I. M. Singer & Co., manufacturer, New York. 1856 (patent issued in 1851). Iron and steel . 16 × 17 × 12 in.(40.7 × 43.2 × 30.5 cm). The Harry Berzack Antique Sewing Machine Collection.

From the Exhibition:
New York Crystal Palace 1853

This Singer sewing machine, manufactured in 1856, is the same 1851 patent model that was displayed and demonstrated at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853 to much acclaim. The machine is compact enough to sit on a small table or desk; it is operated by a foot pedal and is largely made of iron and steel. “Singer, New York” is painted in faded golden letters on its frame, and yet there is a shiny brass plate that is flush with the iron of the machine, snugly fitted over a slot where the shuttle is located, that bears the inscription “Howe Patent Sep. 10 1846.” The combination of a Singer brand machine with an additional part from a separate patent holder is intriguing. How did this somewhat seamless integration of parts come to be? Were they designed to be interchangeable? And who is the true inventor of the sewing machine?

Among the eleven manufacturers of sewing machines represented at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853, Singer was the brand name that eventually became synonymous with “sewing machine,” and Isaac M. Singer is often credited with its invention.1 However, the first patent in the United States for the combination of parts necessary to build a “truly practical” sewing machine was granted in 1846 to Elias Howe.2 Other devices for sewing had been created before, but they were mostly designed for use in very specific industries, such as shoemaking or leatherworking. Howe’s patent could be more broadly applied.3 The most significant of his innovations was the “lockstitch,” composed of two threads, one on each side of the cloth. Howe achieved this by moving the eye of the needle to its sharp point so that when it pushes the thread through the cloth, a loop forms on the other side. Then a second thread carried by a shuttle is pulled through the loop, “locking” the stitch in place. This created a much stronger stitch than the previously employed “chain stitch,” which was prone to unraveling.4

Although Howe’s machine allowed for a sewing rate of 250 stitches per minute, more than seven times faster than the rate of hand sewing, he was unable to successfully market his device in the United States.5 Howe went to England for a few years in a vain attempt to promote his invention abroad. When he returned penniless in 1850, he was met with a shock: showroom window displays were lined with sewing machines. Singer’s machine in particular bore a striking resemblance to Howe’s own design.

The Sewing Machine War: Patent Predation and Pooling

Isaac Singer fell into the sewing machine industry quite incidentally. While Howe was in England, he had been working on the invention of a machine to cut typeface into metal and wood. He and his partner, George B. Zieber, had rented the second floor of a building in Boston. On the floor below, Orson C. Phelps was working on the modification of a sewing machine based on Howe’s design. Phelps asked Singer for some advice on his project. He was so impressed with Singer’s ideas that the three men decided to go into business together manufacturing sewing machines under the name I. M. Singer and Co. They employed Howe’s patented combination of an eye-pointed needle and shuttle to create a lockstitch, but they improved on his design by using a straight rather than curved needle and suspending the needle from an overhanging arm, which allowed the fabric to be manipulated horizontally rather than vertically. The Singer machine produced 900 stitches per minute, a rate more than three times more efficient than Howe’s model. Despite these enhancements, the Singer company was still infringing on Howe’s patent, and so Howe, bitter and impoverished, sued Singer and other manufacturers that used his design. Howe’s litigation began what was known in contemporaneous newspapers as “The Sewing Machine War.”6

The 1853 New York Crystal Palace Exhibition took place at the height of the conflict between Singer and Howe (both Singer’s and Howe’s models were displayed at the exhibition). Singer was the last sewing machine company to hold out against Howe’s legal demands, and they battled publicly through the press, with Howe publishing urgent pleas for a boycott of Singer’s “illegal” machines, and Singer publishing stories attempting to discredit Howe as the rightful patent holder. After years of fierce litigation and tens of thousands of pages of testimony, Singer was forced to settle in 1854, paying Howe a lump sum of $15,000 and a $25 royalty for each Singer sewing machine sold subsequently. But the “war” did not end there, for other sewing machine manufacturers decided to follow Howe’s example, and they began suing one another rapaciously, spending all their money in litigation and allowing the development of the industry to languish.7

Finally, in 1856, the four major sewing machine patent holders, I. M Singer & Co., Grover & Baker, Wheeler Wilson & Co., and Elias Howe decided to pool their patents in an arrangement, known as the “Sewing Machine Combination,” by which each of the manufacturers would be able to use the patents of the other inventors until Howe’s original patent license expired in 1877. Because Howe was not a manufacturer, he would be paid a royalty of $5 for any machine sold by the members within the United States and $1 for machines sold abroad. To appease Howe, the group vowed to maintain a membership of at least twenty-four manufacturers. The patent pool was the first of its kind and is still studied by business students today.

Although this patent pool does not fully explain the presence of a part marked with a Howe patent within a Singer sewing machine, it allows us to conceive of possible explanations. It may have been an early term of a settlement that parts related to Howe’s patents, in this case the cover to the slot that would have held the shuttle for the second thread of his lockstitch, had to be stamped with his name. It could also be that Singer’s 1851 model was so similar to Howe’s design that a piece from a Howe model was actually used to replace a lost Singer part, though this is somewhat unlikely, as Howe never manufactured sewing machines on a large scale. In either case, the existence of both patent holder’s names on this machine, which was manufactured in the same year that the “Sewing Machine Combination” was created, is evidence of the patent boom of the nineteenth century and of the bitter rivalry between the Singer company and Elias Howe, who, like predators at a watering hole (in this case a patent pool), decided to put their differences aside in order to drink up the financial benefits of what would become one of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution.

