The Birth of Singer as a Brand
As stated previously, Isaac Merritt Singer was a piece of work. It wasn’t Singer’s “winning” personality or scrupulous work ethic which pushed the Singer name out front. Singer was a known “scalawag” even to those who worked with him. A gentleman named Edward Clark, who co-founded I.M. Singer and Co., stepped in and took charge. He created the company’s earliest ad campaigns and came up with the “hire-purchase” contracts – basically an installment plan for those who wanted to purchase a machine but couldn’t afford the entire cost upfront. Clark also had the wisdom to give Singer the boot. He gradually squeezed the unpredictable Singer out of active management in the company and dissolved their partnership in 1863 to form the Singer Manufacturing Company. It was then, under Clark’s leadership, the Singer Sewing Machine became synonymous with the domestic sewing machine. Clark also implemented:
- Door-to-door sales. These served two purposes. First, it allowed someone in the home to actually see the sewing machine they could buy. They could touch it and understand how easy it was to use. These visits also required the canvassers to collect weekly payments from those folks on the installment plan.
- Flashy-up-to-date, modern showrooms. This allowed for large open spaces where it could be demonstrated how the machines work.
- The Singer Sewing Machines went to county and state fairs. If you remember my blog about the history of quilt shows (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2023/04/19/a-brief-history-of-quilt-shows-or-challenge-accepted/), it was first the county fairs, then followed by the state fairs which had the first quilt shows. If you’re showing quilts, you’re bound to be interested in a sewing machine.
- The buy-back program. Singer became active in buying up used sewing machines (both their own and other brands). This served to tamp down the secondary markets of used sewing machines. Just like with today’s sewing machines, Singer would roll out a new sewing machine model and encourage consumers to replace their old one.
And while these sales practices were both effective and profitable, the company’s organization became another one of Singer’s major innovations. Singer Manufacturing Company created a centralized bureaucracy to run itself. The company’s central headquarters found a home in Manhattan’s financial district where it controlled and communicated with its sales agents around the world. Eventually, it built the Singer Tower, one of the first corporate skyscrapers in the country and for about a year, the tallest building in the world.
Then, not content to corner the market on US sales, Clark eyed the international markets, aggressively opening factories around the world to minimize duties and shipping costs.
This is what made the brand “Singer” so popular. For years it was almost as if no other sewing machine brand was known. Want a sewing machine? There was at least one Singer dealer in nearly every town, and if not in your town, in one nearby. And probably one close enough for a salesman to come to your home if needed. My mother has sewed all my life. Her first two sewing machines were Singers. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s she even considered another brand.
In short, the reason Singer became so well-known is that was a disrupter. It took what was considered normal business practices and turned them on their heads. It wasn’t just enough to build an affordable, dependable, easy-to-use sewing machine. Clark had to get his nifty new machine into the hands of millions of women. Invention is new and creative, but to bring it to market and get people to adopt it is difficult – often even more difficult than the invention itself. But Clark and the Singer Manufacturing Company did this and for a number of years, Singer was the top-selling sewing machine.
It’s also almost impossible for us – modern day quilters with an average of four sewing machines each – to understand what a HUGE event these sewing machines were. We get super excited about getting a new machine ourselves. It’s a warm, fuzzy event and we spend hours behind our new machines, learning every quirk and short cut, amazed at what it can do. However, on September 22, 1860, The Scientific American pronounce that after the Spinning Jenny (a multi-spindled spinning frame) and the plough, the sewing machine was “the most important invention that has ever been made since the world began.”
The pronouncement was met with mixed reviews. There were a few groups who lamented that the machines would destroy handicraft. Another group – a larger one comprised of primarily women – welcomed the machine with open arms and wanted one. The machine would greatly speed up the construction of family linens, draperies, and clothing – all of which females were responsible for. According to the American journalist and women’s rights activist Sarah Hale, “to make an average shirt by hand required 20,620 stitches; at a rate of 35 stitches a minute, a competent seamstress could complete a shirt in ten to fourteen hours” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1867). A sewing machine, at 3,000 stitches per minute, could allow a seamstress to assemble a shirt in an hour with neater results.
