No one can know what the ramifications of an invention will be, not with any certainty. In England a minister tried to halt the first experiments with locomotives by insisting that the human skeleton would collapse at speeds over thirty miles per hour. He pointed to the condition of people who fell off cliffs.
The sewing machine, by comparison, hardly seems lethal, yet in the 1830s it was regarded as dangerous. Long before Elias Howe patented his version, there existed working sewing machines and people who warned that they would drive hand sewers to starvation. Early inventors were unwilling or unable to deny it.
Hand sewers were a national problem in the 1830s and 1840s. Theirs was not just an occupation but a last stop. In good times, stitching for sixteen hours a day, they just barely earned a living; in bad times they were destitute. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the sewing machine did not look like a great innovation; it looked like forty thousand hand sewers with nothing left to do.
In Britain and France the drive to replace people with machines had ignited small pockets of civil war, with attacks, spies, and counterattacks. In France the struggle went back as far as Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s invention of the pattern loom in 1801; in Britain things reached such a state that the penalty for wrecking machinery, or even advocating doing so, was death. Mere jobs were not the only issue; there was also the complicity of a nation in turning people into living machinery attached to factories. Unlike the British, American hand sewers did not fight their own battles; they weren’t about to take on the entire Industrial Revolution. Those who spoke up for them, though, succeeded in making that revolution pause in its rush.
Before the 1830s clothes were made to measure by a tailor, a dressmaker, or somebody at home. Ready-made suits did not exist except at dockside, where stores stocked cheap shirts and trousers for lowly sailors. As Southern plantations intensified production, though, slave populations grew and were concentrated in field labor. The first great, steady market for ready-to-wear clothes sprang up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, supplying clothes for Southern slaves.
The very expression ready-to-wear was born with the establishment of this wholesale clothing business, which soon found customers in the North as well. Jobbers turned out garments in standard sizes by the dozen or hundred, by cutting patterns and contracting out the work of stitching them together. In doing so, they bypassed skilled tailors, who retaliated with frequent strikes before the Panic of 1837 put a temporary end to such tactics. The stitching fell to needlewomen working in their homes. Needlewomen in the 1830s were typically widows or others alone in the world, earning less than a dollar a week in the only field open to those without skills and out of luck.
The manufacture of clothing was undergoing a transformation, trying to speed up along with the industries around it, but the needlewomen represented a bottleneck. Stitching as fast as they could—and some of them were heroic—they could not keep up with the power looms behind them pouring out cloth, or with the railroad cars in front of them waiting to take away finished garments. Manufacturers would not be able to produce clothing at their full potential until this last important step was mechanized.
The need for a stitching machine was not lost on the world’s inventors. Several took out patents in various countries beginning in 1790. A pair of early inventors, Thomas Stone and James Henderson, tried to translate the hand action of a seamstress directly into their 1804 machine, much the way some early aviators tried to imitate the wing action of a bird. Like those aviators, Stone and Henderson did not get very far. John J. Greenough’s similar machine, patented in 1842, used a needle pointed at both ends, with the eye in the middle. Pincers set above and below the cloth grasped the needle and drew it up and down as the operator pushed the cloth along. The machine was far slower than a person, so investors did not see much potential in it. George H. Corliss also patented a machine of this type, for sewing leather, late in 1843. When it failed to attract enough interest, Corliss turned to steam engines, where he made many important advances.
Unbeknownst to the Americans, a French inventor had already made the leap beyond the imitation of human movement and had outfitted a Paris shop with eighty working sewing machines made mostly of wood in 1841. The inventor was Barthélémy Thimonnier, who devoted his entire working life to the creation of a sewing machine in response to the need for army uniforms. With virtually no formal education he had spent sixteen years perfecting his machine (which he patented in France in 1830). Then, in a single night, an enraged mob of tailors and seamstresses broke into the shop and ripped apart all the machines. Thimonnier managed to salvage one as he fled Paris.
