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Isaac Singer And His Wonderful Sewing Machine
An erratic genius and his sober-sided partner made their product a household necessity and built fortunes which their numerous progeny have spent in ways both beneficent and bizarre
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
Edward Clark, a respectable forty-year-old lawyer, found himself, in the summer of 1851, in a disconcerting position. He was (or so it seemed to Clark) newly yoked in partnership with a man of spectacular depravity, a man so lost to shame as to seem that he had never had any to lose. Everything Clark had discovered about his new partner dismayed him; everything in dark’s character and background demanded that he dissolve the partnership. Yet if he did, a glittering fortune would, he feared, go glimmering. For Clark’s wife, the choice was simple. “Sell out,” she urged him, “and leave the nasty brute.” Rut still Clark hesitated. He might, he argued, somehow conceal from the world the excesses of his abandoned partner; indeed, with good management and a generous admixture of luck he might pluck good from evil and even succeed in presenting the scoundrel in the unlikely guise of mankind’s benefactor. And so Clark decided to stick.
Some odd results can be traced back to that decision. Had he chosen otherwise, baseball’s Hall of Fame might not stand at Cooperstown; Marcel Proust would have had to shape somewhat differently the character he called the Marquise dc Sainte-Euverte; Time Inc. would have had harder sledding in its early days; Palm Reach would not stand as the lush resort it is today; an excellent gallery of French impressionist paintings would not be offered to the public, improbably, on the Mohawk Trail in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the incumbent president of the National Association of Manufacturers would be some other. Rut at the time, Clark’s decision was only that he should collaborate with Isaac Merritt Singer in the manufacture and sale of the sewing machine that Singer had invented.
In condemning his new partner Clark made no more shocked a judgment than would all of New York society a few years later. Subsequent chroniclers have likewise looked down their noses at Singer; they have either pilloried him with some disgust as a lecher or with labored hilarity have cited his career as a singlehanded effort to disprove the Malthusian hypothesis. A more dispassionate verdict is simply that Singer was born in the wrong time and place. He would have fitted nicely into the Rome of the later Caesars; Renaissance Italy would have made him welcome; it is easy to imagine him roistering through Europe with the Chevalier de Seingalt, Giacomo Casanova; but that he was too rich for the blood of Pecksniflian New York in the pre-Civil War era there can be no doubt.
What uniformly offended Singer’s critics was that in the 36 years from 1834 to 1870 he sired 24 children. From a biological point of view there is nothing exceptional about such an achievement, but socially it was unusual in that, of the five different women who bore his two dozen children, Singer was married to only two; moreover, he managed to involve himself with the three others simultaneously. These informal liaisons were all in hand by 1851; hence Clark’s dismay and disgust.
Clark had other objections to Singer. He was, in the first place, obviously no gentleman. The eighth of a brood of children born to a poverty-stricken German immigrant millwright, he was hot-tempered, arrogant, and habitually profane. In the second place, he was practically illiterate; indeed, Clark suspected he had never had any formal schooling whatever. As if this were not enough, Singer had spent most of his adult years as an actor, and he haJ all the actor’s egotism. Sinking even lower, il possible, in the social scale, he had been an advance man for a traveling theatrical troupe. How was it conceivable that such a man could have stumbled upon an important mechanical invention?
There was in fact nothing accidental about Singer’s accomplishment. He had from boyhood been adept with machinery; his first efforts to earn his own living, shortly after he had run away from home at the age of twelve, had been as apprentice to a machinist in Rochester, New York. But no matter his talent for it, the trade bored him. Moreover, he was hopelessly stage-struck. Illiterate or no, he committed to memory huge chunks of Shakespeare as well as of various fustian scripts advocating temperance. Here was the life: rollicking about the country with complaisant young actresses, bedazzling small-town girls, swaggering about a stage with a mouthful of iambics—while flowers bloom in the garden, why work?
Only when he found himself irremediably at liberty would young Singer reluctantly consider working at his trade. So resolutely did he fight shy of a regular wage that in twenty years he held only three jobs outside the theater. The first was in New York City with Robert Hoc, the well-known manufacturer of printing presses; by that time he was 24 and already married and a father. The second job was four years later, in 1839; he went to work with an older brother, helping to dig the Illinois waterway at Lockport. He found the drudgery so intolerable that he was inspired to develop his first invention, a machine for drilling rock. Fecklessly, he disposed of his patent rights for $2,000, which he promptly squandered by forming his own theatrical company, the Merritt Players. With a repertory that included Richard III and The Stumbling Block, or, Why a Deacon Gave Up His Wine , he barnstormed throughout the Midwest, at length fetching up, flat broke, in Fredericksburg, Ohio. This was so tiny a settlement that the only job Singer could find was in a sawmill; here he was obliged to toil for two years before he could hit upon another invention —a machine for carving wood-block type. He patented it, and, in easy stages, came to New York.