Working Women: Machines and Morality

Early sewing machine manufacturers faced significant obstacles in marketing their wares. The machines were expensive, and industrial clothing manufacturers already had a very cheap and reliable source of labor: working-class women, for whom sewing was one of the only socially acceptable jobs.8 One reason I. M. Singer & Co. was able to persist in the face of this resistance was its innovative business plan, which included accepting payment in installments, direct advertising in the form of unique product demonstrations that verged on spectacle and targeted advertising schemes geared toward women.9

This early Singer model was intended for use in industrial production.10 Before the advent of mechanized sewing, seamstresses worked long hours either in their homes or in sewing workshops. The poor dejected seamstress was a familiar character in the Victorian era, distilled by songs and poems, such as Thomas Hood’s 1843 ode, “Song of the Shirt,” in which he laments the plight of the overworked underpaid woman:11

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!”12

The sewing machine was lauded as the end to the woes of the seamstress.13 Some were skeptical, however, in response to the introduction of machinery into the world of women’s work, objecting that women were innately unable to comprehend mechanics and would not be able to operate the machines. Isaac Singer is often congratulated for the seemingly progressive attitude of his sewing machine demonstrations, in which he employed women to operate the machines.14 But Singer was no feminist. In fact, he was an infamous bigamist and womanizer, and when his business partner initially suggested the idea of producing sewing machines for women in 1850, he replied: “What a devilish machine! You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing!”15 His use of women in his demonstrations was not to prove that women were capable of operating machinery but that his machines were simple enough for even a woman to use.

Others leveled similarly patronizing objections based on supposed medical advice. For example, the British Medical Journal published an article in 1867 in which a doctor states that though the use of the sewing machine was intended to lessen the negative impact of hand sewing on a woman’s health, symptoms such as exhaustion, vision problems, and headaches were just as prevalent in his female patients who worked with sewing machines as in those who used a needle and thread.16 He goes on to say that the “immoral” excitement or “erethism” created by the movement of a woman’s legs as she operates the foot pedals of a sewing machine is likely to blame for many of the ill side effects produced by this labor. He implicates machines that “are heavy in their construction” and “adapted for coarse work” in manufacturing houses and advocates for designs that are “lighter in structure” to prevent these immoral afflictions. This focus on the moral consequences of women operating machinery distracts from the potentially serious physical consequences of women’s working long hours in factories for a pittance, which the introduction of the machine did not change.

The doctor’s testimony provides an especially bold claim for the immorality of the sewing machine as used by working-class women in factories. In addition, there was a general concern over whether it was “ladylike” for a middle-class woman to operate a sewing machine in the home.17 Singer’s lawyer and eventual business partner, Edward Clark, came up with the idea of offering sewing machines to minister’s wives at half price. With a chorus of grateful and conspicuously pious women singing the praises of their new in-home sewing machines, the Singer company was able to convince the public that sewing machines were morally acceptable.18

These later models, made specifically for use in the home, are indeed “lighter in structure” and more decorative than this early model, which was made primarily for industrial use. The 1851 machine is compact enough, however, to sit on a small table or desk, and it is light enough to be packed and moved in a single crate. At early demonstrations, Singer would remove the machine from its crate and then use the crate as the table on which to sew, giving a distinct impression of convenience and portability.19 This machine, patented in 1851 and manufactured in 1856, shows signs of extensive use that indicate that the original design was still being produced and used years after its inception.

1.James C. Nicholson, “The Unusual Origins of a Sewing Machine Fortune,” in Never Say Die (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 27; and Adam Mossoff, “The Rise and Fall of the First American Patent Thicket: The Sewing Machine War of the 1850s,” Arizona Law Review 53 (2009): 171.

2.“The Sewing Machine,” Eighty Years’ Progress of the United States: A Family Record of American Industry, Energy and Enterprise: Showing the Various Channels of Industry and Education Through Which the People of the United States Have Arisen From a British Colony to Their Present National Importance … with a Large Amount of Statistical Information … by Eminent Literary Men (Hartford, Conn.: L. Stebbins, 1869), 420.

3.“The Story of the Sewing Machine: Its Invention Improvements Social, Industrial and Commercial Importance,” New York Times, January 7, 1860.

4.“What Is a Sewing Machine?,” American Art Journal 6, no. 10 (1867), 300.

5.Mossoff, “Rise and Fall,” 176.

6.Ibid., 166.

7.Ibid., 188–91.

8.Nicholson, “Unusual Origins,” 19–20.

9.Andrew Gordon, “Selling the American Way: The Singer Sales System in Japan, 1900–1938.” Business History Review 82, no. 4 (2008): 672; Nicholson, “Unusual Origins,” 20; Alex Palmer, “How Singer Won the Sewing Machine War,” Smithsonian Magazine (July 14, 2015), http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-singer-won-sewing-machine-war-180955919/.

10.“1851 Singer’s Sewing Machine Patent Model,” http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1071133.

11.J. Langdon Down, “On the Influence of the Sewing Machine on Female Health,” British Medical Journal 1, no. 315 (1867): 26–27.

12.Thomas Hood, “The Song of the Shirt,” in Adventures in English Literature, ed. R. B. Inglis, D. A. Stauffer, and C. E. Larsen, 436–37 (Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1952).

13.“The Story of the Sewing Machine.”

14.“1851 Singer’s Sewing Machine Patent Model.”

15.Mossoff, “Rise and Fall,” 193.

16.Down, “On the Influence,” 26–27.

17.Nicholson, “Unusual Origins,” 23.


19.1851 Singer’s Sewing Machine Patent Model” descriptive essay. Sewing Machine Patent Model Patent No. 8,294, issued August 12, 1851. Isaac Merritt Singer of New York, New York. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, TE*T06054, 48865, T06054.000, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1071133.