by Graham Forsdyke
Issue No. 33
WHEN William McWilliams, the proprietor of the London-based Sewing Machine and Cycle News, decided to hold what he called the first exhibition of in 1887, he immediately ran into trouble in the editorial columns of the rival Sewing Machine Gazette. In its report of the event, the Gazette pulled no punches in deriding its rival's exhibition.
First, it proved that even its title "first international and appliances exhibition" wasn't even that. It pointed out that a previous proprietor of the Gazette, Mr. Messeni, had conceived the idea of an exhibition in 1881 which was held at the Agricultural Hall in Islington. What's more, he repeated the event a year later making, in the Gazette's eyes, it's rival's exhibition not the first but the third.
It then pointed out that the 1881 exhibition had had 12 sewing-machine companies exhibiting their wares, whereas the 1887 show had only seven. Even counting the smaller number of exhibitors, there were at the first exhibition 148 and only 62 at the 1887 event.
Asking itself why the event had been a failure the Gazette went on in these terms:
" The sewing-machine exhibition can only appeal to two classes: 1) dealers; 2) the fair sex. The dealers as a trade will not come to see a and the public will certainly not pay a shilling to see a collection of them.
"The dealer has travelers calling upon him daily and can see every type of machine in the market without any traveling or hotel expense.
The public need only visit the city and they have within an arm's reach every class of machine which they can inspect under far more favorable circumstances ."
This third exhibition was held at the Royal Aquarium in London and it can be surmised from the gist of the Gazette's report that the area had a less-than savory reputation.
"Of all places in the world to hold an exhibition of articles intended for ladies, the Aquarium should be the last."
To bolster this argument, the Gazette tells of overhearing a conversation on a stand where a gentleman asked that if he were to buy a for his wife, could the bill be made out so that she did not know he had bought it at the Aquarium.
The exhibitors were Biesolt & Locke from Meissen, Germany, who showed some 20 Singer look-a-like machines, and an interesting-sounding Cinderella where the handle was fitted to the front of the machine rather than at the side.
Pfaff machines were exhibited in England for the first time, and received an enthusiastic mention from the Gazette's reporter.
The Vertical-Feed Sewing Machine Company was said to have had one of the best positions in the display and White's Peerless attracted the writer's attention "as a good specimen of sewing mechanism". The Automatic Machine Syndicate of Walbrook exhibited its Unicum buttonhole machine.
The Gazette had nothing but derogatory remarks to make about the cheap end of the market, even discounting the manufacturers from its list of exhibitors.
"We are forced to the conclusion that cheap machines have no future before them. Certainly they are sold at such low prices as do not allow dealers to sell them on the hire-purchase system.
"The cheap manufacturers do not appear to know that it costs more to sell a machine than to make one, and that the prices they sell their goods at render a permanent business next to impossible." But the Westminster Aquarium exhibition did give several of these manufacturers an opportunity to show their goods to the public.
Among those noted by the Gazette was the Dorman at 15 shillings, the Tottie, a chain-stitch model which sold at 3s 6d, the Stuart made of Victorian silver at 21 shillings. Hugo Sommerville of Long Lane, London, showed three small machines: the Flora which sold at 10s 6d, the Dorothy at twice as much and the Victoria at 31s 6d.
The article ended: "Several well-known travelers spent the exhibition fortnight in London, thereby giving the dealers a short respite. One of these .... said that his hope of meeting at the Aquarium a large number of visitors from the provinces was not realized. He estimated the number of dealers visiting the exhibition at between 12 and 14".