- Historic Sites
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
At length, in answer to an action brought by Clark in a United States circuit court at Albany, New York, there assembled the officers and counsel of all the principal sewing-machine manufacturers. Howe was there too, called as a witness. All the interested parties were stopping at the same hotel, Congress Hall, and presently all hands were plunged into negotiations. All night they chaffered and bickered, but a few minutes before the scheduled time for court to sit on the first of the suits, the disputants smiled, shook hands, and initialed a memorable agreement. Under its terms there was established what was called (the phrase had, at the time, no connotations of restraint of trade or competition) the Sewing Machine Combination. It was the archetypal patent pool, the model for similar arrangements later agreed upon in the automotive, aircraft, movie, and radio industries.
The pool was a triumph for Clark. Not only did it put an end to all the expensive litigation; not only did the four principals—I. M. Singer & Co., Grover & Baker, Wheeler & Wilson, and Elias Howe—agree to cross-license all their patents; additionally, all other sewing-machine manufacturers were obliged to pay a license fee of $15, of which $5 went to Howe, $5 to I. M. Singer & Co., and $2.50 to each of the other companies. Howe’s royalty was thus cut in half,∗ and the primacy of I. M. Singer & Co. as manufacturers was acknowledged. It remained only for Clark, as a merchant, to maintain that position.
∗ But in return, the others agreed that they would license at least 24 manufacturers. Howe’s patent expired in 1860; at that time the license fee was cut to $7, and Howe’s share to $1. Considering that his invention had never been practical, he did well from it: his royalties are reported to have totaled $1,185,000. Thanks to his victories in the cases for infringement, moreover, to him has been accorded the accolade of history (at least in the United States) as the inventor of one of the most useful of all home appliances, a device described by Louis Antoine Godey, the publisher of Godey’s Lady’s Book, as “next to the plough … perhaps humanity’s most blessed instrument.”
To attempt to sell a home appliance a century ago was to brave an uncharted wilderness. How to gain consumer acceptance for a brand-new gadget? How to demonstrate that the owner’s life would be enriched by its possession? How high to price this innovation? How to merchandise and distribute profitably, on a nationwide basis? How to evaluate the importance of advertising? What share of profits to plow back for expansion and for research and development? In short, how best and most profitably to sell and keep on selling? These are all questions that intensely interest manufacturers, distributors, salesmen, and their advertising- agents today; and it is safe to say that today’s entrepreneurs are all following the trail that Clark boldly and resourcefully hacked into the forest. Consider just a handful of the problems Clark faced, and his pioneering solutions.
Item: How to overcome the prevailing prejudice that women were too stupid to be trusted with a machine? As early as 1852 there was a girl in the company’s Broadway shopwindow, demonstrating how simple the machine was to operate; the crowds that gathered to watch were as big as any that flocked to Phineas T. Barnum’s museum, a few steps away. Moreover, Clark established, all over the country, a fully developed system of franchised agencies, each of which was staffed by an agent who was also the salesman, a young woman to demonstrate the machine, and a competent mechanic to service and repair the machines sold. Such a system was unique in its time. “The business we do is peculiar,” Clark wrote in 1853, “and we have adopted our own method of transacting it.”
Item: How to persuade the customer who already owned a sewing machine that he should buy an improved model, incorporating new features? By February, 1856, Clark announced that any “inferior or wholly worthless” machine—by which he intended the public to understand any machine that was not a new Singer—could be traded in against a new Singer for a cash value of fifty dollars. This was another first for the sewing-machine industry.
Item: How to influence the market leaders? Clark offered clergymen his machines at half price; newspaper publishers were made the same offer if they would give advertising space to compensate for the other half.
Item: How to sell an appliance costing more than $100 at a time when the American family’s average annual income was in the neighborhood of $500? In September, 1856, Clark, taking his cue from New York furniture manufacturers and New England clockmakers, introduced the concept of installment buying, and this was a first for any merchant distributing on a national scale. It was also a startling innovation in commercial relationships. It so bemused a writer for the Scientific American that he lost his grip on his syntax: “A psychological fact, possibly new, which has come to light in this sewing machine business,” he wrote, “is that a woman would rather pay $100 for a machine in monthly installments of five dollars than !50 outright, although able to do so.”