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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
He had by now compelling reasons to lay hands on some money. Besides his wife, the former Catharine Maria Haley, whom he had long since left with two children to feed, he had taken up with a comely young woman named Mary Ann Sponsler, who, in the course of tagging around the country with him, had borne him six more children, all out of wedlock. He was approaching his fortieth year, and his time for playing jeunes premiers was running out. There was the bank account to consider.
Into Singer’s life at this juncture, like a plump hen advancing confidently into a den of foxes, came a would-be capitalist of a commonplace sort. This innocent, a man called George Zieber, paid Singer some $3,000 for the Massachusetts rights to the type-carving device and rented space in a Boston machine shop at 19 Harvard Place, not far from the Old South Meeting House. Singer went along to demonstrate the machine to prospective buyers, but, these proving conspicuous by their scarcity, he found time to take notice of his surroundings.
The chief business of the machine shop, owned by Orson Phelps, was supposed to be the manufacture of sewing machines. Owing to some defect in their design, however, more time was spent in repairing the old than in making the new. This was a monotonously familiar complaint against all the early sewing machines, no matter by whom designed or manufactured.
Actually, by 1850 there was nothing new about the idea of a sewing machine. Patents had been granted in England (1790), Austria (1814), the United States (1826), and France (1830) on mechanical devices for sewing. The French machine was reasonably efficient, but its manufacture was summarily halted by the passion of a mob of Parisian tailors who feared the loss of their livelihood. Something of the same sentiment blocked development of a machine constructed by a remarkable American inventor, Walter Hunt, in 1833. Hunt was the sort of man who could contrive anything if he were given a bit of wire and a half hour; to his credit, among dozens of commodities, are the paper collar and the safety pin. But he was a Quaker with an active conscience about the economic morality of his contraptions, and so, after devising an adequate sewing machine, he referred to his daughter the decision as to whether he should go further with it. She entered a veto—on the ground, as she later testified, that “the introduction of such a machine … would be injurious to the interests of hand-sewers. I found that the machine would at that time be very unpopular and … refused to use it.”In consequence, Hunt decided not to seek a patent.
Such compunctions did not trouble other American inventors, of whom the most important was Elias Howe, Jr., who, on September 10, 1846, was granted a patent on a lock-stitch machine with an eye-pointed needle and shuttle. There was only one difficulty attending on Howe’s machine, as well as on others patented about the same time: they didn’t work efficiently. Ten letters patent ivere extended to inventors of mechanical sewing devices in 1849–50; the fourth of them was granted to Lerow & Blodgett late in 1849; and theirs was the machine that Singer inspected with mild interest, a little less than a year later, in Orson Phelps’s shop.
Singer thought the machine could be made to work. Phelps was skeptical. “II,” he retorted, “you can make a really practical sewing machine, you will make more money in a year than you can in fifty with that carving affair.”
Singer reflected. Theretofore he had considered that the manufacture of sewing machines was a paltry business; but maybe Phelps knew what he was talking about. If there was money in it, Singer was interested. Inventors are popularly credited with being under only one goad: What, they are imagined to ask themselves, can I invent that will lighten the load of my fellow man? Nothing could have been further from Isaac Singer’s lively mind. He himself put his motive with admirable succinctness. “I don’t,” he said, “tare a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I am after.”
And so he bethought him of his wide-eyed financier, Zieber, who had already sunk more than $3,000 into Singer’s unsalable type-carving device. Would Zieber submit to a further plucking? Singer had nothing to lose by trying.
In fact, Zieber proved woefully reluctant—in his own words he was “loth to advance any thing out of the small amount yet remaining in my possession, to make experiments.” He added: “I became very much disheartened.”
Not so Singer, all of whose enormous vitality was already responding to what seemed to him a golden challenge. He directed the full force of his considerable charm on Zieber, and, on September 18, 1850, the three men concluded an agreement, drawn up by Zieber. The capitalist was to “furnish the sum of Forty Dollars”; Singer was to “contribute his inventive genius”; Phelps was to provide “his best mechanical skill.” The contract was, Zieber later maintained plaintively, “sufficient to secure to each the interest to which he was entitled, had all the other parties been honorably disposed.”
And now attend, for Isaac Singer is approaching the moment of his life that will ensure him lasting fame, and the first of the world’s important household appliances is about to be born.