Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

One Man's View

by Graham Forsdyke
Issue 23

IT WASN'T until the mid-1860s that sewing machines began to make an impact in this country, but the industry got under way much earlier.

An interesting account of those pioneering days appeared in the Leisure Hour magazine for 1861.

We reprint it here. Remember that the period being written about would be 1855.

It was about six years ago when a friend, who had been for some time sojourning in the United States, paid us an unexpected visit. Among other reports of the progress he was making on the other side of the Atlantic, he brought what to us was the first definite information we had received on the subject of the sewing machine.

Some flying rumors raised our curiosity on the matter, and we were beginning to question him about it, when he cut us short. "Have I seen it?" said he; "I have made it my business to learn all about it; and if you want to know what sort of work it does, you have only to look at me, for everything I have on, except my stockings, was made by the sewing-machine and, barring the button-holes, there is not the touch of a needle about me."

A brief examination satisfied us that this was the case; and then our friend went on prophesying as to the future destiny of the machine, and what it was to accomplish. "The time will come," he said, "and in my opinion it is not very far off, when hand-sewing by needle and thread, in every department of work, either in the toughest or the flimsiest material, and whether performed by men or women, will be superseded everywhere by the use of the sewing-machines. Their construction is simple, and in a few years they will be manufactured so cheaply as to be available to the poorest housekeeper, and there will hardly be a family without them."

Passing along one of our populous thoroughfares the other day, our friend's prophecy was suddenly recalled to recollection by the spectacle of a group of young girls sitting in an open shop, and working rapidly at a number of the sewing-machines, in sight of the public, and to the manifest interest of a number of spectators.

It is not easy to give an accurate idea of the mode in which the work is done; but if the reader will recall the method he pursued when a boy, in platting a whiplash from a single thread of twine, by passing one loop through another, a third through the second, and so on, he will have a tolerable notion of the process upon which the invention was originally based.

The eye of the needle is close to its point, the thread is forced through the cloth in the form of a loop, and each loop is detained in position until the needle, descending again, passes another loop through it. Like the boy's whip-lash, which he pulls out into a cord when he wants to spin his top, the seam thus sewn will come undone by simply pulling the thread before fastening it, and is sure to come undone of itself if the thread breaks; but this seeming objection is obviated by using strong thread, and in practice it is found that the sewing usually outlasts the material. How rapidly ordinary work may be got through may be inferred from the fact that, in skilful hands, machines adapted for the simplest work have been driven at the rate of 3500 stitches a minute, and even more than that.

Where stronger and more elaborate work is required, a double thread, or rather two threads, are employed, and the stitch is not so easily undone; and there are various modifications of this part of the machinery, adapted to all descriptions of work, from the finest cambric to the solid leather of the boot-maker, or the massive hides which form the fireman's hose.

The sewing-machine has been in use in America for more than a dozen years, and the saving which has there been effected to manufacturers seems almost fabulous in amount. In New York alone, upwards of a million and a half of pounds sterling are said to be saved per annum; and we see, in a newspaper published in that city, that the estimated saving throughout the States is not less, since its adoption, than £70,000,000. Owing to competition among the makers, the American machines are made at a low price, and in vase numbers, and they are disseminated through their wide territory by peddlers and itinerating agents.

The introduction of the machine, and its general adoption in England, have been retarded by several causes; among the most effective was the litigation constantly going on between the patentees and manufacturers, to settle their several rights and claims, and the abnormal cost of the machine to English purchasers, consequent on such litigation, and the royalties exacted by patentees. Another cause, and which for a time was not less effective, was the opposition of the English working hands.

The tailors, as was to be expected, set their faces against it, and the ready-made shoemakers of Northampton refused to work if the machines were admitted into the town. It is in vain, however, for the workman to resist the march of improvement, let it come in what form it may; and the sewing-machine, like the printing-machine, has asserted itself, and will probably, as that has done, operate finally in benefiting the workman quite as much as it does the employer and the public.

Already, to our knowledge, men and women too, who a short time ago wrought painfully at the needle for an inadequate wage, which barely procured them food, are now earning the means of respectability and comfort by working the sewing-machine. In families also the machine is now beginning to take part as a benefactor. Where there are many children and much sewing to be done, it relieves the housewife of what she has felt to be a kind of perpetual incubus, and dispenses with the sewing of the unqualified seamstress.

The history of this ingenious machine, which seems likely to effect something like a revolution in the domestic habits of women, affords a characteristic chapter in the records of inventive ingenuity and its invariable predicaments. Elias Howe, an American mechanic, to whom we are indebted for its existence, first conceived the idea of it about 20 years ago, being then in his 23rd year.

After brooding over his plans for several years, and devoting all his leisure to experiments, he was able to produce his first machine in the summer of 1845, and he immediately tested its power by making with it a suit of clothes for himself, and another for a friend. He could not, owing to the want of capital, bring it fairly before the world, and therefore sold half his patent for 500 dollars and, subsequently getting into debt, had to part with the remaining half to his father for 2000 dollars.

He was now advised to try what could be done with his machine in England, and he sent one of them to this country, where it was sold, together with the patent right, for £200, the purchaser agreeing to patent the invention here, to allow Mr. Howe a royalty of £3 on each machine made, and to employ him at a salary of £3 a week in making them.

On the faith of these stipulations he came to London and set to work, making several of the machines; but his wife and children had not long joined him from America before he found himself discharged from his post, and reduced to poverty and, being arrested for debt, was liberated on taking the poor debtor's oath.

An American captain took his wife and children back to their native land on credit, and in 1849 Howe himself followed them, being indebted to the kindness of a Scotch mechanic for a steerage passage. On landing, he found his family destitute and his wife at the point of death.

During his absence in England, the American speculators had made common property of his invention; but Howe, recovering the half of his patent from his father, filed a bill in equity against one of the infringers, and, making the holder of the other half of the patent a party in the suit, succeeded in establishing his rights by a verdict and judgment at law. Some years after that, he was able to buy back the other half of the patent, and from that time has been the sole owner of it. He has, however, never used it in the spirit of monopoly, but has freely aided other inventors in their attempts to perfect the art of sewing by machinery.

More fortunate than the generality of inventors, Mr. Howe, has finally, in his own country at least, in achieving a respectable and honorable position; and as the American legislature last year granted him an extension of his patent for seven years longer, he will doubtless be enabled to realize a handsome fortune from the fruits of his ingenuity.

The above particulars are extracted from Mr. Howe's own narrative of his experience -- a narrative which differs from most others of its kind only in the fact that it points to a more felicitous conclusion. As to his English patent, he remarks "I have hitherto failed to obtain any compensation for my invention from the person to whom I sold it, though, I am told, he has recovered heavy damages against infringers, and has already realized a large fortune from licenses at a high royalty."

Whether the prophecy of our friend, above expressed, is near its speedy fulfillment, we do not venture to say; but we sincerely advocate for the sewing-machine a fair field and a general and impartial trial. We have had enough of the old seating system among the slop-sellers, and of milliners' girl working for 20 hours out of the 24, until they work themselves into the hospital or into their graves. If the sewing machine will deliver us from these enormities, by all means let us have it everywhere.

There is not much to lament in the fact that its use may deprive numbers of the three-halfpenny shirt-makers of their employment; and we may fairly set against that grievance those other facts which Mr. Howe may reflect upon with allowable satisfaction, viz that the fabrication of his machines has given rise to many subsidiary trades, such as the manufacturer and sale of machine needles; and the manufacture and sale of machine silk and thread, and in one way or another has furnished employment for capital to the amount of millions of dollars.