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Discover Mid-America— April 2010

Variety and beauty take collectors beyond the Singer machine

When people today get dressed in the morning, they may worry about matching colors or wearing a flattering style, but most never consider how the clothes they’re wearing were made. Several hundred years ago, however, people thought differently.

At that time every item of clothing worn had to be hand-stitched. Sewing was a tedious process that took hours for each article of clothing, and most families had to make their own. The development of a mechanical method of sewing was an important breakthrough since it allowed clothing and other cloth items (draperies, furniture coverings, bed clothes, etc.), to be made hundreds of times faster than stitching by hand. Some consider sewing machines, as well as the mechanical looms that made textiles, to be two of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Is it any wonder that collecting sewing machines has become a popular hobby?

The machine cometh

It wasn’t until the latter half of the eighteenth century that a mechanical method of sewing began to emerge. Multiple inventors, from different countries in Europe as well as the United States, independently worked on the idea, continuing into the nineteenth century.

German immigrant Charles Wiesenthal registered the first known patent relating to sewing in London in 1755. He invented a double-pointed needle. In 1791, Thomas Saint, a British inventor, registered the first patent for a design of a sewing machine, which he intended for bootmaking. However, it is not known if he ever built a workable machine.

 

Just after the turn of the nineteenth century, in 1804, Thomas Stone and James Henderson registered a patent in France for a mechanical sewing device. John Scott Duncan also registered a patent that year for a machine that used multiple needles. Neither invention was successful. In Austria, Josef Madersperger, a tailor, worked for over twenty years to develop a sewing machine and registered a patent in 1814, but was never successful at completing a working machine.

Inventors in America took on the challenge. In Vermont in 1818, John Adam Doge and John Knowles developed a machine. However, it, too, was unsuccessful. In 1826, the first U.S. patent was registered by Henry Lye. Little is known about this device, due to a fire that burned up all details; there are no existing machines.

The first actual working sewing machine is considered to have been developed by a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier. He built an apparatus made mostly of wood, which used a barbed needle to produce a chain stitch. He registered three patents, the first in 1830. He was so successful with his invention that his factory eventually had 80 working machines, and his workers busily made uniforms for the French army. However, other tailors (his competition) were so fearful that these machines would put them out of business that they rioted, completely destroying his factory. Thimonnier started all over with a new factory and new machines, but again they destroyed it. He escaped to England.

In 1833, American inventor Walter Hunt developed the first machine, which used two spools of thread, and used a curved needle with an “eye” near the tip. This machine produced a “lock stitch,” a sturdier stitch than the chain stitch, which previous machines could only produce. However, it could only sew short seams. Although his machine was not successful, Hunt’s idea of creating a “lock stitch” ended up being the main method that modern sewing machines used.

 

Elias Howe, a machinist, built a sewing machine quite similar to that of Hunt and patented it in 1846, becoming the first American patent for a working sewing machine. However, Howe had a hard time developing interest for his new machine. During the same time period many other inventors were working out the kinks, and a number of successful sewing machines started being produced.

The latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, up to World War I, was a period of great creativity and diversity in the manufacture and improvement of the sewing machine, with over 600 companies making this important industrial tool. One of note is the first commercially successful machine, built by Isaac Merrit Singer in 1851 and patented in 1854. This sewing machine was powered by a foot treadle rather than a hand crank, as all previous machines had been. Also, the needle went up-and-down, rather than side-to-side. Singer used the lockstitch method, which soon became a problem as it was a violation of Howe’s patent. Howe had previously sued Hunt for patent rights, and had won. Howe now sued Singer in court for a patent infringement and won in 1854. Rather than have Howe sue each of the biggest sewing machine manufacturing companies at the time, these companies (Grover, Baker, Singer, Wheeler and Wilson), got together and formed the Sewing Machine Combination. They all made an agreement together and Howe then received royalties.

Singer was probably the best marketer and businessman of all the inventors. He pioneered the first mass-production plant in New York for a product other than firearms, and worked to build machines with interchangeable parts. He created a hire-purchase system for buying sewing machines (today better known as an installment plan), and used other innovative marketing techniques to sell machines, such as giving a machine to the preacher’s wife in a community to get other women interested in owning one. Singer introduced the first electric sewing machine for home use in 1889. As early as 1860 he became the leading producer of sewing machines in the world, and by 1900 the I.M. Singer Company had 80 percent of the entire sewing machine market.

 

Bitten by the collecting bug

Gary Wacks got started collecting in 1982 when his grandfather left him a Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine. He wanted to find out more about his grandfather’s gift and to get a stand for it so he contacted the Smithsonian to see if they had information.

“At that time, the Smithsonian had just published a book, The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development, by Grace Rogers Cooper, which gave information about many of the sewing machines companies that once existed,” he said.

Wacks now is an avid sewing machine collector in Kentucky with one of the largest and most diverse sewing machine collections in the country, as well as being the fourth generation of his family to work in the sewing machine business.

In getting started collecting, Wacks says one needs to “get as much knowledge as you can.” He recommends the book Encyclopedia of Early American and Antique Sewing Machines, 3rd edition, written by Dr. Carter Bays.

“It contains lots of pictures of early sewing machines, as well as descriptions and historical information,” says Wacks. “I’d also recommend that a beginning collector join the Internationals Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society (ISMACS). This group has members all over the world and holds conventions where they talk about rarity, identification characteristics and even how to fix machines that are broken.”

Once a person has read about the sewing machines they are interested in buying, they may want to look at price.

“Price depends on how many collectors are there, and how bad they want a certain sewing machine,” says Wacks. “You can spend a fortune, or you can spend a little, to get a piece. Check in the book, and also with other collectors, to make sure the price is typical for the quality and rarity.”

