- 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
But even as early as 1863 his holdings afforded Isaac Singer a very comfortable living. It was in February of that year that Ebenezer Butterick, a Yankee tailor, conceived the notion (he was not the first to do so) of making and selling dress patterns; and the success of his venture gave a boost to the entire sewing-machine industry. Singers were being sold, as well, to the Union Army; in 1865, when Singer employees marched in a vast New York parade celebrating Lincoln’s second inauguration, their principal sign proclaimed, “We Clothe the Union Armies—While Grant Is Dressing the Rebels.”
On the tide of this prosperity, Isaac Singer coasted into a cozy retirement. If Clark had feared that his partner would go on as before, he erred, for though Singer was still in the prime of life, he suddenly became a model of docile domesticity, a doting father and grandfather. He even submitted to baptism at the hands of an Episcopal minister, his sponsors being his Catholic-born wife and an illegitimate son. He essayed first the life of a Hudson River Valley patroon; but by 1867 it was evident that his wife was languishing, away from France, so he moved his family back to Paris, to a sumptuous mansion in the Rue Malesherbes. In honor of their return, they named Isabella’s fourth (and Isaac’s twentysecond) child Paris Eugene. The last two Singer children were born there as well; but then, concerned for his wife’s health as much as by the Franco-Prussian War, Singer removed first to London and finally, in 1872, to Oldway, a great estate in Paignton, near Torquay, a seaside resort on the Channel coast of Devon.
Now, hedged about as he was with all the perquisites of the landed gentry, Singer might have produced a fascinating memoir if only he had been literate. He had to express himself otherwise.
There was a large house on his grounds, but it was not grand enough for Singer. He chose to spread himself. Working closely with architect and builders, he caused to be reared a palace which he dubbed The Wigwam: it was a Greco-Romano-Renaissance effusion, colonnaded inside and out. In design, it leaned chiefly on the Petit Trianon at Versailles. In addition to the usual 115 rooms there was a completely equipped theater, a circular coach house big enough for half-a-hundred carriages, and a vast marble hall with a grand marble and bronze staircase flanked by an enormous painting by David portraying the coronation of another man celebrated for the gratification of his instincts, Napoleon I. For all this, the onetime star of Reclaimed, or, the Danger of Moderate Drinking shelled out $500,000 in old-fashioned money.
Here, at last, was the life. Singer, now past 60, puttered through his marble halls. He amused himself with sketches toward the invention of a steel truss. He delighted in entertaining his various children, no matter who their mother. The Sunday supplements had yet to be circulated in Paignton; in consequence, Singer was regarded by his humble neighbors as odd, but friendly and generous. Even excessively so: periodically he launched monstrous entertainments to which all in the countryside were invited. When he died in July, 1875, he was tendered an impressive funeral, with a mile-long procession of 75 carriages and two thousand mourners; flags in Paignton and Torquay stood at half-mast.
In New York City, Edward Clark joined in “sincerely deploring the loss of this distinguished inventor,” and at once got himself elected president of the company.
The distinguished inventor was dead, but his genes went marching on. So, in more decorous fashion, did those of Edward Clark, who by 1882 had followed Singer to the grave. In death as in life, Clark’s effects were tidily and prudently disposed among his near and dear, who were neither numerous nor clamorous. Singer’s legacy, on the other hand, no matter how carefully he had contrived to order it before he died, caused a scandal as great as any in which he had been involved in life. Clark’s heirs, who have held a dominant share of The Singer Manufacturing Company stock, have used their wealth unexceptionably. The beauty of Cooperstown, New York, testifies to their wisdom, as does the first-rate collection of modern French paintings presently gracing the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Their generous support of such institutions as the New-York Historical Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is well-known. The family, like its founder, has been uniformly well-bred and well-behaved.
In contrast, Singer’s will was bitterly contested from every direction. William and Lillian, his oldest legitimate children, had been given $500 and $10,000 respectively. As far back as 1851 William had disgusted his father by his lack of gumption; “The last two days he spent in the office,” Barzillan Ransom said of William, “he was engaged in writing a play for one of the Theatres.” Perhaps matters might have gone easier with William had he been an acceptable playwright; but no, he was not even that. Isaac’s first wife, Catharine Maria, was likewise morose, for she had been left nothing. The three of them, however, settled for an additional $150,000 paid by the more fortunate heirs. (All the other children were awarded handsome bundles of Singer stock.)