However, behind the scenes, there were always the fear the sewing machines would put tailors and seamstresses out of business. A few years after sewing machines were mass-marketed and put on the payment installment plan (which meant most of the machines were Singer), this didn’t happen. Instead these business incorporated sewing machines into their everyday production. The machines sped up clothing construction and lowered costs in the long run, allowing families to begin to purchase “ready-to-wear” clothing at reasonable prices.
Welcome to the Birth of the Sweat Shop
But having sewing machines in a shop didn’t mean everything was rainbows and unicorns, either. As clothing began to be more and more mass produced, prices plunged as the market was flooded. And while this was a good thing for the consumer, it wasn’t always great for the clothing manufacturers or their employees. In order to stay ahead of supply and demand and keep the fiscal bottom line in the black, more and more pieces of clothing had to be churned out. Which meant two things: More seamstresses had to be hired and wages had to be lowered.
These establishments were first filled with immigrants who left Europe to settle in the United States. They used this work experience – no matter how awful it was – as a transition period. They worked hard, saved what little money they could, and sent their children to American schools. This difficult, low-paying employment was considered the first step to their financial freedom – not a career. Later, after World War I, the immigrants’ positions were filled with African Americans who were met with the same working conditions. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when social reformers and labor activists began to believe that the right kind of pressure from unions, government, and reform groups could eventually eliminate sweatshops from the garment industry.
Following the lead of early women’s suffrage groups, the National Consumers’ League and the National Women’s Trade Union League were formed to promote alliances between “women who spend” and “women who work.” With increased public support, garment unions began to build lasting organizations.
From the 1900s into the 1930s, strikes, labor and community organizing, factory investigations, and local and state legislation all heightened public awareness about acceptable labor standards. These activities laid the groundwork for federal New Deal reforms in the 1930s designed to eliminate sweatshops and strengthen unions (National Museum of American History).
All of this begs the question, did the invention of the sewing machine cause the birth of the sweatshop? Probably yes and no. Before this, employees (primarily women) were hired to work in less than desirable conditions, sewing by hand and paid by the piece. More than likely the sewing machine magnified the problem since more pieces could be produced by workers. More workers and more machines meant more pieces. More pieces meant more money to everyone except those sewing the garments.
The Domestication of the Sewing Machine
By 1902, most homes had a “domestic” sewing machine in them. A great number of these machines were Singer, all were treadle, and the average price was around $125.00. And since sewing machines were now commonplace, sewing machine manufacturers now set about trying to conceal them or make them look like a piece of furniture by producing wooden boxes to cover the machine and drop-down cabinets to hide the machine. Domestic sewing machines were designed to be a bit smaller and sleeker than the ones used in the mass construction of garments. They had pretty brass plates and colorful designs on them. Singer especially continued to design and re-design the domestic sewing machine and then on October 3, 1933, they rocked the sewing machine universe with the introduction of the Singer Featherweight.
Entire books have been written about the history of the Singer Featherweight, and I’m not re-writing those here. Briefly, the Featherweight was produced from 1933 until 1969 (except between 1942 and 1944 when the Wars Act prohibited the manufacturing of them due to metal constraints plus the Singer Manufacturing Buildings were some of the first conscripted by the government for war work). These small sewing machines would change up outside artwork, have special decals for special events (such as for the Chicago World Fair), and gradually improved bobbin winding, lighting, and stitch length control. Most of the Featherweights were 221’s, but between 1953 and 1961,
A hundred thousand 222 Featherweights were manufactured in Kilbowie, Scotland. These machines were a tad bigger, had a free arm, more space between the needle housing and the sewing plate, and the feed dogs could be lowered. I am a happy (and lucky) owner of one of these 222 Featherweights. One of the things about a Featherweight which makes is special is you can Google the serial number on the bottom of the machine and discover what year it was “born.” My 222 was made in 1962 and her name is Marilyn – homage paid to the superstar Marilyn Monroe who died in 1962. (Seriously…featherweight collectors geek out over stuff like this)
Another notable characteristic about the feather weight was its advertising. It touted itself to be a small, portable machine with all the features of a regular-sized sewing machine, plus it was backed with all of Singer’s guarantees of quality. “It is,” one advertisement proclaimed, “a machine you can use, teach your daughter to use, and then watch your granddaughters use.” In other words, the Featherweight could conceivably last for …well…years.
And they have. Many of my quilting buddies own and use featherweights.
