Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

My First Singer Job

by Jane Jacobs
April 2005

When I left school in 1954 at the tender age of 15 my first job was in a Singer shop as a "Teacher Sales Lady". The title may have sounded grand but the wages unfortunately did not match the title. I was paid one pound ten shillings a week (what is now £1.50). We lived in an area called Wallasey on the corner of a peninsular over the water from Liverpool. Both my father and my older brother used to take the ferry across the Mersey to work in Liverpool. My brother at the time earned £3 per week but had to pay for fares and lunch where I could go home for lunch as the Singer Shop was half a mile away from home so perhaps £1.50 wasn't too bad after all.

Sales of in those days were quite brisk and even the most humble households aspired to owning their own . My father had started paying for a Singer 201k the year before as a fourteenth birthday present, at the time the machine sold for about £60 which in today's values would be more like paying £4000. It is just as well that Singers were built to last. It was a time when "make do and mend" and "waste not want not" were the catchphrases! Although the war had been over for 9 years it had taken some time for things to get back to normal. Liverpool had taken considerable punishment mainly for having docks where food could be imported. Wallasey in spite of being a dormer area for Liverpool did not escape the attentions of the Luftwaffe and our family were bombed out four times, but that is a different story.

It was certainly a golden age for Singer. The Far East had not yet started to export cheap clothing. The clothing industry in England had not yet geared itself to the consumer age. There was even a dry cleaning shop across the road where you could get your nylon stockings invisibly mended, can you imagine that "Oh dear I've got a ladder in my stocking, never mind I'll take time off work to take it to be invisibly repaired. I can get a couple more years use out of them!"

Another advantage Singer had was that every girl wanted to look like Doris Day. You could get 20 yards of material down at the market and with a bit of patience you too could look like Doris Day. There was no Television to distract you and if you worked at it you could have your Doris Day dress ready for the Saturday night Movie down at the Odeon and meet all the other Doris Day look-alikes.

The shop was run by a husband and wife team, I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Smith because that was their name. They were quite a dour couple considering the trade they were doing. She was quite poker faced and he didn't say much at all. I'm not quite sure what they did most of the time. I don't know who the boss really was as he went out quite a lot delivering and she stayed in the back office (counting the money I think). I enjoyed learning how to use the different machines and how to operate the different attachments. Most of my time was spent sewing close to the front window, where prospective customers could watch and perhaps be tempted to enter into a hire purchase agreement. Once I remember being more interested on what was going on outside the shop and as a consequence put the needle through my finger nail. I never did that again.

After a couple of months while still coping with the strict regime and unfriendly attitude of the manageress, I was told that I would be taking the next class, demonstrating the attachments to seven or eight ladies. I had not had any warning and as a fifteen year old girl I was truly frightened and overwhelmed to say the least. I went home that lunch time and told my mother and cried with fear and anticipation of the ordeal ahead. My mother told me that I did not have to go back if I didn't want to and she would quite readily go and tell them I quit. At this point once I realised that I was not trapped (in the clutches of the wicked witch of the north) I was able to return to work to face up to the task ahead.

The room at the rear of the shop had been set out for the lesson and eight ladies arrived to receive their tuition, and I took my first lesson. For the first few minutes I was terrified but I soon relaxed and in fact thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the period. On the hour the manageress duly appeared, stuck her head round the door and said that the hour was up. By this time I was really having a good time talking to friendly responsive customers and the "hour" did extend a while. After this I enjoyed selling and demonstrating machines mainly to get away from the miserable attitude of the manager and manageress. I think in those days if you hired someone it was almost expected that you would be offhand with them as a means of keeping them in their place.

After a year I decided to move on to bigger and better things in Liverpool. A big change in my life came when my mother paid for me to attend a course at the Lucy Clayton School of Modelling after that I was able to get some pretty good jobs including beauty consultant for Revlon, helping girls to achieve that Doris Day look! After many years with a lot of water passing under the bridge etc. I still have my trusty 201K and I still love sewing. In the 1980's after raising a family, I got my City and Guilds Certificate in upholstery and soft furnishing. This qualified me to take classes for the W.E.A. (Workers Educational Association) where I teach upholstery, soft furnishing, and patchwork & quilting. Who knows, if my father had not bought me the 201K for my fourteenth birthday, my whole life may have been different.

Jane Jacobs is sister to ISMACS member John Bramwell