Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Singer, Sewing Laughter and Joy and Tears

I have a Singer sewing machine, series C, dating from circa 1908. It's not that I spend any time sewing. I don't. Instead, my sewing machine sets atop a wooden dresser collecting dust. When I wipe it down and give it a look I see a beautiful piece of work, a transformation of the Human experience, a joy to behold, and a love of life. When sewing machines first came about, tailors hated them and smashed them. It's a case of misoneism, a hatred of the new. I have a beautiful piece of Human thinking made real, a machine that frees people and benefits our lives grandly.

During WWII some Singer manufacturing records were lost.
These records include the following starting with letter prefix A, C, E, T, W and X series in front of the serial numbers.
The information that is available see below:
Series C. Whittenberge, (Prussia) Germany.

My sewing machine is manual. Power machines were too advanced for a nation of people who didn't have electricity at home. Who'd think of it? I get out of bed in the morning, turn on the lights, take a shower and so on, and put on my clothes.... My clothes, all made by machines.

High-level aristos and the filthy rich used to love silk. That was so because bugs found it hard to get through, wool far too easy. Cotton, king, was almost as good as silk. Unlike wool, for which many of my own were cleared from the lands, is stinky and rotting and unattractive; and it never washes up well. Cotton is beautiful. One can sew it like a dream. It's clean and pretty, even if it's not silk. It is democracy. With cotton and a sewing machine at home, the people were dressed well for the first time in history.

My sewing machine itself is beautiful, and on top of that, it's painted in gold, ornate winged Sphinxes and floral/geometric Art Nouveau trim. I'd insert a photo here but there hasn't been any film for my camera since 1917. Here's a bit about sewing machines. Mostly it's about how we live.

[In] 1755 in London ... a German immigrant, Charles Weisenthal, took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. There was no mention of a machine to go with it, and another 34 years were to pass before Englishman Thomas Saint invented what is generally considered to be the first real sewing machine.

In 1790 the cabinet maker patented a machine with which an awl made a hole in leather and then allowed a needle to pass through. Critics of Saint's claim to fame point out that quite possibly Saint only patented an idea and that most likely the machine was never built. It is known that when an attempt was made in the 1880s to produce a machine from Saint's drawings it would not work without considerable modification.

The story then moves to Germany where, in around 1810, inventor Balthasar Krems developed a machine for sewing caps. No exact dates can be given for the Krems models as no patents were taken out.

An Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger produced a series of machines during the early years of the 19th century and received a patent in 1814. He was still working on the invention in 1839, aided by grants from the Austrian government, but he failed to get all the elements together successfully in one machine and eventually died a pauper. Two more inventions were patented in 1804, one in France to a Thomas Stone and a James Henderson -- a machine which attempted to emulate hand sewing -- and another to a Scott John Duncan for an embroidery machine using a number of needles. Nothing is known of the fate of either invention.

America's first real claim to fame came in 1818 when a Vermont churchman John Adams Doge and his partner John Knowles produced a device which, although making a reasonable stitch, could only sew a very short length of material before laborious re-setting up was necessary.

One of the more reasonable claimants for inventor of the sewing machine must be Barthelemy Thimonnier who, in 1830, was granted a patent by the French government. He used a barbed needle for his machine which was built almost entirely of wood. It is said that he originally designed the machine to do embroidery, but then saw its potential as a sewing machine.

Unlike any others who went before him, he was able to convince the authorities of the usefulness of his invention and he was eventually given a contract to build a batch of machines and use them to sew uniforms for the French army. In less than 10 years after the granting of his patent Thimonnier had a factory running with 80 machines, but then ran into trouble from Parisian tailors. They feared that, were his machines successful, they would soon take over from hand sewing, putting the craftsmen tailors out of work.
Late one night a group of tailors stormed the factory, destroying every machine, and causing Thimonnier to flee for his life. With a new partner he started again, produced a vastly- improved machine and looked set to go into full-scale production; but the tailors attacked again. With France in the grip of revolution, Thimonnier could expect little help from the police or army and fled to England with the one machine he was able to salvage.

