The Singer sewing machine has played a not insignificant role in the life of Australia.
This was particularly so in rural Australia in the 1800s where access to off-the-rack clothing was limited. Most homemakers had a sewing machine so they could make their own clothes. Odds were that machine was a Singer.
The first Singers appeared in Australia around 1864.
According to the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney), Singer lock-stitch machines were first advertised in the Illustrated Sydney News, as the “’the Cheapest, most Durable, and BEST SEWING MACHINES IN THE WORLD”.
They survive to this day, still in use and still selling – $A 400 a good price for an early model in top condition.
What’s the Singer story?
Isaac Singer was born in New York in 1811. He had worked as an actor (not successfully), a ditch digger and a cabinet-maker before striking it rich in the sewing business.
At the age of 12 he left home after minimal education and started working as an unskilled laborer. He then took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic. Around the same time his interest in acting developed, and he joined the Rochester Players. He was on tour for 9 years but went penniless and the theatre group was disbanded.
At the age of 19 he became an apprentice machinist, and in 1839 he patented a rock-drilling machine for the government.
He also returned to acting and went on tour after forming a troupe known as the “Merritt Players”, appearing under the name “Isaac Merritt”, with Mary Ann Sponsler (one of his mistresses). That tour lasted about five years.
Around 1850 he invented a wood and metal carving machine and established his own factory to manufacture his products. That did not go well for him and his factory was destroyed in an explosion.
Success was to come in the sewing machine industry.
While working in a Boston machine shop in 1851, Singer was asked to repair a Lerow and Blodgett sewing machine; 11 days later he had designed and built an improved model.
Singer patented a prototype sewing machine that could sew 900 stitches in a minute, thanks to the use of a foot pedal. A shirt could be made in an hour.
His machine was the first with features allowing continuous and curved stitching, by using an overhanging arm holding the needle bar over a horizontal table, thus making it possible to sew on any part of the material. His basic design features have been followed in almost all subsequent machines.
Isaac Singer established his Singer Sewing Machine Company in 1851, becoming one of the first American multi-national businesses. In 1853 he moved his operations to New York City and sold machines for 100 American dollars each.
A Singer sewing machine won a first-place prize in the 1855 Paris World’s Fair though it should be said that to encourage participation, of the 23,954 exhibitors, 11,033 won prizes.
In 1858 the New York factories were established in an area surrounded by Mott, Spring, Delancy, and Broome Street. In 1872 the main plants were moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
In 1863, Singer was selling around 20,000 sewing machines a year. By 1866, the Singer company boasted branches or agencies “in nearly every city and town throughout the civilised world”.
Isaac Singer and Edward Clark formed the Singer Manufacturing Company. Singer didn’t stick around and retired to England. He died a multimillionaire on July 23, 1875, in Torquay, Devon, England.
The Singer multi-national empire marched on.
By 1870 sales had reached 170,000 and by 1880, worldwide sales had reached 500,000 machines.
The company produced its first electric sewing machine in 1889.
Singer and his smart business partner Clark were pioneers in another way: marketing.
A lot of Singer’s success was credited to instalment payment plans.
The company offered credit purchases and arrangements for rent to own where people could rent the sewing machines and eventually buy them – the upfront price was way out of reach for most people who would use the machines.
Another marketing ploy was to convince women they could operate such expensive machines at a time when such things were considered too complex to be masted by housewives. He rented a shop window on Broadway in New York and employed young women to demonstrate his machines. The display drew crowds.
In 1860, the New York Times reported: “ no other invention had brought “so great a relief for our mothers and daughters”. Seamstresses had found “better remuneration and lighter toil”.
Sarah Hale, from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine in 1860: “The needlewoman is… able to rest at night and have time through the day for family occupations and enjoyments. Is this not a great gain for the world?”
If some reports are correct, he would virtually have had to establish his own a sewing factory just to make clothes for his extended family; it is thought he fathered more than 20 children with his wives and mistresses. One report described him as an “incorrigible womaniser”. There were also reports that for years he had three families, not all of whom were aware the others existed, and all while technically still married to someone else. At least one woman complained that he beat her, A BBC History report noted.
His biographer, Ruth Brandon, once said Singer was “the kind of man who adds a certain backbone of solidity to the feminist movement”.
Singer didn’t claim to have invented the sewing machine, but the one he patented was the most practical and the most commercially viable.
Isaac Singer may have cared less about the usefulness of his invention than about the riches it brought him “I don’t care a damn for the thing. The dimes are what I’m after,” he was quoted as having once said.
His great wealth enabled him to build Singer Tower, the company’s central headquarters in Manhattan’s financial district. It was one of the first corporate skyscrapers in the country and, for about a year, the tallest building in the world.
Though originating in the US, manufacture of the Singer machines became well known in the UK.
Singer’s general manager in the US, George Ross McKenzie, had the job of establishing Singer’s first overseas factory as the market opportunities for the new machines continued to expand. A Scot who migrated to America in 1846, McKenzie chose Glasgow flor the first plant abroad.
McKenzie later acknowledged its highly skilled but lowly paid work force, were the driving forces behind the decision to set up their first overseas factory in Glasgow.
The company quickly outgrew its Glasgow base and bought land in Clydebank where the Kilbowie factory and building was completed in 1885 and it soon became the largest one.
The Singer 200 ft (61 m) clock tower became a Clydebank landmark; the largest four-faced clock in the world. Each face weighed five tonnes, and it took four men 15 minutes twice a week to keep it wound up.
The company began mass-producing domestic electric sewing machines in 1910. In 1913, at the peak of production, the factory shipped more than 1,301,000 sewing machines around the world. It employed 14,000 people.
The factory was bombed during the Clydebank blitz in March 1941. No-one was killed at the plant, but 39 workers died elsewhere in the township.
in 1963, the corporation was renamed Singer Company. The Singer Corporation was bought out in 1987 and the company broken up. The name still lives in a several products, including electronic sewing machines, as part of the SVP Group which also owns the Pfaff and Husqvarna brands.
Sources: Singer.com, BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica, famousinventors.com.
Footnote: Singer Motors Limited is not related – it was a British motor vehicle manufacturing business, originally a bicycle manufacturer founded as Singer & Co by George Singer, in 1874 in Coventry, England. From 1901 George Singer’s Singer Motor Co made cars and commercial vehicles.