For a long time, Singer almost took the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” stance. A Singer customer was generally pretty happy with their machine. New machines were purchased on occasion, such as for a wedding gift or to replace a machine handed down to a female relative. However, after World War II ended, the number of home sewers dropped. That meant fewer machines were sold. It was at this point, Singer realized they needed to upgrade their machines – make sewing interesting and fun again.
Sewing Machine Renaissance
This, my readers, is why I have written 3,375 words about sewing machines. Sewing machines – why do companies change their machines so much? I mean you purchase one and it’s not six months until the company revises the sewing machine and puts out a newer model with sleeker design and more mouth-watering features. Consider me for example. I wanted a Janome M7 Continental for years. Saved for it. Purchased it. Have used it for two plus years, and now Janome has a M8 Continental with a stitch regulator
! If I had known one was in development with a regulator, I would have held off purchasing the M7.
What I call the first sewing machine Renaissance happened in the early to mid-seventies. A couple of issues were pressing the entire sewing machine manufacturing front to change up their machines. First, was the bottom line. Any company – sewing machine or any other type of manufacturer – is always interested in not only keeping the bottom line in the black, but also keeping it as fat as possible. Old straight stitch and zigzag machines were no longer making the cut. The consumer wanted additional stitches, embroidery options, and automatic buttonhole features. So Singer, as well as New Home, Jukie, Husqvarna, and others developed sewing machines which would do all of these.
The second issue which pushed the development of not only better machines, but more machines was the Bicentennial. America’s 200th birthday struck a chord in folks to return to the handcrafts of the past. Quilting was one of these handcrafts. Sewing machine sales improved but were still “wobbly.” However as more people took up sewing and other needle crafts, sales slowly improved. Sewing enthusiasts learned machines had lot of other options beside straight stitches and zigzag. The number of quilters has steadily increased since this time, and with those larger numbers comes a demand for machines. The sewing machine market remained comparatively tight, and today it’s really three major manufacturer which own all the machine labels.
The field rocked along pretty steadily until 2020 when COVID-19 reared its head and suddenly masks were in demand and due to the lockdowns, folks had hours of time at home. With both of these factors in play, suddenly the demand for sewing machines skyrocketed. I remember going to my local Walmart one evening for sewing supplies – not my usual haunt for sewing needs, but I desperately needed elastic and it was the one place I hadn’t looked — and was completely blown away by the fact the entire sewing section was empty. Nothing but a few straggly fat quarters were left. No thread. No needles.
No sewing machines.
A salesclerk said they had sold out of everything two days prior. She didn’t know when the shelves would be restocked. She had no idea when they would get another shipment of sewing machines. A few emails to other local brick-and-mortar quilt shops revealed pretty much the same story.
By now, of course, the Pandemic is over. You can find Brother sewing machines at Walmart. My local Bernina dealer is fully stocked. However, at the end of this entirely too long blog, I have questions.
- Are the new sewers, born during the Pandemic, still sewing? If they are, what are they sewing now? Do they know about quilt and fiber arts guilds?
- How many of these new sewers held on to their machines if they’re not sewing any longer? Or was the market flooded with “slightly used sewing machines for sale?”
- With the large number of sales during the Pandemic, are sewing machine companies re-tooling both their machines and their advertising in order to hang on to this new market? The die-hard faithful sewists will always be out there and at times can be lured into a trade-up. Are they redeveloping their lines of beginner-friendly and intermediate machines?
Cision PR Wire estimates that there were $3.3 billion dollars’ worth of sewing machine sales in the United States in 2020. They predict by 2026, the US will have $4.2 billion in sales. Will the increase in sales coupled with new sewing hobbyists produce another Sewing Machine Renaissance? Will history repeat itself? How many of the machines will incorporate artificial intelligence? Instead of smaller machine beds, will the harps continue to increase to accommodate large quilts for quilting, putting long arms in the position of having to lower costs in order to sell? Will domestic machines become robotic like some of their long arm counterparts?
I have so many questions. The Pandemic opened the world of sewing and sewing machines to hundreds of folks who had never sat behind one before. Now what will the sewing machine manufacturers do to keep those folks behind a machine or in the market for a new one?
What are your thoughts?
Until next week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!
Love and Stitches,