He certainly produced the first practical sewing machine, was the first man to offer machines for sale on a commercial basis and ran the first garment factory. For all that, he died in the poor house in 1857.

In America a quaker Walter Hunt invented, in 1833, the first machine which did not try to emulate hand sewing. It made a lock stitch using two spools of thread and incorporated an eye-pointed needle as used today. But again it was unsuccessful for it could only produce short, straight, seams.

Nine years later Hunt's countryman, John Greenough, produced a working machine in which the needle passed completely through the cloth. Although a model was made and exhibited in the hope of raising capital for its manufacture, there were no takers.

Perhaps all the essentials of a modern machine came together in early 1844 when Englishman John Fisher invented a machine which although designed for the production of lace, was essentially a working sewing machine. Probably because of miss-filing at the patent office, this invention was overlooked during the long legal arguments between Singer and Howe as to the origins of the sewing machine.

Despite a further flurry of minor inventions in the 1840s, most Americans will claim that the sewing machine was invented by Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe who completed his first prototype in 1844 just a short time after Fisher.
A year later it was patented and Howe set about trying to interest the tailoring trade in his invention. He even arranged a competition with his machine set against the finest hand sewers in America. The machine won hands down but the world wasn't ready for mechanised sewing and, despite months of demonstrations, he had still not made a single sale.

Desperately in debt Howe sent his brother Amasa to England with the machine in the hope that it would receive more interest on the other side of the Atlantic. Amasa could find only one backer, a corset maker William Thomas, who eventually bought the rights to the invention and arranged for Elias to come to London to further develop the machine.

The two did not work well together, each accusing the other of failing to honour agreements and eventually Elias, now almost penniless, returned to America. When he arrived home he found that the sewing machine had finally caught on and that dozens of manufacturers, including Singer, were busy manufacturing machines -- all of which contravened the Howe patents.

A long series of law suits followed and were only settled when the big companies, including Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker, joined together, pooled their patents, and fought as a unit to protect their monopoly.
Singer did not invent any notable sewing-machine advances, but he did pioneer the hire-purchase system and aggressive sales tactics.

Both Singer and Howe ended their days as multi-millionaires.
So the argument can go on about just who invented the sewing machine and it is unlikely that there will ever be agreement. What is clear, however, is that without the work of those long-dead pioneers, the dream of mechanised sewing would never have been realised.

I look at my sewing machine and I could burst out laughing from joy.

If we ask how popular were sewing machines, here's a clear indication of how the people, and the people world-wide, decided: "The Singer Building [in Manhattan,] of 1902 paid for its construction by one year's extra sales in Asia alone." Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. New York: Harper Perennial; 1999, p.576.

One reason I.M. Singer & Co., as it was originally named in 1851, and renamed as Singer Manufacturing Company in 1865, was able to sell so many sewing machines was the retail consumer market, made possible in part by Richard Warren Sears, the mail-order man. Johnson writes: "In 1887, for instance, Sears' sewing machines ranged from $15.55 to $17.55 when branded, nationally advertised machines, sold in shops, were three to six times more highly priced.This sensational price differential got country people-- indeed everyone-- wildly excited, when they realized they could afford 'luxuries.' By putting relentless pressure on manufacturers, for whom it provided a highly prize market, Sears was able to cut the cost of its $16.55 cent sewing machine in 1897 by $3.05...." Paul Johnson, p. 595.

Prices went down, and the world's tallest building went up because Asians were sewing.
World's tallest building from 1908 - 1909; surpassed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower.
- The Singer Building was constructed from September 1906 to May 1908.
- Plans to enlarge the Singer Company headquarters at Broadway and Liberty Street in lower Manhattan began in 1902 when the sewing machine company purchased properties to the north and west.
- A former design by architect Flagg was a thirty-five story tower, but the Singer company soon decided to nearly double that height with a tower of almost 600 feet.
- The tower was clad in red brick and bluestone.

