Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Victorian Sewing Machines

I'd be lost without my sewing machine! I don't mind hand sewing and hand finishing items in moderation. However, I'm an instant gratification person when it comes to making clothing - I wanna see those seams whipped out in no time!

But I have to admit I sometimes take my sewing machine for granted. Sewing machines have only been around in households for about 150 years. My great great grandmothers did all their sewing by hand!

Where did the sewing machine come from?
The sewing machine was invented separately, several times, around the world. Countries inventing it include Britain (Thomas Saint, 1791), Austria (Josef Madersperger, 1814), France (Barthélemy Thimonnier, 1830), and the United States (Walter Hunt, 1833 and Elias Howe, 1845).

That's not all the inventors involved though! More inventors joined in by inventing the foot peddle (Isaac Merritt Singer), a reciprocating shuttle (Allen B. Wilson and John Bradshaw), and buttonhole stitching (Charles Miller), just to name a few.

Early machines were powered by a hand crank, like the one shown below.

Then what happened?
But all this inventing led to problems as the various inventors claimed patent infringements, formed their own companies and began suing each other right and left. In fact, in the 1850s, the fracas was so intense it has been called the Sewing Machine War! It took two smart guys to end the strife and bring sewing machines into the common man's - or woman's - household.

The first smart man was a lawyer, Orlando B. Potter. He suggested that instead of the sewing machine combatants suing each other and wasting profits, the various sewing machine manufacturers pool their patents and form one company. This is one of the earliest examples of patent-pools. After this, the gurus of sewing machines apparently co-existed peacefully, if not harmoniously.

The second smart man to come along was a colorful character, Mr. Isaac Merritt Singer. Isaac was one of the warring inventors. His alter personalities included acting and being an entrepreneur. Singer was one of the manufacturers who joined forces in the patent pool. But it was Singer's vision that took sewing machines from the realm of manufacturing factories and brought them into homes by the simple method of a time-payment scheme that allowed people to afford these machines. Singer's company continued to be cutting edge throughout its history - in 1889, the Singer Sewing Machine Co. also offered the first electrically-powered sewing machine.

As a side note, Singer apparently used his acting abilities in other areas as well, managing to maintain several wives and families at once. Reports are that he fathered children by at least five women in America and France and had over twenty children at his death in 1875.

Though I can't say much for his morals, he certainly left his mark on the American sewing experience!

At 6'4", Isaac Merritt Singer was an imposing, flashy figure

Wilcox & Gibbs
Sewing machine invention seems to have attracted smart people. Another sharp cookie was a farmer from Virginia, James Gibbs. He happened to see a picture of an early sewing machine in a newspaper and made one himself - based on the picture - out of wood! He later discovered that his machine was one of the first to use the chain stitch and he therefore patented his design in 1857. He teamed up with another inventor, James Wilcox, and the famous sewing machine company Wilcox & Gibbs was formed. (If you're thinking, "Famous? I never heard of 'em," that's okay. Talk to sewing machine collectors - they rave about Wilcox & Gibbs machines.)

Besides all the clever inventions their machine had, Wilcox & Gibbs made another smart move - they sold their machine for half of what their competitors charged. For a mere $50 (unlike the competitors' $100 price tag), a Wilcox & Gibbs could be yours. Their machines, naturally, sold like hotcakes.

Perhaps their success was also due to a great marketing strategy which included an (apparently made up) sewing machine trial (wherein their machine came out best, of course!) and cute little poems like this one that appeared around 1865.

If one thread will do,
Why bother with two,
To break, to confuse, and to tangle?
There is not a sound
When my looper goes round,
No shuttles or bobbins to jangle.

I am quick, yet I make
Not a single mistake,
You have only to keep me agoing.
And I never will shirk
The least bit of your work.
But do all the family sewing.

And by all 'tis confest,
Who have tried, that I best
Can fine robes for dear baby prepare;
While the boisterous boy
Will fail to destroy
My work with the roughest of Wear.

And when the fair maid
Is for bridal arrayed
I make with the neatest of seams,
The elegant trousseau,
That gratifies you so,

And fills the fond lover with dreams!

As it happens, a reenacting friend of mine has one of these lovely little machines and she let me use a picture of it for my blog. Her machine is dated July 4, 1871. Note the hand-crank on the side. Also note a sly bit of self-promotion - the machine is shaped like an upper case G for Gibbs!

Sewing machine manufacture started in New England. As sewing machine manufacture grew through the mid and late 1800s, companies began moving westward. Many companies sold their machines through catalogs and department stores, which led to "badging" - an interesting problem in tracing an antique machine's history.

Companies supplying big lots of machines to stores such as Macy's would obligingly change the name of the machine to whatever the customer - in this case Macy's - wanted. So if your machine says on it, "Elgin Sewing Machine Co.," (as one of ours happens to say) that may not mean it was really manufactured by an Elgin Sewing Machine Co.

Sew much change
Yep, sewing machines have surely changed over the years! Here's one of our Singers, manufactured in 1915. It's operated with a foot treadle and came with drawers full of old wooden spools of thread and rusty metal sewing notions.

Here's our latest Singer sewing machine - looks a little different, eh? This machine does everything but make coffee! I have had a blast trying out the computerized embroidery options it has.

I'll leave you with a photo that covers the whole history of sewing machines at once. This is a Victorian chemise, made with straight plain seams on a sewing machine and finished by hand on the underside - just the way our great great grandmothers would have done it. But note the embroidery on the front - I confess, I did it with my cool new machine! We've come a long way in 150 years, haven't we?

Recently sold in my Etsy shop.


  1. My grandma had one of the ones from 1915 with the foot treadle, and when she passed away, I got it. Its soooo awesome! no one seems to understand why i want an old sewing machine but me :)

  2. Good stuff, Heather!

    Im back to blogging.....

    Would you mind following my new blog? I had to get rid of my other one, I clicked on some sort of button & I ruined my blog completly. My new one is up & running if you would like to follow :)

    Rejoicing In Him, Patrizia

  3. I Happen to come across this while researching our old sewing machine.. It actually looks EXACTLY like the Elgin one you have posted in this blog, i'm wondering if you have more info about it.. ?

  4. Colby, I'm sorry that I don't have more info to offer you. My grandma found this in an antique store so I don't know its history.