After relentlessly promoting his invention year in and year out, Thimonnier enjoyed one short season of success in 1848, when his machine drew some interest in London. New ideas need momentum, though, and the event that could have provided it was the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Unfortunately, because of a clerical mistake Thimonnier’s machine was left out of the judging for new inventions. Bitterly disappointed, he retreated to France. Although Thimonnier never gave up, he died in poverty—a few years after sewing machines no better than his had carried their inventors to wealth and prominence.
If invention was a grueling marathon for Barthélémy Thimonnier, it was a sprightly decathlon for Walter Hunt of New York City. Hunt, a self-taught engineer, invented dozens of things, the most famous of which is the safety pin. He patented a stove, paper collars, an ice-breaking boat, a fountain pen, nail machines—and he also sold Hunt’s Restorative Cordial (“The Life Preserver”). His Antipodean Apparatus, a pair of special shoes, allowed a performer to walk “upon a Polished Ceiling with his HEAD DOWNWARD [after being] trained by Professor Hunt.” In the fray, Hunt didn’t always bother to secure patents.
The variety of Hunt’s work reflected his belief that almost everything could be improved. However, the facility that he brought to the material world stopped short as soon as an invention was finished. Either he viewed business as a distraction or else he simply couldn’t handle it, but like many all-around inventors, he managed his properties badly. He gave up the rights to the safety pin, for example, to satisfy a four-hundred-dollar debt.
In 1832 Hunt began work on a sewing machine. The idea behind it was simple: He placed the eye of the needle at the point instead of the blunt end, where it is in hand sewing. The curved needle made a lock stitch by catching another thread from a bobbin on the other side of the cloth. The bobbin slid back and forth in a race, passing through a loop formed by the needle when it poked through the cloth.
By 1834 Hunt had two working machines inside his Manhattan shop, but they would never have a fair chance. In New York, in Philadelphia, and across the Northeast, machines were putting terror into the lives of workers, and the workers were responding just as they had in Europe. Sawyers destroyed steam sawmills, for example, and canal boatmen destroyed railroad bridges. As a New York newspaper wrote in 1835, “It is well known that many of the most obstinate turn-outs among working men and many of the most violent and lawless proceedings have been excited for the purpose of destroying newly invented machinery.”
A formidable group arose beside the workers: educated men and women who were driven by compassion and a broad sense of patriotism. Factory development in Britain, which was about twenty years ahead of that in America, was for them a depressing example of disregard for the laborer. America’s reformers were determined that the new concentration of capital in factories would not create an economic tyranny as hopeless for the underclass as the economic tyrannies in Europe.
In New England the pressure was so strong that owners of the earliest large-scale textile mills, in Lowell, Massachusetts, made their establishments out to be more like magnet schools for young ladies of promise than factories. The workers, recruited specifically for intelligence, were almost all females, most of them in their teens. They lived in well-run boardinghouses, took classes in academic subjects when their long workdays were done, made fair wages (though they did strike several times), and even published newspapers and (being New Englanders) a literary magazine. Though all was not idyllic, until the Civil War era most textile factories in Massachusetts followed Lowell’s example by offering machine operators the chance to benefit from factory life. (See “Lowell,” by Judith Yaross Lee, Invention & Technology , Spring 1992.)
Lowell’s mill girls were on the forward edge of industrialization. Lagging all the way in back were the needlewomen, vulnerable to any market condition, from replacement by machines to the growing hobby among middle-class women of taking in sewing for “pin” money to downturns in the economy—as well as jobbers who simply refused to pay up. Their plight was so pathetic that needlewomen’s aid societies formed in the big cities to protect their minuscule rights by entreating powerful lawyers to donate their services.
The single greatest champion of working-women, especially needlewomen, was Mathew Carey of Philadelphia. As a young man Carey had been run out of his native Ireland twice for writing seditious essays. The first time, he escaped to Paris, where he met and worked for Benjamin Franklin. The second time, he landed in Philadelphia, where he eventually made a fortune as a publisher. He also achieved considerable fame as an economist, promoting industry and internal improvements.