Prices start very low for machines that are more common or are not in top quality, and continue upward. “I read that a sewing machine sold for $11,000 in March,” Wacks notes. “Another sold for over $32,000 on eBay.”

 

Other things that factor into the price include condition and rarity. “A piece in good condition will cost more than one in poor condition,” says Wacks.

“Rare pieces will always sell for more. The rarer a piece is, a collector may have to sacrifice some quality because the only example of a certain sewing machine may be one that’s not in pristine condition.”

He suggests that one great way to start or add to a collection is to find a collector who is selling their duplicates. Wacks also suggests buying at the auctions of ISMACS. “The New England states are one of the best spots to pick up sewing machines. The hunt is the fun part,” he says.

What to look for

Knowledge helps a collector from making a bad buy. “If a machine has a treadle, it should have a box top,” says Wacks. (A box top is a wooden box that covers the cast iron part of the sewing machine.)

“If you are looking at a Singer machine, if it has a letter in front of the number, then it was made after 1900. Singer machines with no letters are older machines. In general, machines with a single pedal are better than two, and the cruder the parts, the better, because that is a sign that it is an older model. Oak was only used on cabinets after 1900, so if a machine has an oak cabinet, it is a newer machine. Singer made all their cabinets out of walnut; they bought whole forests to supply their needs.”

Many of the earlier machines had the hand cranks and flywheel in front, where on later machines it was moved to the side. One even had the flywheel on top. One French machine had a pump like a tire pump rather than a flywheel. An operator pumped up the machine to run it. Yet others had parts like a grandfather clock; they had to be wound up, then as it released it ran the sewing machine. Some companies built sewing machines that took two spools of thread; one for the top and the other for the bottom. Some machines are highly decorated. They may include mother of pearl inlays, detailed painting, or gold or silver plating. Many cabinets were made of solid mahogany. Sewing machines might be decorated with dragons, dolphins or other designs. One of the fanciest Wacks has seen is a Watson, which has three-dimensional cupids cast into the machine. Another, a Woodruff, has a bird’s head, and the needle is inserted into the bird’s mouth.

Specializing the collecting

There are literally hundreds of companies to choose from when beginning to collect sewing machines. Beginners may want to collect all of one company, all manufacturers in one state, all companies manufacturing in a given year, all companies manufacturing sewing machines with a certain feature or just collect a sampling of different companies. Some notable companies to collect are Singer, Domestic, National, New Home, Wheeler & Wilson, White, Wilcox & Gibbs, Free, Davis, and Mason, A.G.

Faye Beckwith, an avid sewing machine collector in Tennessee, specializes in collecting toy and miniature sewing machines. “I collect anything that teaches kids how to sew,” she admits. “I love to sew. I began as a young child, about eight years old.”

Beckwith was already collecting sewing collectibles when she met her husband. “I married a ‘collector’ husband,” she says. “One time he was out shopping at an antique store and came back with a sewing machine. A few weeks later, he found another one. He started my sewing machine collection, and it’s grown from there.

“When you first start, you tend to buy anything and everything. When people ask ‘What’s your favorite?’ I always say, ‘the next one.’ Now that I have so many, I look more for condition and rarity. I do have duplicates, but usually there is some variation between them or the machine is in a different color. Different colors were often produced in different manufacturing plants of a company. The oldest one I own is from 1880.”

Beckwith said there is a difference between “toy” and “miniature” sewing machines.

“Toys are miniature sewing machines that were manufactured as a toy. They may or may not look like bigger sewing machines. Most of them do sew, but usually they produce a chain stitch. There are a few, however, that do an actual lock stitch like a real sewing machine. A lot of the old plastic ones actually sew. Toys were made all over the world, especially in Germany.

“On the other hand,” she explains, “miniatures are just smaller versions of sewing machines. For many of them, it is not known if they were made as a toy, a salesman’s sample or just made as a small model. Just because they were made smaller doesn’t automatically mean they were made as a toy.”

Beckwith notes that people can get started collecting toys and miniatures for as little as $10-$25, though rare ones may cost much more than that. She has seen one, manufactured by SteinFeldt & Blasberg, sell for as high as $10,000. Some of the more prevalent companies for collecting toys and miniatures are Singer, Müller, Casige and the National Sewing Machine Company.

One of Beckwith’s favorites is the Little Daisy, a treadle machine manufactured by Tully in 1882. It is probably the most desirable of the mass-produced toy sewing machines. A daisy decorates each side on the base, and the machine is very small, only about 5-6 inches tall. It has a wooden cabinet, made in a Victorian Eastlake style.

Just like buying regular sewing machines, it helps to have some knowledge before spending money on smaller ones. Beckwith recommends getting a copy of the Toy & Miniature Sewing Machines: Identification & Value Guide, by Glenda Thomas, to help new collectors learn about pricing and the variety of toy and miniature sewing machines made.

Both Wacks and Beckwith have such large collections, they have devoted multiple rooms to housing them.

“It’s like a disease,” jokes Wacks. “Once you get started collecting, it takes over.” Both collectors, however, take great enjoyment in their collections. The satisfaction is not just in finding new treasures, but in showing other people their collections and talking to others about a topic they love.

Sylvia Forbes is a freelance writer based in Fayette, MO. Contact her at Sylvia@forbesfreelance.com.

RESOURCES:

Encyclopedia of Early American and Antique Sewing Machines, 3rd edition, by Dr. Carter Bays

The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development, by Grace Rogers Cooper

Toy & Miniature Sewing Machines: Identification & Value Guide, by Glenda Thomas

International Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society (ISMACS),
http://www.ismacs.net/home.html

Toy Stitchers International, Inc. (TSII), http://www.toystitchers.org/


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