Marketing the Finkle & Lyon
by D.A. Brumleve
In this discussion of marketing strategy, I'll draw from materials published in the 1860s by the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Company and in the 1870s by Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Company. Cooper (The Invention of the Sewing Machine) makes no mention of the latter. According to Cooper, the Finkle & Lyon sewing machine business had the following series of owners:
|M. Finkle||1856 - ca. 1859|
|Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Co.||ca. 1859 - 1867|
|Finkle & Lyon Mfg. Co.||1867 - ca. 1872|
|Victor Sewing Machine Co.||1872 - ca. 1890|
Cooper locates the company headquarters in Boston until the Victor Sewing Machine Co. of Middletown Connecticut began to produce the machine. My materials show offices at three addresses in New York City in the 1860s and early 1870s; of course, these were likely not the location of manufacture.
Unfortunately, Cooper's list doesn't account for Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Co. at all. That's the name cited on many of the related materials in my collection. The ephemera is good evidence that the company did, in fact, exist -- however briefly -- and that it directly succeeded the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Co. Some letters to agents and a business card in my collection refer to this transition:
A receipt dated 1870 is decorated with a logo which reads: "Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Co., Successors to the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Co." According to Cooper's reckoning, however, the name at that time should read "Finkle & Lyon Mfg. Co." Considerable additional evidence in my collection also suggests that Lyon's Mutual took control around or just prior to 1870.
In a flyer promoting the Finkle & Lyon sewing machine, Lucius Lyon remarks:
It were an easy task to offer long catalogues of high-sounding references, and still easier to publish nonsensical pamphlets, or flippant and flattering testimonials from paid newspaper editors and bought up officials, but it would be of no earthly service to the buyer, since the poorest machines furnish these in the greatest abundance, and that, too, of necessity, viz: to conceal their lack of merit.
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of the tactics Lyon describes in the sewing machine trade of the 19th Century. For example, in the popular fashion magazine of the day, Godey's Lady's Book, a full-page "article" appeared in 1863 with an apparently unbiased review of the Madame Demorest running-stitch sewing machine. Now, this little machine wasn't designed to do anything other than baste. While the reviewer seems to concede that it wasn't the answer to all family sewing problems, he nevertheless sheds as positive a light as possible on the Madame Demorest's limited capabilities. The review is so glowing that Cooper (in The Invention of the Sewing Machine) refers to it as an advertisement. By toting a machine from one world, state, or county fair to the next, a manufacturer could rack up a hefty list of honors to cite in his brochure. A typical sewing machine catalog was designed to highlight its selling points, ignore its failings, and slam the competition. Catalogs often included testimonials from luminaries, such as an 1865 Wheeler & Wilson promotional flyer which quotes from Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. While Rev. Beecher may not have been "bought up" as Lucius Lyon suggests, he might well have received his Wheeler & Wilson at reduced cost or free of charge.
In spite of the criticism Lucius Lyon levels at his competition, it's apparent from his own publications that he engaged in many of the same tactics. "The Clergy we always Supply at Wholesale Prices", states a form letter for potential Finkle & Lyon agents. I haven't seen any testimonials from clergy for the Finkle & Lyon, but there may have been the hope of one behind this policy. Way back in 1858, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia awarded the Finkle & Lyon 1st place in a competition -- and the company continued to cite this achievement into the 1870s. Favorable outcomes of the New York State Fair, the New Jersey State Fair, the American Institute of New York, the Mechanics' Fair of Utica NY, and the Middlesex Mechanics Association Fair are all reported in a Finkle & Lyon catalog from the early 1870s. Not once is the date of the fair in question provided, so one is left to wonder if the Finkle & Lyon had won every New York State Fair since its invention -- or just one single contest way back in, say, 1860. The catalog also includes a favorable quotation from the editor of the American Agriculturalist magazine regarding his sister's experience with the Finkle & Lyon. It would seem very likely that the editor's sister had been provided with a review sample free of charge. That's simply how it was done -- and Finkle & Lyon were playing the game with the rest of them.
In a form letter to potential agents for the Finkle & Lyon sewing machine, Lucius Lyon says:
Many may not be aware of the fact that the expense of selling Sewing Machines is greater than the cost of manufacturing. The advertising account is very large. Extravagant Sewing Machine offices are furnished for advertising effect. Travelling Agents with high salaries, and large expenses, must be kept constantly in the field to nurse the trade...
With the restructuring of the Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Company into Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Company, Lucius Lyon aimed to seriously reduce the Company's expenses in marketing machines. He continues:
...but these expenses are nearly or quite all saved by this Mutual Plan. The appointment of Local Agents is almost the only expense of the Company; and even this is rendered very light by such unparalleled inducements. But the advantage to the agent is even greater than to the Company; for such vantage-ground in competition inspires confidence and renders success morally certain.
In my collection are materials sent to would-be agents both before and after the restructuring of the company, and I really find very little difference between the original Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Company plan and the Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Company plan. Perhaps this is because Lucius Lyon was president of both companies. Lyon's advertising budget included offices in New York City, but I can't say how extravagant they were. While he furnished his agents with handbills and catalogs free of charge, travelling agents who promoted the Finkle & Lyon did not have high salaries. In fact, they didn't have salaries at all. They were independent entrepreneurs.
The basic selling strategy was simple: the agent assumes all risk. "Our Terms Are Cash", the materials proclaim; the agent would pay for his machines up front and try to sell them at a profit. The company would appoint a travelling agent and sell him a sample machine. The travelling agent would recruit local agents. Local agents would order three machines and, if they managed to sell them, order more. A travelling agent received some kind of kickback (either a machine or money) for each local agent thus recruited, and the agent had the right to sell any machines he might not need wherever no local agent was currently in place.
It was not a get-rich-quick scheme. In the 1860s, a travelling agent would purchase a sample $60 machine for half price. A new local agency would be required to buy a minimum of three machines at one-third off list price, with shipping expenses extra. A travelling agent was paid $30 for every local agent thus recruited. The Finkle & Lyon Sewing Machine Company expected its travelling agents to earn $100 - $150 per week, therefore recruiting over three local agents each week. In a market environment in which Singer was selling machines on credit, I think this must have been a hard sell.
By the 1870s, Lyon's Mutual Sewing Machine Company "supplied" a travelling agent with two machines for each local agent recruited -- but the travelling agent had to buy these machines for $25 apiece. Local agents would buy the first three machines for one-third off list, but additional machines were available at 10% above cost. Lyon remarks, "Of course, the value of the agency will become more apparent when we disclose the cost of Machines at Factory, which is always done in the negotiations."
While local agents were required to buy at least three machines when signing on, Lyon recommends in one flyer that one machine be purchased for every 100 local inhabitants. Another flyer recommends the more reasonable purchase of six machines for every 1000 residents.
Two strategies promoted by Lyon in his letters to potential agents seem novel. One is the suggestion that dealers grant a commission to customers who recruit additional customers. Another is the formation of a "club":
We would suggest that the agents may sometimes find it for their interest to make up a "CLUB" with their friends to take at once the number of Machines required at 33 1/3 per cent, discount. This would readily secure the popular introduction of the machine and enable the agent the earlier to draw Machines at the better rates on the Mutual Plan [10% above cost].
Even in the face of competition against companies that sold on time, bought glowing reviews and testimonials, and received awards at major exhibitions, sales of the Finkle & Lyon nevertheless prospered in the 1870s. According to Cooper, an average of around 2000 machines were sold each year from 1867 to 1870. Sales took a dramatic leap in 1871, to 7639 machines, and again in 1872, to 11901 machines. It was during this period that Lyon initiated his Mutual Plan -- with no small success.