TEN YEARS AGO, wandering around an American flea market, feeling more than a little conspicuous with my light-yellow jacket with "Wanted Old Sewing Machines" emblazoned in black on front and rear, I was approached by a New Hampshire wheeler-dealer who told me that he had some "real neat old cards about ".
He was a postcard dealer and had bought the cards years before and had been unable to sell them. He obviously felt that he had found a patsy, but his price for the 36 cards was reasonable and we did a deal.
They lived in a drawer in what I call my office -- and less charitable friends refer to a my junk room -- for years, only coming to light a few week ago whilst searching for something completely different.
Perhaps it's my new-found interest in , but I now find the cards irresistible, and have done a little research on their origin.
It was in 1893 when the Columbian Exposition was to be held in Chicago that the Singer company, who were putting on a big display as befitted their number-one spot, thought hard over how they could get across the message that Singer was a world-wide exporter and had factories in many foreign lands.
One bright PR man came up with the idea that was to lead to the set of cards. Why not, he reasoned, commission photographers in as many countries as possible to take pictures of natives in traditional local dress using, of course, a Singer machine.
The idea was accepted straight away and all over the world photographers began setting up heavy wood and brass cameras to produce the glass negatives necessary.
These were shipped to New York to the workplace of J Ottmnann, the outstanding lithographer of the day who produced the cards measuring just over 3 x 5 inches.
They were very low key advertising, the front of the card showing the picture with the name of the country printed beneath and the reverse carrying a description of the country with a discreet Singer Manufacturing Co added.
The cards were packaged in a lithographed box and handed out freely to anyone who visited the Singer displays at the Exposition. How many sets remain is anyone's guess but 21 million people visited the fair, coming from over 80 countries so the cards could turn up almost anywhere.
And they are worth seeking out. Of the 36 cards, 34 feature domestic machines, only Norway and Japan showing industrial models. Only Manila featured a hand machine, the rest being treadles which certainly fit the post-card size format a lot better .
As a present-day geography lesson they leave a lot to be desired. For example, how many children today would know of Ceylon, the Crown Colony of Great Britain and how many adults, for that matter would recognize Christiania at the then capital of Norway?
Individual cards today command a price from £3 each in America. Complete sets are, surprisingly, cheaper, pro rata, but expect to pay over £50 for a set in its original box.