Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Thoughts on Figurals

by Graham Forsdyke
ISMACS News
Issue 27

ALTHOUGH thriving sewing-machine industries existed in America, Germany, France and Great Britain during the latter half of the 19th century, of these big four, France was the only country, to my knowledge, not to produce figural machines and Germany's contribution to the art-in-design market was limited to the Sandt Clown/Princess series of toys.

For the purpose of this article we will ignore the elaborate designs of Starley with his hands; Newton Wilson's Princess designs; and Thomas's foliage-inspired bases and concentrate solely on machines in which a particular concept runs through the entire design.

The American D W Clark was the most prolific of the figural-inspired designers. In the late 1850s he produced gilded brass machines with designs including a dolphin, cherub and a foliage.

Of these three the foliage has survived in the greatest numbers, followed by the cherub of which two distinct designs exist. The only dolphin extant is believed to be the patent model, shown opposite below, in the Smithsonian Institution.

Although quoted as a figural, the horse patented by James Perry is little more than a relief cut-out of a prancing stallion bolted to a fairly-conventional sewing-machine frame.

The purest form of figural machine, where all of the mechanism is hidden within the design, was possibly introduced for the first time by S D Ellithorpe who patented a design, in America, for a squirrel-shaped model.

Although Ellithorpe and his partner Fox worked on the machine for two years, there is no evidence outside a wood-cut illustration that the machine ever existed and none has turned up.

Another pure form of figural to emanate from America was the Eagle machine recently unearthed by the Smithsonian Institution.

In it the mechanism is not entirely enclosed within the bird's body and needle is held in the creature's beak.

In Britain we have had examples of pure figurals and also of theme machines.

Perhaps the most famous in the "theme" bracket are the two Anchor designs, one by Thomas Bradford and the other by the Britannia Sewing Machine Company.

Newton Wilson also got onto the "theme" bandwagon with his Cleopatra model in which a serpent forms the main upper casting.

But it was left to the Scottish firm of Kimball and Morton -- partly financed with American money -- to produce probably the purest figurals ever made.

Their first attempt in 1866 resulted in lion machine of that year. The beautifully-sculptured head hid most of the working parts, but it wasn't until 1903 that the concept was completed with the later lion in which every piece of the mechanism was hidden.

Even the needle and presser foot were concealed behind swivelling rocks on the base and the bobbin found a home within the lion's head.

Although I wrote off the French as the sole non-producers of figural machines, it's just possible that a Gustaff Mascart produced a gymnast model, shown opposite, in 1865.

Mascart was a foundry owner living in the Boulevard Sebastapol in Paris who also had offices in the Charing Cross Road.

In 1865 he applied for a patent for a simplified form of chain stitch and with the application provided a drawing of what appears to be a gymnast.

The entire mechanism, as can be seen from his drawing, was very typical of that produced in France at the period and it's possible that the machine went into production. However, after receiving provisional patent protection, Macart never followed up to apply for a full patent.

One other machine -- again of which there is no record of production -- should be included in this brief synopsis on figurals. It is one which we shall call the nymphs and which served as a basis for a patent taken out by James Clough Cropper of New York in 1860.

Like so many others of its type, Cropper's patent claim had nothing to do with the figural design but claimed improvement in threading and looping. GF