In 1828, at the age of sixty-eight, Carey was a popular man with a large family and every reason to retire and lapse into genial apathy. Instead, for the last eleven years of his life, Carey was tireless in pursuit of better conditions for needlewomen. He conducted minute research, published letters and pamphlets, gave a prize for the best essay on the subject, sponsored conventions of needlewomen, organized boycotts of unfair jobbers, gave speeches, marched, and donated money every two weeks to needle-women on the brink of destitution. In the opinion of Helen Lumner, a labor writer, expressed in a report to the U.S. Senate in 1910, Carey had maintained “perhaps the most remarkable agitation for working women which this country has ever seen.” Yet by Carey’s own estimation his efforts were a failure; little was improved.
Like almost all workers of the day, needle-women were afraid of being replaced by machines. When word of Hunt’s invention spread, delegations from needlewomen’s aid societies beseeched him to destroy it. Needlewomen were not like most laborers, who could find other work; if they had been suited to anything else, they would already have been doing it. According to Carey, most of them were unfit even for work as domestics, “some from age, some from feebleness of constitution, some from having small children to support whom they can not bear to part with.” He quoted an expert’s estimation that half of all needlewomen were aged and one-fifth were infirm.
Clergymen joined the chorus against Hunt’s sewing machine. Carey had never been able to enlist their sympathy on the subject of low wages, but at the thought of no wages, of virtuous and industrious women left with no means of support, they acted. Ministers and priests called on Walter Hunt to warn him that the sewing machine would drive thousands of displaced needlewomen to prostitution or other crimes.
Hunt was a religious man, a Quaker, who as far as is known lived pleasantly his whole life without hurting anyone. Later in his career, when he invented the Jennings rifle and a conical bullet, no one complained. When he contributed a priming system to the Springfield rifle, no one complicated his conscience with the welfare of the people who would end up on the receiving end. But the sewing machine, he was told, would destroy lives.
Walter Hunt wasn’t up to the debate. In 1834 he sold the rights to his machine to a blacksmith, George Arrowsmith, who was supposed to arrange for a patent. In earlier assignments and later ones, Arrowsmith worked actively and successfully to promote inventions by Hunt, but in this one case he opted to do nothing; he didn’t want to be the one who unleashed the sewing machine on needlewomen. In 1838 Hunt urged his teen-aged daughter Caroline to manufacture corsets using the sewing machine. She made plans but withdrew before they came to anything. “The introduction of such a machine,” she said later, ”… would be injurious to the interests of hand-sewers. I found that the machine would at that time be very unpopular and … refused to use it.” When one’s own daughter joins the opposition, defeat is in the air.
One day in the following year, the idle chatter in a Boston repair shop turned to machines. A visitor asserted that it was impossible to make one that would sew. He added that anyone who could, though, would earn a fortune. “I can make a sewing machine myself!” the shop owner boasted. He never did, but his assistant, Elias Howe, caught the words sewing machine and fortune . Five years later he quit his job to devote all his time to the sewing machine, even though he had a family to support. Like Thimonnier, he sacrificed every outside consideration to one invention. With no source of income, the Howe family lived with Elias’s investor, George Fisher, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Howe sewed his first seam by machine in April 1845 and had a finished version the following month. Working without knowledge of Hunt’s machine, Howe used a needle with the eye in the point that sewed a lock stitch in much the same way. It made seams that looked the same from top or bottom, which Howe considered an impressive feature, but because of the awkward vertical position of the cloth, it could stitch only a few inches at a time before the material had to be taken out and realigned.
Social conditions were still not right for a sewing machine, but they were becoming more favorable. Thimonnier had been ruined by the rage of French tailors and seamstresses; Hunt and his small circle had been manipulated (for the noblest reasons) by advocates of the needlewomen. But in the modern year of 1845, both of these considerations were fading. Machinery in general was established in so many industries that there was less fear of it than there had been ten years before (though the sentiment persists to this day).
As for the cause of the needlewomen, it was taken up in 1845 by the New York Daily Tribune and its persuasive editor, Horace Greeley. His work unintentionally prepared the needlewomen and their defenders for change. Greeley considered the treatment of needlewomen in the otherwise prosperous garment industry a national scandal, and he made it news in the mid-1840s. “If I am less troubled concerning the Slavery prevalent in Charleston or New Orleans, it is because I see so much slavery in New York, which appears to claim my first efforts,” he wrote in 1845, echoing Mathew Carey’s 1830 claim that slaves were materially better off than needlewomen.
