Sewing Revolution: The Machine That Changed the World
Jamie H. Eves, Beverly L. York, Carol Buch, and Michele Palmer
Windham Textile and History Museum
The invention of the sewing machine by Connecticut native Elias Howe in 1846 touched off a technological, industrial, and social revolution. By making possible the manufacture of inexpensive clothing, it greatly speeded up the pace of industrialization (which had begun only a few decades earlier with the inventions of the spinning jenny, power loom, and cotton gin) and led to the building of newer, larger, and more modern textile mills, such as the Willimantic Linen Company’s great granite Mill Number Two and modern brick Mill Number Four. By changing the way that clothing was manufactured, it spelled the end of cottage industry and the old putting out system and ushered in the age of the sweatshop. By appealing to middle class homemakers, it facilitated the Cult of Domesticity and provided middle class women with the opportunity to prove that they could master complex machinery. Widely available a half century before typewriters or automobiles, more than any other machine the sewing machine came to symbolize women’s work in the modern era.
Early Efforts, to 1846
People have been sewing for a long time. They began using bone needles with eyes to stitch animal skins together at least 2,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age; started making needles from iron about 4,000 years ago, at the very beginning of the Iron Age; and first used thimbles in China about 2,000 years ago, during the Han dynasty. But the sewing machine itself is a fairly recent invention, though, less than 200 years old. For thousands of years, people – mostly women – were forced to sew slowly and laboriously by hand.
The first attempts to make sewing machines failed, largely because the inventors tried to make machines that could mimic the motions of hand sewers. Early machines used a single strand of thread and needles with eyes on the blunt ends, which were pushed completely through the cloth.
The breakthrough finally came in 1830, when a French embroiderer, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857), invented an embroidery machine that employed a modified traditional hooked embroidery needle, with the hook near the point, to sew a basic chain stitch. Although the stitches made by Thimonnier’s machine were too weak to produce strong seams for sewing garments, it was nevertheless the first step towards what would be one of the key components of the working sewing machine: a needle with its eye in the pointed end. Four years later, in 1834, an English mechanic, Walter Hunt, came up with a second basic element, when he designed a crude sewing machine that employed not one but two strands of thread – an upper strand carried by a needle with its eye in the pointed end and a lower strand delivered by a shuttle – to make a chain stitch.
The Willimantic Linen Company and the Sewing Machine
The invention and perfection of the sewing machine by Elias Howe, Isaac Singer, and others in the 1840s vastly increased the market for smooth, sturdy, and uniform factory-made thread. Handspun thread was too weak and irregular for the new machines. In 1864 in Willimantic, Connecticut, the Willimantic Linen Company, founded in 1854, erected a massive new granite mill, Mill No. 2, expressly for manufacturing sewing machine thread. According to an 1880 article about the Willimantic Linen Company in Scribner’s Monthly:
While hand-sewing, as a matter of convenience and ease, called for an even thread, the introduction of very wide-spread use of the sewing-machine has called for the same qualities as absolutely essential. Sewing-machines now take ninety per cent of the thread that is made, and in order to do their own work these automatic seamstresses must be satisfied or they summarily strike. It was just as sewing-machines began to come into use that the manufacture of Willimantic thread on an extensive scale began, and the whole bent of the business there has been to supply a proper thread for machine use, since any thread that suits a machine suits anywhere…. The best incidental evidence of the success of the Willimantic efforts is found in the fact that at [the 1876 Centennial Exposition] at Philadelphia, where all the sewing-machines of the world came into competition on their own merits, all but two of them used the Willimantic thread.
To make sure that its product was strong enough, the Willimantic Linen Company twisted six strands of spun thread together into a single strand of ‘six-cord’ sewing machine thread. The Company wound the thread onto both wooden spools and paper bobbins, the latter of which were sold primarily to sweatshops for use in industrial-size sewing machines. The Company advertised its thread as ‘the best thread for sewing machines.’ By the 1890s, thanks to the heavy demand for thread for sewing machines, the Willimantic Linen Company was a financial success and one of the largest thread mills in the world.
Improving the Product, Creating New Companies
Until Elias Howe’s patent for the sewing machine expired in 1877, production and sales were dominated by the four companies that joined with Howe in 1856 to form the Sewing Machine Combination, the first of the massive ‘trusts’ that dominated American – and global – industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s: A. B. Howe (owned by Elias’s brother, Amasa), Singer, Wheeler & Wilson (based in Bridgeport, CT), and Grove & Baker. The Combination also sold licenses to other manufacturers, but at $15 per machine the price was steep enough to discourage competition. Still, 36 different companies produced sewing machines in these years, and sales increased briskly each decade, from about 2,500 machines in 1853, to around 50,000 in 1863, to more than 667,500 in 1873.
