Today, the sewing machine would hardly be considered a complex invention. In our high-tech world in which pharmaceutical companies now design and construct therapeutic drugs from the protein up, or Apple Computer makes it possible to check email, update one’s calendar, surf the web, and talk on the phone all in one portable device (the iPhone), a sewing machine is downright mundane. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that few young people today have used or even seen a sewing machine, except perhaps in their grandparents' house or in a museum. Yet in the nineteenth century, the sewing machine was the equivalent of today’s new blockbuster drug or high-tech device.
Part of the problem in recognizing this basic truth about the sewing machine is that a cultural myth has arisen concerning its invention. Depending on whom you ask, you will hear that the sewing machine was invented by Elias Howe or Isaac Merritt Singer. Of course, both men played a central role in the invention and commercial development of the sewing machine in the late 1840s and early 1850s, but they were very much Johnny-come-latelies to the story. Their respective contributions brought the sewing machine to the apex of its invention as a practical and commercially viable product, which is perhaps why the public remembers only their names. The invention of the sewing machine, however, was not the creation of any single person, unlike many other antebellum-era inventions, such as Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber in 1839 or Samuel Morse’s self-described “flash of genius” in conceiving of the telegraph machine in 1832.
Given the basic human need for clothing, sewing has long been a skill valued by modern humans. Unfortunately, hand-sewing for long hours is extremely tedious and physically taxing, especially when clothing is demanded in mass quantities, as it was by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx recounted the story of a milliner who literally worked herself to death as an illustration of the “vampire-like” nature of capitalists. In 1853, the New York Herald opined about the working conditions of seamstresses: “We know of no class of workwomen who are more poorly paid for their work or who suffer more privation and hardship.”
In antebellum America, Thomas Hood’s ditty, Song of the Shirt, was popular because it lamented the well-known working conditions of seamstresses:
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread,
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt;
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch —
Would that its tone could reach the rich! —
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”
The hand-sewing trade and its workers would benefit tremendously from mechanization. As one historian remarked, “[l]ooked at in the abstract, in terms purely of ideas and markets, the sewing machine could not fail.”
Yet efforts to create a sewing machine for almost a century did repeatedly fail. The difficulties that plagued the invention of the sewing machine were essentially two-fold. One was mechanical, and the other was conceptual, but these two issues were interrelated.
With respect to the mechanical issue, the invention of a practical and commercially successful sewing machine comprised ten complementary elements. These ten elements were first explicitly identified by Andrew Jack in an oft-cited 1958 article: (1) the sewing of a lockstitch, (2) the use of an eye-pointed needle, (3) a shuttle carrying a second thread, (4) a continuous source of thread (spools), (5) a horizontal table, (6) an arm overhanging the table that contained a vertically positioned eye-pointed needle, (7) a continuous feed of the clothe (synchronized with the needle motion), (8) tension controls for the thread that give slack as needed, (9) a presser foot to hold the clothe in place with each stitch, and (10) the ability to sew in either straight or curved lines. The first sewing machine to incorporate all ten of these elements was the famous “Singer Sewing Machine,” which was first sold to the public in the fall of 1850. But Singer was neither the first person to invent all ten elements nor was he the first to patent them.
Many of these elements were invented and patented over the course of many decades, beginning in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century. Given the omnipresent need for clothing and the conditions of its production, it is perhaps unsurprising that the quest for a machine to do the work of hand-sewing began with the first steps of the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, there was a tremendous amount of inventive activity concerning the second element in Andrews’s list: the eye-pointed needle. This was first invented by a German mechanic, Charles F. Weisenthal, who obtained a British patent for it in 1755. Weisenthal, however, did not commercially develop his invention into a marketable product. In 1807, Edward Walter Chapman received another British patent for a banding machine that used an eye-pointed needle, but his patent was limited to only banding or belting, and thus he appears to not have seen the potential of a sewing machine in his invention. The eye-pointed needle appeared again around 1810, when Balthasar Krems, a hosiery maker in Mayen, Germany, began using this type of needle in a machine that produced a chainstitch. Unfortunately, he did not patent or commercialize his invention, and, according to one historian, the invention “died with the inventor in 1813.”
A year after Krems died, Josef Madersperger, a tailor in Vienna, Austria, invented a sewing machine for the purpose of producing embroidery. In 1839, Madersperger also invented a sewing machine that used an eye-pointed needle and a second thread to create a lockstitch (Bradshaw’s first element). Madersperger received Austrian patents for both inventions, but his machines were defective and impractical, as they lacked the other elements identified by Bradshaw, and thus they failed as commercial products. Madersperger died in penury in 1850.
Lastly, in 1841, two other British inventors, Edward Newton and Thomas Archbold, received a British patent for a tambouring machine that used an eye-pointed needle for stitching ornamental designs on gloves, but they neither intended nor used their machine and its eye-pointed needle for the general purpose of sewing.
The fundamental problem with these many independent inventions of the eye-pointed needle was primarily conceptual, not mechanical. The early efforts at using machines for sewing attempted to replicate the motions of the human hand in sewing fabric, i.e., driving a needle with a thread through a piece of fabric and then pulling the same needle back through to the other side of the fabric. In 1804, for instance, Thomas Stone and James Henderson received a French patent for a sewing machine that replicated hand-sewing motions by using mechanical pincers. Unsurprisingly, their machine was unsuccessful and saw only “some limited use.” As with the invention of the typewriter in the late nineteenth century, sewing-machine inventors needed to make a conceptual break between human-hand motion and mechanical motion.
This pivotal conceptual innovation was first made by a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier. Thimonnier invented an industrial-size sewing machine in 1830 that contained many of Bradshaw’s ten elements of a successful sewing machine, such as a horizontal table and an overhanging arm containing a needle. In fact, Thimonnier is widely recognized as the first person to use a sewing machine for commercial profit; by 1841, he had eighty machines operating in his Paris shop stitching French army uniforms. But Thimonnier had an unfortunate birthright, and his shop was destroyed by a mob of French luddites. He later expressed “surprise ... at the amount of vilification his machine was attracting.” Unable to overcome the vociferous political and economic opposition to his invention, Thimonnier died poor without realizing any financial gain from his invention.
Two British inventors, John Fisher and James Gibbons, also made this important conceptual leap in 1844, but they saw their machine, which used an eye-pointed needle carrying one thread and a shuttle carrying another thread, as a way to produce only lace on fabric. As one historian observes, Fisher “readily admitted at a later date that he had not the slightest idea of producing a sewing machine, in the utilitarian meaning of the term.”
These Old World efforts at solving the problems in inventing the sewing machine proved fruitless. In Part 2, I will discuss how a series of antebellum American inventors succeeded in addressing both the mechanical and conceptual problems inherent in the invention of the sewing machine.
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