For years Greeley sent reporters on regular expeditions to conduct research on the needlewomen, and the results sold newspapers. Wages had increased a bit and were generally hovering around $1.50 per week, but not always, according to an 1845 article: “For making common white and checked cotton shirts, 6 cents each [actually 6¼ cents]. Common flannel undershirts the same. These are cut in such a manner as to make ten seams in two pairs of sleeves. A common fast seamstress can make two of these shirts per day. Sometimes very swift hands, by working from sunrise to midnight, can make three. This is equal to 75 cents per week (allowing nothing for holidays, sickness, accidents, being out of work, etc.) for the first class and $1.12½ for the others.”
In addition, some jobbers were withholding or reducing payment for no reason, and many stooped to other maneuvers: placing wages into a “credit” account, which would be paid “when the amount was sufficient,” and forcing seamstresses to pay a deposit on material taken home for sewing, both of which opened new avenues for tampering. When the Tribune concluded in 1845 that “the worst features of this state of things are its hopelessness and its constant tendency from bad to worse,” it invited a revolution. No one could insist any more that the employment of needlewomen, as it was and as it was becoming, was worth preserving.
Elias Howe had the answer sitting on George Fisher’s dinner table. That summer he took his sewing machine to the Quincy Hall Clothing Manufactory and sewed anything that people brought in; as a special attraction, he raced five expert seamstresses and beat their combined output. No customers came forward to buy the machine, though, because Howe put a steep price of three hundred dollars on it. Nonetheless, he took care to patent it in September 1846; at about the same time, Walter Hunt was applying for a patent on the somewhat less promising clog-free inkwell.
Howe’s brother Amasa went to England, which was advanced in industrial matters, and managed to sell one sewing machine (along with British rights to the machine) to William Thomas, an umbrella maker. Thus encouraged, Howe sailed for England in February 1847; he was soon joined by his wife, who was ill with consumption, and their children.
Howe worked for Thomas for a while, but in the end he accomplished very little in London beyond gaining an acquaintance with its pawnshops. First he sent his family home; then, after two years, he raised his own return fare by pawning the letters patent on his sewing machine and working as a cook on the ship going back. He arrived in New York with sixty cents in his pocket, just in time to attend to the sad business of his wife’s death. He had to borrow a suit for the funeral. Well-meaning friends insisted that he give up, and he settled into a regular job as a journeyman machinist, defeated not by the challenge of making a machine sew cloth but by the delicate timing of presenting something new to the world of industry. Later in 1849 Howe became aware that several sewing-machine models were on sale or display around the city. At long last conditions were right. He began to meet with lawyers.
Isaac Merritt Singer was different from Elias Howe; but then, he was different from practically everybody, outside of the characters in racy novels. He didn’t want to be an inventor; he wanted to be a matinee idol. Apparently he had what it took for the job, because throughout his life women fought for his attention. Not that Singer put up much of a fight; he had two wives, many mistresses, and about twenty-four children. He supported his rocky fortunes as an actor by inventing industrial equipment along the way wherever he was stranded.
In 1850 Singer was in Boston, waiting out a lull in the theatrical season by promoting his patented device to carve wooden type. He examined a poorly made sewing machine offered under the name Lerow & Blodgett, and in the span of eleven days he reworked it entirely into the first practical, versatile, and dependable sewing machine.
Singer gave the sewing machine its modern silhouette, rejecting the horizontal needle used in most previous machines. His needle was suspended vertically, stitching on a horizontal surface like an animal pecking for food. Unlike Howe, Singer used a straight needle, and used tension regulators to force a loop in the thread. Within two years he was able to add attachments for sewing thicker cloth or leather and for tight embroidery stitches.