Number of Sewing Machines Licensed by the Sewing Machine Combination under Howe Patent, 1854-76 (Some Data Missing)
- Singer (New York, NY) – 1,875,439
- Wheeler & Wilson (Bridgeport, CT) – 1,196,498
- Howe (New York, NY) – 754,783
- Grover & Baker (Boston, MA) – 358,776
- Weed (Hartford, CT) – 231,108
- Wilcox & Gibbs (New York, NY) – 195,880
- Domestic (Norwalk, OH) – 167,804
- American (Philadelphia, PA) – 121,470
- Florence (Florence, MA0 – 107,942
- Gold Medal (Orange, MA) – 94,463
- Wilson (Cleveland, OH) – 92,099
- Remington (Ilion, NY) – 76,124
- Finkle & Lyon (Boston, MA) – 53,378
- Empire (New York, NY) – 34,921
- Aetna (location unknown) – 32,895
- Davis (Watertown, NY) – 31,805
- Blees (Bordentown, NJ) – 14,068
- Secor (Bridgeport, CT) – 9,589
- Elliptic (New York, NY) – 7,740
- Bartram & Fanton (Danbury, CT) – 5,987
- Shaw & Clark (Biddeford, ME) – 5,692
- Parham (location unknown) – 4,963
- Leavitt (Boston, MA) – 3,909
- Ladd & Webster (Boston, MA) – 3,252
- Keystone (location unknown) – 2,919
- Goodspeed & Wyman (Winchendon, MA) – 2,126
- Bartlett (New York, NY) – 1,614
- Bartholf (New York, NY) – 1,102
- McKay (location unknown) – 738
- Centennial (Philadelphia, PA) – 514
- Folsom (Winchendon, MA) – 280
- Thompson (location unknown) – 147
- Union (Chicago, IL) – 124
Sewing Machine Manufacturers that Have Been Located in Connecticut, Including Brand Names
- Atwater (Berlin, CT) – Atwater
- Bartram & Fanton Company (Danbury, CT) – Bartram & Fanton
- D. W. Clark (Bridgeport CT) – Cherub, Foliage
- Goodbody Company (Bridgeport, CT) – Goodbody Sewing Shears
- Greenman & True Manufacturing Company (Norwich, CT) – Greenman & True
- Merrow Machine Company (Hartford, CT)
- Nettleton & Raymond Company (Bristol, CT) – Hendricks
- Parkers, Snow, Brooks & Company (West Meriden, CT) – Landfear
- Secor Sewing Machine Company (Bridgeport, CT) – Secor, Fairy
- Smith & Egge Company (Bridgeport, CT) – Little Comfort, Reliable
- Stockwell Brothers (Bridgeport, CT) – Howe
- Victor Sewing Machine Company (Middletown, CT) – Victor
- Watson Company (Bristol, CT) – Watson
- Weed Sewing Machine Company (Hartford, CT) – Family Favorite, Manufacturer’s Favorite, General Favorite, Hartford
- Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company (Bridgeport, CT) – No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9
The Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut
In 1873 The Christian Weekly published a tour of the Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Company’s sewing machine factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The article contained several sketches of workers forging metal parts for the company’s machines. According to the article:
The works of this manufactory … cover in round numbers seven acres of ground. Their business employs in its various connections as mechanics, salesmen, and agents, from six to seven thousand men and women. If we estimate, as is usually done, four persons to each family represented, we have a population of nearly … thirty thousand, a good-sized inland city … supported by this industry. There is a post office in the establishment, and a very pleasant sight it was to see the men at noon gathering here for their letters and papers.
Nathaniel Wheeler and Allen Wilson founded the company in 1852 in Watertown, Connecticut. Wheeler was a businessman, Wilson an inventor, having patented the rotary hook in 1851 and the four motion feed in 1854. In 1856 the company moved to Bridgeport. By the 1870s it was one of the world’s largest manufacturers of sewing machines. The Singer Company bought it out in 1908.
The Merrow Sewing Machine Company of Mansfield, Hartford, and Newington, Connecticut
Although based today in Wareham, Massachusetts, the Merrow Sewing Machine Company, which manufactures industrial sewing and crochet machines, got its start in Mansfield, Connecticut. In 1838 the Merrow family founded the first knitting mill in the United States in the village of Merrow, on the banks of the Willimantic River in northern Mansfield. Two years later, the Merrows added a machine shop to build machinery for their factory. In 1877 the Merrow Manufacturing Company patented the first crochet machine. To accommodate its steady growth, the company relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1892. It continued to grow. In 1964 it opened a subsidiary, Franklin Industries, in Georgia, and in 1972 acquired the Arrow Tool Company in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The company moved to Newington, Connecticut, in 1982, and to Wareham, Massachusetts, in 2004.
