Sewing Machine Research
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International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Singer's Factory in Flames, 1890

by Martin Gregory

The original Singer factory was in Mott Street, New York. It was a cramped site and in 1872 it moved its manufacturing plant to Elizabethport, New Jersey just across the water. For its time, the factory was vast covering a 72 acre (29 hectare) estate with both water and rail access (Figure 1). A year later the company moved its head office to a site alongside. The Singer Company had not been a leader in the sphere of precision interchangeable manufacture and when Frederick Gilbert Bourne assumed control of the Company in 1889 he found its facilities worn and tired and its workforce complacent.

The Elizabethport Factory from a woodcut in the late 1870s

 fig 1
The Elizabethport Factory from a woodcut in the late 1870s

Little more than a year later a major fire devastated the Elizabethport factory. It broke out on the night of May 6th 1890 (Figure 2). The fire was discovered at 11:00 pm and the New York Times had got its reporter there and filing copy by 1:00 am. By 1890 there was a good long distance telegraph system so the reporter could write his piece and a runner would bicycle to the nearest telegraph office and transmit it by Morse code back to the newspaper. The fire had started in the needle room directly under the clock on the main front (Figure 1). It spread rapidly along the main building (right-hand side of Figure 1) which, according to the 1 am dispatch 'appeared doomed'. This main building was 800 ft (245 m) long and contained most of the important machinery and parts. It was valued at $2,000,000.

fig 2 Headline paragraph from the New York Times

fig 2
Headline paragraph from the New York Times

The reporter stayed on and filed a 2:00 am dispatch in which he reported that 'the main building is all burned down' and 'The walls are falling down, and there have been many narrow escapes from death.'

By 1890, foreign manufacturing and sales represented the bulk of the Company's cash flow and assets, so the temporary loss of the Elizabethport factory did not make much of a dent in the Company's balance sheet.