The Singer was not the only sewing machine to reach the market in the 1850s. The Grover & Baker, developed by two Boston tailors, made a double-thread chain stitch that was good and strong but used more than twice as much thread as a lock stitch. Willcox & Gibbs machines made a single-thread chain stitch that was criticized for an unfortunate “tendency to ravel” (the same would not be said of the partnership itself, which survived the Civil War amicably enough even though Mr. Willcox was a Philadelphian and Mr. Gibbs a very loyal Virginian). Nearly all the other popular machines made the lock stitch, among them the Wheeler & Wilson, an excellent product that led the industry in sales until the mid-1860s.
The earliest history of the sewing machine, written by James Parton in 1867, cited Isaac Singer as “the man whose energy and audacity forced the machine upon an unbelieving public.” Previous sewing-machine promoters were always thinking of men, the ones who owned factories. Singer’s mind was more carefully trained. Women would be the ones using the sewing machine in most cases, so Singer marketed the idea directly to dressmakers, seamstresses, and housewives. When he set up a temporary shop, he decorated it to look like a home, not a store, and certainly not a factory. He recognized that there were two great markets for the sewing machine: industry and the home.
In 1851 Singer took in a partner, Edward Clark. Clark was born in 1811, the same year as Singer, and across the Hudson River from him in upstate New York. After that moment, though, they diverged. Clark lived a standard success story: He went to Williams College, studied law, entered a firm, married the boss’s daughter, moved to New York City, and worked hard. Coming from different directions, he and Singer needed each other completely, with hardly a worthwhile trait wasted on either side. It is not surprising that they neither trusted nor even liked each other.
Clark devised an installment plan for the company’s sewing machines, allowing hundreds of thousands of seamstresses to afford them. According to a company record, the very first customer for the Wheeler & Wilson machine was a needlewoman who paid $125 and then earned $295 in just one year. She had admirable diligence, but first of all, she had $125 cash, dark’s installment plan would allow needlewomen to get around this obstacle. The sewing machine was among the first major consumer goods, a big-ticket item that burrowed into just about every overseas market in the span of two dozen years.
Neither the Singer nor any of the other burgeoning machines were copied entirely from Elias Howe’s design, as patented; they developed independently or were based on one another. Once established, sewing-machine engineering absorbed advances by the hundreds annually, leaving Howe’s patent model far behind. Nonetheless, beginning in 1852, Elias Howe brandished this patent (after a friend raced to London to redeem it at the pawnshop) and charged a stiff royalty on each sewing machine manufactured in America. Toward the end of his life, he made the familiar inventor’s claim that most of his earnings had been spent on legal fees, protecting his rights against wildcatters. The meanest of them turned out to be Edward Clark, who said that it didn’t matter that Singer had not originated the sewing machine, because Elias Howe hadn’t either! Rather dramatically, he produced Walter Hunt and the remnants of Hunt’s machine, which had been found in a junk pile.
Clark had obtained Hunt’s cooperation in advance for a fifty-thousand-dollar consideration. He and Singer pressured the aging inventor to make the contraption work. Try as he might, Hunt could not summon his old tricks, which had once made metal move and dozens of inventions take life. Another machinist was brought in, but Hunt’s sewing machine still couldn’t be fixed.
After a series of battles the courts affirmed that Hunt had invented the sewing machine in 1834 or 1835 and “carried his invention to the point of patentability.” However, they refused to allow his petition for a retroactive patent. Since subsequent machines had been displayed in public for several years before Hunt’s application, the circuit court cited the doctrine of “presumed acquiescence” to rule that Hunt was too late in coming forward. In fact, Hunt had indeed acquiesced until Edward Clark came along in need of a legal dodge. With his legal prospects unclear, Clark decided to settle the litigation and pay Howe a royalty. (It took another lawsuit to make him pay the Hunt family even a part of what he had promised.) After that, Howe and the three major sewing-machine companies (Singer; Grover & Baker; and Wheeler & Wilson) formed the first “patent pool,” in which they shared rights among themselves and charged royalties to outsiders.
In industrial use the sewing machine reduced the time needed to make a fine shirt from fourteen hours to one and a quarter. Brooks Brothers reported that it cut the time required to sew an overcoat from six days to three. Even so, few garment factories could readily afford the necessary outlay for machinery in the 1850s; the business was still young and uncertain.