Timeline1755: Charles Wiesenthal invents double-pointed needle for hand sewing 1826: Henry Lye patents a machine that stitches together the ends of leather belting for machinery 1830: Bathelemy Thimonnier invents a wheel-driven embroidering machine that uses a needle with a hook at the pointed end 1834: Walter Hunt patents a crude, unworkable sewing machine that employs two strands of thread, one carried by a needle with an eye in the pointed end, the other driven by a shuttle 1846: Elias Howe patents first practical sewing machine 1849: Benjamin Wilson invents an automatic feeding system 1851: Isaac Singer patents and begins manufacturing the first sewing machine fit for home use 1854: Allen Wilson invents an improved reciprocating shuttle 1855: Allen Wilson and Nathaniel Wheeler begin manufacturing sewing machines with rotary hooks rather than shuttles 1856: Following loss of patent infringement lawsuit to Howe, Singer joins with Howe, Wilson & Wheeler, and Grover & Baker to organize Patent Combine to monopolize sewing machine production for 1860s and 1870s 1889: Singer Company introduces first practical electric sewing machine 1900: Singer Company claims 80% of global sewing machine Sales
The Rise of the Middle Class and the Cult of Domesticity
The nineteenth century in America saw the emergence of the modern middle class. With it came dramatic changes in family life. Typically, middle-class families owned their own homes, lived in new suburbs, and could get along with only one breadwinner, usually the husband-father. Unlike working-class and agricultural families, where the wife-mother almost always contributed to the family economy by earning wages or laboring on the farm, in middle-class families she usually was a full-time homemaker, primarily responsible for preparing meals, making and mending clothes, cleaning the homes, and caring for the children. Despite the fact that most middle-class American families actually remained quite patriarchal throughout the 1900s, nineteenth-century Americans created the fiction of the so-called “cult of domesticity,” the myth that it was women, not their husbands, who actually controlled the homes, which therefore became extensions of their tastes and wishes. When middle-class women acquired and furnished sewing rooms – complete with sewing machines – society generally regarded it as proof that the cult of domesticity actually existed, and that these sewing rooms were manifestations of women’s increasing power within the home. However, the new mythology ignored the fact that the decision to buy a new sewing machine was usually made by husbands, who controlled the family bank accounts, and not by their wives. True liberation would not come until later, in the twentieth century.
A Social Revolution: The Sewing Machine and Seneca Falls
Despite the myth of the cult of domesticity, many nineteenth-century American middle-class women remained dissatisfied with their lives. In 1848 – just two years after Elias Howe patented his first sewing machine – women’s discontent erupted when, at Seneca Falls, New York, several hundred middle- and working-class women gathered at the first women’s rights convention and drew up a Declaration of Women’s Rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they wrote, “that all men and women are created equal.” Both events – the invention of the sewing machine and the movement for equal rights – would spark revolutions in the everyday lives of American women.
The Sewing Machine in the Home: Women Conquer Machines
Before the sewing machine, most men – and probably many women – assumed that only men could master complex machines. As a result, many middle-class husbands (who in most families controlled the bank account) were reluctant to buy their wives an expensive new sewing machine, fearful that she would find it too complicated, become frustrated, and burst into tears. To reassure husbands that women could indeed learn to operate sewing machines successfully, manufacturers like Singer hired women to demonstrate the machines in store windows and at fairs, pictured women prominently in their advertising, manufactured toy sewing machines for girls, and offered sewing machines at half price to ministers’ wives, who they knew would make the machines available to charity sewing circles. Despite the complexity of the machines, women quickly mastered them, and by 1900 almost every middle-class home had a sewing machine. In the twentieth century, women would again surprise men when they mastered other complex machines as well: automobiles, VCR and DVD players, and even computers. But the sewing machine was the first complex modern machine available to middle-class women – the proof that they could be just as mechanically savvy as men.
From Cottage Industry to Sweatshops: Working Class Women and the Sewing Machine
Sewing machines revolutionized life for working-class as well as middle-class women, but did so in the urban workplace or apartment rather than in the suburban home. In 1850 an estimated 5,000 working-class women labored stitching shirts by hand in New York City alone. Working mostly out of their homes, their pay and working hours were dismal. “We know of no class of workwomen who are more poorly paid … or who suffer more privation and hardship,” declared the New York Herald in 1853. “A [male] tailor gets five dollars for a coat taking two days,” the Herald continued, but “a shirtwoman gets a maximum of one and a half dollars, working twelve or fourteen hours a day.”