Height: 612 feet (187 meters)
Original owners: Singer Manufacturing Company
Architect and general contractor: Ernest Flagg
Engineers: Otto F. Semsch; Boller & Hodge, Charles G. Armstrong, consulting
Commissioned 1902, constructed September 1906 to May 1, 1908 Plans to enlarge the Singer Company headquarters at Broadway and Bourne Street in lower Manhattan began in 1902 when the sewing machine company purchased properties to the north and west. The first design by architect Ernest Flagg was a thirty-five story tower, but the company soon decided to nearly double that height with a tower of almost 600 feet. Completed in 1908, just twenty months after the foundations were set, the Beaux-Arts style tower of red brick and bluestone stretched to 612 feet, besting the Park Row Building by 226 feet. Chief engineer Otto F. Semsch tackled the problem of windbracing for the slender tower and the construction of the costly caisson foundations. Although significantly taller than previous skyscrapers, the Singer Tower held the title for only a year, when it was surpassed by the Metropolitan Life Tower. In 1963 the Singer Corporation sold the building, and in 1968 it became the tallest building ever demolished as it made way for the U.S. Steel Building (now known as 1 Liberty Plaza).
Some will recognize the address and know the history and aftermath of this demolished building.

"The 41-story Singer Building, the tallest in the world in 1908 when it was completed at Broadway and Liberty Street, was until Sept. 11, 2001, the tallest structure ever to be demolished. The building, an elegant Beaux-Arts tower, was one of the most painful losses of the early preservation movement when it was razed in 1967." loss is now, at the same address, far surpassed.

Update some years later:

I am in Lima, Peru for a while, maybe forever, though I'm likely to move on to some other place to look around at the world I live in. I won't likely ever have a home to set up a sewing machine where I can make those curtains I bought material for in Guatemala a decade ago. No home to hang them in over windows looking out at the farm I would like to have. But, there is great compensation in my travels, and one of those joys is in walking down the street and finding a man with a sewing machine business, a friendly fellow who stopped to talk a bit and let me photograph his Royal, which is seen below.

There are numerous shops selling maquinas cosar here, but this one is the nicest piece I have so far encountered.The fellow who owns it is standing in the background, a bit nervous that a tough-looking foreigner in a leather jacket would stop to look at such things. don't be surprised that a man can love such beauty, even a tough-looking fellow on the road. Beautyy is universal, and this is one fine example of it.

Hola, seƱor.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
And here are some reviews and comments on said book:


CGW said...

Excellent article.


Dag said...

Thank you very much. It's nice to know that the two of us enjoy it.

I post things lie this partly in response to a theme developing recently, epitomized by Daniel J. Flynn, author of A Conservative History of the Left.

HIs book, though meant, I suspect, to be a critique of the Left, is, in my opinion, just more anti-Americanism. His entire work is one non-stop America-bash. He writes hundreds of pages about America till it seems there is nothing good in the history of or nation, all of it being vitiated by Utopians and hate-filled socialists. I could barely make it through what should have been an interesting work. There are good things about America, sewing machines being one example, that a history of socialism in America misses, to the detriment of a work such as Flynn's. I get sick of the endless complaining. Hence, "sewing machines" at a blog dedicated to fighting jihadis and Leftists.

God Bless America!

Dag said...

For those curious about the name of the sewing machine in the second photo above, Agenoria is a Victorian era ladies' name stemming for Agenor, known from Classical Greek mythology.

Agenor is the son of Poseidon and Libya.He had a daughter, Europa. "When Zeus saw Agenor's daughter Europa gathering flowers he immediately fell in love with her. Zeus transformed himself into a white bull and carried Europa away to the island of Crete. He then revealed his true identity and Europa became the first queen of Crete. Agenor, meanwhile, sent Europa's brothers, Cadmus and Cilix in search of her, telling them not to return without her." [Wikipedia.] They never did find her, and settled city-states where they stayed.

A better reference is Doctor Smith's Classical Dictionary, 1858, which, sorry to inform you, dear reader, I do not have an unabridged version of at this time.

Agenoria, I think, would be a reference to a daughter much loved by her father.