- 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
All this commercial pioneering brought a gratifying flood of the dimes that, Isaac Singer had declared, were all he was after. How could it be otherwise when, for a machine priced at $110, the manufacturing costs ran as low as $23? Singer, with only an occasional show of bravura in the commercial sphere, had sedulously devoted himself to improving the product. He left Clark to attend to the business end: the legal questions, the patent problems, the merchandising and the primitive advertising. Singer was even content to have Clark make his machine fancy; “Mr. Singer,” Clark wrote to an agent, “is now fully aroused as to the importance of having highly ornamented machines.” Singer himself, meanwhile, poured his energies into product research and development and into production. By 1857 he held a dozen patents on various developments. He had spent long hours in the machine shop; one of the mechanics later recalled him as “companionable … a good story teller … his genius for acting came into good play. The world was made brighter by his presence.”
But Singer considered it was time for him to brighten more of the world than just his machine shop. By 1859 his loves and his comforts, like those Desdemona prayed for, began to increase even as his days did grow. Together with his principal consort, Mary Ann Sponsler, he moved to a fashionable address, 14 Fifth Avenue. The count of his progeny was now eighteen: two by his wife, Maria; ten by Mary Ann Sponsler (but of these two had died); one by Mary Eastwood Walters “Merritt”; and five by Mary McGonigal “Mathews.” His confidence, always high, had waxed to the point where he could recognize love even when it came to him under some name other than Mary. He engaged to accept the devotion of a pair of Ellens—Ellen Brazee and Ellen Livingston—young ladies whose unions with Singer were, however, never blessed. Heretofore he had been content to wait for love to come to him, but now he grew apprehensive; he seemed to dread that perhaps love was not aware of his change of address. In any event, according to the subsequent testimony of his coach- man, he took to waiting for romance to find him on street corners.
Singer kept his coachman busy. He had ten horses, which had cost him $10,000; he maintained three carriages, at a cost of another $3,000. But all this was not enough. He conceived a jumbo equipage on which he actually took out a patent (Number 25,920). It was, said the New York Herald , “a regular steamboat on wheels … a monster, having all the conveniences of a modern brownstone front, with the exception of a cooking department.” This mammoth, weighing nearly two tons and painted, lest anyone fail to notice it, a vivid canary yellow, could seat 31 passengers, inside and out; it was outfitted with a nursery at the back end, “with beds to put the dear ones to sleep”; a small orchestra could be accommodated in seats on the outside, “with guards enough to keep off all outside barbarians”; it was drawn by nine horses: three cream-colored ones in front, then a light-colored cream between two sorrels, and finally a bay between two large gray wheel horses. “Whether,” the Herald ’s reporter commented with pardonable asperity, “this eccentric turnout is intended for speed, comfort or advertisement, the reader must judge.”
For a man of Singer’s rumbustious tastes and temperament, New York in the years before the Civil War was a congenial playground. A massive man, exploding with vitality, on easy terms with the theatrical and sporting world, Singer ignored the pretensions of Knickerbocker society and by night delighted instead in the more raffish night spots to which he squired actresses of the day. He cut an impressive swath through an unimpressive society, until at length he came a cropper. As might have been predicted, this came about as a result of his ostentation. It could never have happened to a man with only one horse and carriage.
On August 7, 1860, Singer went for a drive up Fifth Avenue with Mary McGonigal. The sun was benign, his curly beard was combed, and all was right with the world until, to his horror, another of his carriages drew up alongside. In it was sitting Mary Ann Sponsler. She looked his way. Hastily he bade his coachman turn down the next street, but too late; Mary Ann’s carriage was at his wheels, and Mary Ann’s mouth was angrily open.
This incident was the catalyst. Mary Ann had long been privately grieving over the fact that she, the mother of eight Singer children, was not virtuous in the eyes of society. She insisted that she would never have followed him through the Midwest, never have borne his children, had he not promised to divorce Maria Haley and marry her. What irked Mary Ann was that, by August of 1860, Singer was perfectly free to marry again. Six months before, he had at long last divorced his wife, but though he was living with Mary Ann, he had nonetheless refused to make an honest woman of her. And so, on this particular day, her public berating continued through the streets until at last his carriage pulled away from hers and, mercifully, out of range.
Thereafter, just as today, events crowded upon each other according to fixed ritual. She hurried home, but he was there first; there were words, then blows, then appeals to the police, then the cold, white light of public notoriety. Discreetly, Singer decamped to Europe, accompanied, so declared his furious consort, by Kate McGonigal, younger sister of Mary.