This brilliant example of 19th century mechanical engineering genius in the United States radically improved the quality of life of rural families around the world. They could make precisely fitting clothing without access to either steam engines or later on, electricity. Although no longer manufactured, these tough machines are still being used in regions around the world, where there is no electricity or else it is undependable.
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
This past week, a young woman from northern Florida emailed me a question. She was intrigued by my comment that my mother had sewn her own clothes in college with a foot pedal-powered Singer sewing machine. I quickly realized that the text message generation had no clue what I was talking about. She asked how my mother could sew at the same time that she was pedaling a stationary bicycle to turn an electrical generator.
I had grown up seeing my Granny Ruby’s foot-powered sewing machine in her bedroom. Even though they had electricity at the house in the village of Bowman, which they moved to in the mid-1950s, my grandmother continued to use a Model 1896 Singer sewing machine, like the one above all her life.
In 1963, when our family visited a Seminole reservation in Florida, all of the women were using pedal-powered Singer sewing machines to produce colorful Seminole clothing. Only enough electricity reached the reservation to furnish very basic electrical lighting . . . light bulbs and wiring suspended from the ceiling joists of chickees.
I also remember that my mother freaked out, when several Floridians, including some Seminoles, asked us which Seminole reservation, she and I were from! She denied having any American Indian ancestry. The Seminoles just smiled.
Of course, as mentioned in an earlier article in this series, the 1937 Federal Court Creek Docket had declared the Ruckers Bottom Creeks to be a traditional American Indian community that predated the American Revolution. Five years later, my mother used her Federal Reparations check to buy cloth to make clothes for going to college . . . on a Singer treadle operated sewing machine.
These Itsate-speaking (Hitchiti) Seminole men in Florida looked like my great-uncles and uncles, but my mother tried to deny that they were our kin.
As early as 1755, British inventors began obtaining patents that improved or partially mechanized the process of sewing clothes. British patents were consistently focused on industrializing the clothing industry and so whether or not these inventions actually worked, they were met with extreme hostility by tailors and textile workers. The first factory built to utilize a form of sewing machine, driven by water power, was immediately burned down by factory laborers in the community. Up until the mid-1800s, these sewing machines were slow and dependent on water or steam power.
Isaac Merritt Singer (October 27, 1811 – July 23, 1875) was an inventor and professional actor . . . who was also a mechanical engineering genius. He initially became affluent from designing the first practical pneumatic drill for rock quarries. Singer realized that there was a massive market in the Americas and Europe for a sewing machine, which could be used by tailors and house wives. British and New England textile mills had a habit of copying anybody’s innovations on patents and then avoiding payment of royalties. He designed the first practical sewing machine in 1850. It was awarded a patent in 1851.
Original Singer Sewing Machine
The Singer design was actually much faster than the sewing machines used in textile mills, but powered by a hand-turned flywheel. Singer intended his initial sewing machine for use in homes and tailor shops, but mills began adapting it to run on belts, driven by water wheels or steam engines.
What sets Isaac Singer apart from most inventors, who worked on sewing machines, was his desire to continue improving it. The hand crank was easily adaptable to external power sources, but a nuisance for housewives and tailors, who needed their right hand free to guide the cloth through the sewing needle. Singer’s next innovation was the foot treadle. Having played with my grandmother’s sewing machine, many a time, I can vouch that the treadle was so well engineered that it required very little effort to operate the sewing machine at full speed.
Singer also continued to upgrade the appearance and endurance of his sewing machines. They were composed of the highest quality wrought iron and sheet steel. Eventually, stainless steel was utilized. They were finished in polished black lacquer with gold filigree. These machines were literally, works of art by the 1890s.
The Singer Corporation continued to manufacture improved versions of the treadle-operated machine until the 1960s. They had been very much in demand by “Third World” countries long after most rural areas of the United States received electrical service. What happened is that a corporation owned by the Red Chinese government copied the Singer treadle-operated machine, but substituted cast and sheet aluminum for the wrought iron and stainless steel. The cheaper materials and low labor costs enabled the government-owned company to drastically underprice Singer and so Singer shifted its focus to high-tech sewing machines with plastic bodies.
Singer Model 27 Sewing Machine (1896) – what my grandmother owned.
Isaac Singer the man
Although certainly a mechanical genius, Isaac Singer had another side to his personality, which was quite controversial. He quickly became a millionaire . . . even in 1850s dollars. By 1860 preachers in the United States were urging their flock to boycott Singer sewing machines because their inventor was an agent of Satan. His personal life was so scandalous that he was forced to leave the United States and move to first France then purchased a grand estate in England, where he lived with his second wife until his death.
Issac loved acting and he loved women . . . lots of them. He sired at least 26 children. He was legally married to two women. During the first marriage, he primarily lived with another woman, who toured the country with his acting company. The total number of his mistresses and paramours is unknown.
At age 52, he married a 22 year old French model and actress, Isabella Eugénie Boyer. She out-lived him by several decades and is rumored to have been the model for the Statue of Liberty.