Saturday, April 14, 2018

Singer Sewing Machines—The First Home Appliance

Consider the time consuming process of making garments for an entire family by hand, one stitch at a time. And most likely, that sewing took place in the evening when all the chores were done, supper dishes cleaned, and the children in bed. Sitting close to the fire, or possibly a coal oil lamp, she worked away, often into the wee hours. 

The first sewing machine was developed by Englishman Thomas Saint in 1791 to work on leather and canvas. It was never built. In 1830 a French Tailor, Barthlemy Thimonnier built a machine and had 80 in his factory where French military uniforms were made. Tailors afraid of losing their livelihood rioted and destroyed the factory.

These early machines used the chain stitch which were not very strong.

In 1833, Walter Hunt developed a lock stitch machine which used an eye-pointed needle, a shuttle, and stitched horizontally. The lock stitch was stronger than the chain stitch. There were problems with the feed. The machine had to be stopped and reset up. Hunt sold the machine without bothering to patent it. 

In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in America.

Elias Howe patented his machine in 1845. His method was similar to Hunt's. He improved the needle and the material moved vertically. He traveled to England to promote interest in his machine and when he returned he found various people infringing on his patent. In 1854 he won the right to claim royalties from those using his patent ideas. The picture to the right is of Elias Howe's machine. Note the handle used to power the machine.

Isaac Singer, an engineer, thought the rotary sewing machine clumsy and designed the flying shuttle. The needle was mounted vertically and he added a presser foot, a fixed arm to hold the needle, and included a tensioning system. The machine combined elements of previous machines. He patented his machine in 1851. He was unable to patent the treadle as it had been used for some time.

Howe took Singer to court and won. Singer had to pay him a lump sum of $15.00 for each machine produced and Singer took out a license under Howe's patent and paid Howe $15.00 for each additional machine produced.
Before 1890, the idea of women having sewing machines to aid them with their work wasn't well accepted. The feeling was women weren't capable of operating machinery. They were too excitable and not considered to be bright enough.

When it was first suggested Singer design one, his comment was, "You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet - their sewing!" But, ready to make money, he went ahead and designed one that had many features of machines today. The first treadle Singer machine was introduced in 1856. To aid in sales, he used women to demonstrate the machines.

Singer became partners with lawyer, Edward Clark, and thus began the first installment credit plan which made sewing machines available to more women, the ones who couldn't pay cash for them. The year was 1856. They cost $100.00 and for $5.00, a woman could take one home with her that day and start to use it. At that time that amount of money equaled to the price of a car today. Some families went together to buy a machine and shared it.

Women were at last able to make garments much faster than in the past. Ease in piecing quilt squares, mending, and other domestic sewing chores freed women up for other activities. Though men feared they'd spend their free time playing cards, gossiping, or gadding about town, most probably got a little more rest or took part in charitable activities.


Thanks for reading. For you ladies out there who sew, thank goodness for Singer and the other individuals who developed sewing machines. 



  1. Here we write romance novels about strong heroines, yet many men back in the day really did not think much of women's abilities. By learning to use the sewing machine, and actually excelling due to their small muscle coordination, women showed men a thing or two, even if men preferred to not recognize it. I love writing about those times, but I'm so happy I did not live back in those times.

    1. Me too, Robyn. Women actually were believed to be the weaker sex. I wonder how men figured women got through childbirth. In some ways I'd like to spend a month in those times (when I was younger of course) and see what it was like.

  2. My grandmother was a "seamstress," as they called them back in her day and made a comfortable living at it. In my younger days, I enjoyed designing and sewing some nice outfits on a Singer sewing machine. Finally sold it, realizing I was only using it every great once in a while to do alterations and actually easier to hire someone else to do it! LOL

    1. I used to make a lot of my clothes, and made some for my daughter through out the years. But I became interested in other things in my later writing. Sewing is a skill that is valuable to have. I taught home economics for 30 years and most of my students were successful with the projects they made. I hear you on the alterations. There is nothing worse. I sold my big Bernina and bought a small Baby Lock for projects I might work on.

  3. I didn't realize the problems involved in those first Singer sewing machines, but a new invention is bound to have some flaws.

    My maternal grandmother had a Singer with a foot treadle she used for years before getting it changed to electric. The woman was an excellent seamstress as was my mom. Grams bought me a Singer sewing machine as a wedding gift. I don't imagine brides today would consider that a great gift, but I was very grateful for it. It wasn't until I had that machine that I finally taught myself to sew. It was great fun and so practical, too. I still use it.

    What is it with men that they constantly underestimate the abilities of women? Operate machinery, indeed. Sheesh!

    Excellent article, Linda. It's so strange to me that the Singer company is not the number one manufacturer of sewing machines any more.

    I wish you all the best...

    1. I agree. Machines have to be perfected. I loved playing on my grandmother's treadle machine also. After my MIL's passing we sold her Singer Feather Light machine. It worked like a champ.

      I learned to sew in Home Economics in Jr. and Senior high school. I taught Home Economics for 30 years and there is no greater skill than sewing. I rarely sew anymore.

      No, Singer's lost their favor in the 70's. We had to use them in the classroom and in most cases it was no fun. If we could we replaced them with Bernina's and another brand I can't remember the name of.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. Great post, Linda. I enjoyed reading about how sewing machines developed. When I was in college (art school) I majored in fashion design. One of the requirements was to actually cut and sew our designs. I knew very little about sewing before then but I learned fast. My mom owned an old singer from around the 1940s. It had some attachments, nothing fancy, but I used it to sew all my designs, including for my degree show. I still have that old machine. I've thought of trying to sell it but I can't bear to part with it.

  5. How exciting, Lyn. I bet the machine is a feather light. They are very collectable. My major was Home Economics so I had to take two clothing classes. Learned to put in a zipper by hand, bound button holes, etc., but I bet you learned a lot more. I can't imagine cutting my own design. One thing I wish they'd taught was how to repair a machine. Did you go to TWU?

  6. Isn't it terrible to know men had such low opinions of a woman's mind? The cost of the machine is a surprise. You can buy one for that today. I'm glad we have sewing machines, though. My grandmother's hand stitches looked so even you'd think they were done by machine. Then, she also had an old treadle machine I wish was still in the family.


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