museum of American History)
Who invented the sewing machine? (from 1909)

by Gussie P du Bois – The San Francisco Call (California) December 18, 1909

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 beginning 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 leatherwork.

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 destined 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.
Antique trading cards - Who invented the sewing machine?

About Elias Howe, the man considered to be the father of the sewing machine

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.

Who invented the sewing machine? Elias Howe, the man considered to be the father of the sewing machine

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 underside 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.

1853 Occupational portrait of a woman working at a sewing machine
Unidentified woman working at a sewing machine (1853)
So who really invented the sewing machine?

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.

‘Iron Needlewoman,’ invented 100 years ago, altered history’s course (1951)

By Cynthia Lowry in the Knoxville Journal (Tennessee) June 1, 1951

On a summer’s day in 1851, an ex-actor and machinist named Isaac Singer received some patents, formed a manufacturing company, and thereby opened a door through which women streamed into the world beyond their thresholds.

Singer manufactured sewing machines, more frequently called “iron needlewomen.” He and his competitors did more than revolutionize woman’s lot by freeing her from the drudgery of endless sewing. They laid a cornerstone for the huge ready-made garment industry which in the United States alone is an $11-billion a year operation.

Singer’s company also developed a device called “installment-plan buying” and instituted the “trade-in allowance.”

All in all, the centennial of the patenting of the first practical sewing machine is a fine time for thought on the wonders of invention.

Bartlett Sewing Machine Co patent machines (c1866) at ClickAmericana com

Many new ideas

The industrial revolution was in full swing when Singer came up with his idea. The flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, and the cotton gin were replacing hand labor in manufacturing. The placid, rural faces of Britain and America were changing as cities sprang up around factories. Steam-operated machines were replacing the horse and the canvas sail.

Clanking machinery was taking the place of the graceful spinning wheel and the leisurely handloom, but there was one bottleneck. Mankind still relied largely on the flying fingers of woman-kind to make its clothes. At best, human hands could run off 40 stitches a minute. Singer’s experimental machine zipped off 250 at one clip and soon he was turning out mechanisms with gleaming needles which chewed in and out of cloth a thousand and more times in 60 seconds.

Antique sewing machine model at ClickAmericana com
Antique sewing machine model

Singer, did not invent the sewing machine. He improved on it and made it practical. In 1755 Charles Weisenthal whipped up a contraption using a needle with two sharp points and an eye in the center.

In 1790, an Englishman, Thomas Saint, invented a stitching machine to work on leather. Barthelemy Thimmonier, a French tailor, invented a wooden machine and had 80 of them working on army uniforms in 1841 when frightened competitors smashed them in the belief the things might ruin their livelihoods.

Early plan discouraged

Walter Hunt, the New York genius who invented the safety pin, the snow plow, and the paper collar, came up with a sewing machine in the early 1830s, but his 15-year-old daughter discouraged him from patenting the idea — on the grounds it would put thousands of over-worked, eye-strained seamstresses out of work.

Antique sewing machine from 1860 at ClickAmericana com

Ten years later Elias Howe Jr. constructed and patented a lock-stitch machine, but never could round up enough funds or faith to promote it successfully. Howe, however, had gone further in the right direction than the others who had attempted to produce a machine which would duplicate the intricate hand motions required to make a stitch. Howe ignored human sewing techniques, used two threads with a shuttle and needle.

The major drawback was the necessity to feed material into the machine vertically with the aid of a material-holder, much the way baloney is braced in a delicatessen meat-slicer today.

Singer saw an imitation of Howe’s machine. He quickly assessed the mistakes in its construction and with $40 in borrowed capital went to work on his own improvement. One major change was to tip the mechanism on its side so that the material could be fed to the needle on a horizontal plate. This made it possible to run the machine continuously. He was able to patent the improvements.

Acceptance of the machine was slow. Singer, showman, and promoter, tirelessly demonstrated his product at county fairs and exhibitions. He and his associates put out the first home sewing machine in 1856 — the “turtle-back” for $125.

Sewing class at the Agricultural and Mechanical College, Greensboro (c1899) at ClickAmericana com
Sewing class at the Agricultural and Mechanical College, Greensboro (c1899)

Time payments started

That was a lot of money in those days, so his canny partner, Lawyer Edward Clark, hit upon the installment plan so that a family with modest income could acquire a sewing machine and have the use of it during the long period of paying for it.

Later Singer further stimulated sales by paying generous sums for used sewing machines, applied on the price of new ones.

Meanwhile, the “great sewing machine war’ had broken out. Various manufacturers and patent holders sued each other with abandon, each charging the others had violated patents. After prolonged and costly litigation, the young industry’s leaders formed the Sewing Machine Combination, the nation’s first patent pool. Manufacture was licensed at $15 a machine, with Howe and Singer receiving more of the royalties than the others. The combination continued to operate until 1877 when the patents expired.

What the sewing machine did for women of the Nineteenth Century is almost immeasurable. Up to the time the industrial revolution started, the only fit occupation for a woman was considered to be matrimony.

It was a rather simple world, with labor sharply and traditionally divided. Man provided the raw materials and the refining tools. Woman contributed the labor and skills to turn them into usable articles. Man-made the pots and pans, chopped the wood, cared for the animals, raised the food, and milled the grain. Woman cooked, baked, spun, churned, and brewed. And she sewed and sewed and sewed.

Child at antique sewing machine (1872) at ClickAmericana com
Child at antique sewing machine (1872)

Ignorance grows

Once released from the abject necessity of constant sewing, women gradually allowed an ages-old handicraft to fall into unpopularity. The 1920s produced a generation of young women who actually boasted their ignorance of the needle the way their own grandmothers had talked big about their prowess at turning a fine hem.

The freedom of women from the tyranny of the thimble literally changed the course of history. Women used their newfound leisure to contemplate the social and political scene. This led them directly to the vote. Women streamed into the labor marts of the world in increasing numbers.

The envisioned bug-bear — technological employment caused by new-fangled machine — never materialized. Instead, new thousands of jobs were created. Whole new areas of employment were opened up, new industries sprang into life.

Woman sewing with a Singer sewing machine (c1917)
Woman sewing with a Singer sewing machine (c1917)

Today Singer’s company is bigger than ever before and its product is probably the best-known article of international commerce. All of the original competition has disappeared, some of the companies absorbed by Singer interests. Meanwhile, new, healthy rivals have sprung up.

Millions of men and women ‘have furniture, automobiles, babies, clothing, television sets, dentures, and eyeglasses on the installment plan. Trade-in allowances are normal procedures in the sale of such items as radios, electric irons, refrigerators, and automobiles.

Today sewing, after it’s temporary decline is more popular now than it has been in decades.

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