The mobilization of the Union Army in the Civil War was a boon to the sewing-machine business because it created an immediate need for uniforms. The Army’s rush and the cash behind it gave factories in New York and Massachusetts the impetus to install banks of sewing machines. By the end of 1866 several dozen American companies were making an estimated one thousand sewing machines a day.
Walter Hunt died in 1859, leaving his children in genteel poverty. Nonetheless, they and their children remained proud. In 1935 a great-grandson privately published a compilation of Hunt’s patents, introducing it with a short note oblivious of missed fortunes: “Explanatory matter is superfluous for considering Walter Hunt’s contributions to progress. His record of accomplishments stands as sufficient evidence of his ingenuity and ability.”
After establishing his patent rights, Howe continued to work on sewing machines. His daughter later recalled that he would wander around the house with a shuttle in his hand, trying to visualize improvements. When the Civil War started, he equipped a regiment, the 17th Connecticut Volunteers. He was offered a commission as a colonel, but enlisted as a private; he saw no action. Howe died in 1867 at the age of forty-eight, having earned about two million dollars from his patent.
Isaac Singer withdrew from the management of his company in 1863, taking 41½ percent of the stock and leaving a son-in-law as treasurer. He soon moved to Paris, where he and his last wife consorted with French nobility, into which several of their children married. Singer died in England in 1875 and left thirteen million dollars. Edward Clark remained at the head of the company until his own death in 1882. The I. M. Singer Company eventually absorbed most of its domestic competitors, including Wheeler & Wilson.
In the development of the sewing machine, Walter Hunt’s accomplishment was one of pure invention, isolated as such. Howe’s success was most noteworthy in the history of law, for it led to the idea of the patent pool as a means of avoiding endless litigation. The other early inventors in the field, notably Isaac Singer, brought the sewing machine within the reach of millions; and once within reach, it lost its terrible ability to intimidate.
Needlewomen did not perish in the wake of the sewing machine. It created new jobs in the hundreds of thousands, by reducing the price of ready-to-wear clothing and turning the garment trade into a larger and steadier industry than it had ever been before. For home-work, even the humblest stitchers could afford to purchase a sewing machine on the renting plan instituted by Edward Clark. The sewing-machine companies were fond of proclaiming themselves the liberators of needlewomen: wages went up and hours were reduced. Overall, the effect was certainly positive, in the flush of Civil War orders and the expanding garment business.
Within a generation, though, the lower ranks of the industry settled back into the worst patterns of the handsewing days, multiplied on an ever-grander scale—or, perhaps, an ever-more-stultifying one: in 1891, 75 percent of ready-to-wear clothes were made in the small contract-sewing rooms known as sweatshops, where conditions were likely to be hellish for the seamstresses. Just ten years later, capital investment and an effective union movement resulted in a reversal, such that 90 percent of American garments were made in established factories that observed at least some rights for the seamstresses. But many crowded, stifling firetraps remained, and not until 147 workers died in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 did effective action start to be taken to protect workers.
Between the statistics, though, there were always seamstresses very easily robbed of an even chance, the ones whom Mathew Carey would have searched out, like Rose Haggerty. In 1880, at the age of fourteen, she was orphaned, with four siblings to support. She barely made a living in a factory on the Lower East Side; then two neighbors helped her obtain a sewing machine on credit, and one of them taught her to use it. Her fortunes varied over the next six years, but she was able to make enough to support her family. One day, as she returned five dozen shirts to her jobber, she calculated how much she would receive for them, deducted her expenses, and made plans to buy a sausage for the children’s dinner with the tiny surplus. The jobber, however, found a small slip in one of the seams and refused to pay her, not only for that shirt but for a whole dozen. It ruined her. In despair, she resorted to prostitution, beginning that very day.
The sewing machine gave Rose Haggerty a chance for betterment and success, but the people around her took that chance away. The injustice of the needlewomen’s lot—the tragedy of it—didn’t come in a grand event like the advent of the machine. It came with or without the machine, in tiny doses, like the day they didn’t pay Rose Haggerty for a dozen shirts.