While initially some social reformers (and many sewing machine manufacturers) hoped that poor “shirtwomen” might improve their lives by acquiring sewing machines, and others feared that the new machines might take work away from the shirtwomen, in fact neither happened. At approximately $125, a sewing machine was far too expensive an investment for a poor seamstress who earned less than $400 a year. Instead, businessmen bought them in bulk for around $100 apiece – usually the larger, heavier, sturdier models that the manufacturers built for tailor shops – placed them in lofts, warehouses, factories, or even apartments, and hired the former shirtwomen as labor. These establishments, called sweatshops, paid low wages for long hours and had dismal working conditions, but the ever increasing demand for cheap clothing meant that jobs were as plentiful as before. For most of the former shirtwomen now laboring in sweatshops, their lives had not changed all that much.
For the most part, industrial sewing machines were larger and heavier than home models. Often, they were designed to be bolted to the floor, to cut down on vibrations.
On March 25, 1911, fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop located on the top three floors of a ten-story building in New York City. The Company had 500 workers, most of them young Italian and Jewish immigrant women using sewing machines to stitch women’s blouses and earning as little as three dollars a week. The fire spread rapidly. The door to the stairwell was locked. The only fire escape led down to a blind alley, or up to the roof. Some workers escaped when students in a classroom building next door pushed a ladder across the alley, connecting the windows of the two buildings. A few reached the alley. Others were rescued by heroic elevator operators who, risking their own lives, kept the one elevator running as long as they could. The fire department rushed to the scene, but their hoses could spray water only as high as the sixth floor. Many of the women burned to death, crowded around the locked door to the stairs, piled in the elevator shaft, or sitting at their sewing machines. Others leaped to their deaths from the open windows, their hair afire, human meteors plunging to the asphalt. Sometimes they jumped in groups, holding hands as they fell. 146 of the workers died. The horrific fire focused national attention on the grim conditions workers faced in the sweatshops: long hours, low pay, few breaks, frequent fires, and insufficient safety equipment.
Women’s Education: Home Economics and the Sewing Machine
In the late 1800s American colleges and high schools began creating programs in home economics. Targeted at farmwives, working-class women struggling with the increased demands of combining jobs with housekeeping, and middle-class housewives coping with the Cult of Domesticity, home economics programs aimed to apply modern science to such domestic chores as cooking and sewing. Uniformly, home economics taught young women how to use sewing machines.
Typical of college-level home economics programs was the Domestic Science Department at the Storrs Agricultural College, now the University of Connecticut. Inaugurated in 1893, 12 years after the college first opened, the new department coincided with the decision to admit women to the college. Along with teacher training programs in normal schools, home economics programs at state colleges were the portals through which middle-class women for the first time were able to gain significant access to higher education. The doors were now open.
“To best fit our young women for homemakers and housekeepers, we instruct them scientifically as well as practically, so that at completion of the course the pupil will possess that knowledge which will incline her to make a home which will be healthful, comfortable and happy at a comparatively small expenditure of time, money, and labor. She will have learned the why as well as the how and will have become intimately acquainted with the scientific principles which underlie all household problems.”— Maude Knapp Wheeler, Head of Domestic Studies Storrs Agricultural College, Annual Report, 1897-98
“The skillful, tidy housewife, the mother wise in preserving the health of her children, the woman of economy who saves her dressmaker’s and milliner’s bills, her plumber’s charges and the doctor’s fees, each is a power to promote the physical, mental and moral well being of this world.”— Alberta T. Thomas, Professor of Home Economics and Lady Principal Storrs Agricultural College, Annual Report, 1902-03
Women as Mechanics: Women’s Tools and the Sewing Machine
Women who used sewing machines had to keep them in good working order, tightening screws and applying oil. Most sewing machines came with tools: oil cans, screwdrivers with short handles for reaching into the machines, thread cutters, and spare shuttles and bobbins. While most of us tend to think of tools as things used by men, the tool kits that came with sewing machines remind us that women, too, have long used tools.
Tailors and Cutters: Working Class Men and the Sewing Machine
While the majority of the workers whose lives were most affected by the invention of the sewing machine were women, some men used the new invention as well. Tailors – most of whom were men – used the same heavy industrial-style sewing machines that the women in the sweatshops used. And some of the workers in the sweat shops – mostly cutters, as opposed to stitchers – were men.
Women as Consumers: Advertising and Selling Sewing Machines and Thread
Although in the nineteenth century, most women – even middle-class women – lacked the money to buy sewing machines themselves (which meant that most machines were actually purchased by men: tailors, sweatshop owners, or middle-class husbands), manufacturers of sewing machines and of thread well understood that the chief consumers of home sewing machines were women. If housewives didn’t want them, their husbands wouldn’t be buying them. Much of their advertising, then, was aimed at women. Trade cards – provided by manufacturers to retailers, who then distributed them to potential customers – carried messages designed to appeal to women. They portrayed thread as strong enough to hold Jumbo, the famous elephant, or hold up the new Brooklyn Bridge. They showed sewing machines in family settings. And they featured homely scenes or art reproductions that manufacturers believed would grab the attention of middle-class women.