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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.
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.
The circumstances of the invention itself are obscured by clouds of contention. Zieber later deprecated Singer’s role, but his was clearly a prejudiced statement. The canonical account of Singer’s triumph, published a quarter century later, bore the inventor’s name as author, but also the unmistakable, ghostly trace of a company publicity man. It is like all such accounts: the humble man of talent works feverishly (eighteen and twenty hours a day), single-mindedly (only one meal a day), for a ridiculously brief time (only eleven days—for, after all, how long would forty dollars last?); at length the parts are assembled on the eleventh night; the assembled machine repeatedly refuses to function, whilst one by one the workmen take their leave, as though from the proverbial sinking ship; the inventor despairs; a chance remark from a bystander leads to the Hash of realization of what has been wrong; the tiny adjustment is made, and—eureka!
Whether all this is blarney or not, one stubborn fact stands out: Isaac Singer had developed the first sewing machine that would work.
Nor is it possible to ascribe the invention to the luck of a rascal. Singer’s was a brilliant, perceptive, and original design. Andrew B. Jack of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose studies of early sewing-machine history were aided by examination of all the Singer Company’s early letter books, has stated that, to be practical, the device must include ten features: (1) lock stitch; (2) eye-pointed needle; (3) shuttle for second thread, vibratory or double-pointed; (4) continuous thread from spools; (5) horixontal table; (6) overhanging arm; (7) continuous feed, synchronous with needle motion; (8) thread or tension controls, giving slack thread as needed; (9) presser foot; and (10) ability to sew in a straight or curving line. Of all these features, only the ninth and tenth were invented by Singer. Elias Howe had originated the first, second, and fourth; other mechanics, notably J. Bachelder and A. B. Wilson, were responsible for the others; but theirs, like all the early machines, were crude and flawed. Only Singer’s embraced all ten features.
Singer’s design, which has survived substantially intact, was a radical departure from those of all his contemporaries, but it worked; it was, moreover, adaptable to a variety of jobs, whether in the home or the factory. In contrast, Howe’s machine could sew only eighteen stitches before the operator was obliged to remove the cloth for a fresh start; and his tension device was imperfect, so that the thread broke repeatedly. “Credit for the invention of the sewing-machine,” Jack declares, “must go to Isaac Merritt Singer.” It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his accomplishments.
On the heels of his achievement, Singer visibly expanded. His voice, always resonant, now took on a note of authority quite galling to his two associates. When Phelps suggested that, according to their agreement, his name should be linked with Singer’s on the patent application, Singer peremptorily shouted him down. When Zieber attempted to mediate and pacify, Singer hectored both men impartially while privately he urged Zieber to buy up Phclps’s interest. When Zieber refused, Singer did the job himself, paying Phelps off from money belonging to all three. In short, he behaved like a ruthless man of business whilst his partners behaved like gentle chuckleheads.
Elias Howe now appeared. Howe was uncomfortably aware that his own machine was less practical than Singer’s; he was, moreover, in desperate need of money. On the other hand, he had the basic patent, while Singer as yet had none. Manifestly, there was here the basis for a deal if all hands were reasonable. Howe offered Singer and Zieber the American rights to his patent for $2,000. The niceties of patent law were not calculated to appeal to Singer. He reacted in honest and forthright fashion: he would, he declared, boot Howe downstairs if he didn’t clear off the premises under his own steam. In part this gesture must have been motivated by the fact that Singer was finding himself, pleasurably and unexpectedly, with money on his hands. His machine, almost from the start, sold well, and the unit profit was generous. The world was becoming his oyster. He and Zieber decided to move their headquarters from Boston to New York.
The move involved, for the romantic inventor, a measure of intrepidity. Somewhere in New York was his wife, whom he had long since deserted (he called her Maria); there, too, was his consort, Mary Ann Sponsler (he called her Mary); and, under two different roofs, there were his children, who now numbered nine. But he had an imperative motive for settling once again in New York. The fact was, love had come again to Singer, in the shape of Mary Eastwood Walters (he called her Mary), 28 years old and presently the mother of his tenth child. He had not been in New York very long before love came to him again—for he was nothing if not receptive to the little naked god—in the shape of Mary McGonigal (how convenient; he could call her Mary, too), 22 years old and presently the mother of his eleventh child.
All this love cost the inventor money. Indeed, by early in 1851, his expenses were so considerable that the partnership of Singer and Zieber was obliged to open its arms to a third man, Barzillan Ransom, an elderly gentleman from Brooklyn who manufactured cloth bags for salt and was sufficiently impressed by Singer’s machine to tender promissory notes worth up to $10,000 in return for a one-third share in the business. But Ransom did not last long. To Singer he was merely another pigeon. Ransom, on the other hand, found Singer an extraordinary specimen, of a kind he had never before had an opportunity to inspect at close range. In March he termed Singer “singular”; by April he had concluded Singer was a “dictator#38; #8230; insufferable and unless he alters his hand promptly we must separate.” By May he had withdrawn—without having paid his notes.
Here was a blow, but there was worse to come. Elias Howe, angered by the success of various sewingmachine manufacturers and thoroughly embittered by a personal tragedy that he blamed on his earlier poverty, had turned vengefully litigious. He brandished suits, one after another, for patent infringement. From Singer he demanded $25,000. Payment of such a sum was of course out of the question, even presuming Singer for a moment believed he had infringed. He was certain he had not; but he needed a lawyer to prove his case, and he had no money even for a lawyer. He appealed to Ambrose Jordan, the attorney who had accompanied him to Washington when he applied for a patent. Would Jordan, Singer inquired, handle the case—and any subsequent litigation—for a share in the business? Jordan refused, for he found Singer personally distasteful. Instead, he referred him to his junior partner and son-in-law, Edward Clark. A former Sunday school teacher, a graduate of Williams at a time when that college’s undergraduate body consisted almost wholly of prospective clergymen and missionaries, Clark nevertheless, as we have seen, accepted.
There were now once again three partners—Singer, Zieber, and Clark—and all three, so unlike in other ways, were united in one respect: each thought there was one partner too many. Zieber, the would-be capitalist, considered Clark a usurper. Neither Clark nor Singer could see that Zieber was of any earthly use. An open rupture, however, was averted when Zieber fell sick of undulant fever; in the fear that he might die and leave a widow harassed by debts, he consented to sell his interest in the company to Singer and Clark for $6,000—an adequate return on the $40 he had originally invested, but microscopic in terms of what the interest was soon to be worth.∗
∗ In an account of this incident which he wrote some time later —for he survived the fever—Zieber was well-nigh incoherent with rage. He had, he contended, been “robbed,” “victimized” by scoundrels. He claimed that he would never have agreed to sell out for a paltry $6,000 had not Singer told him: “The Doctor thinks you won’t get over [your sickness]. Don’t you want to give up your interest in the business altogether?” Not until later, Zieber claimed, did he discover that Singer had never met the physician and that the physician had never said any such thing. In his account of the affair, however, Zieber reveals himself to be a well-meaning but naïve man, pathetically fated to lose out under the economic code of the nineteenth century—survival of the fittest. “During the month of June, 1860,” he wrote, “I disposed of the stock on hand, and went afterwards to Montevideo.”
Clark, once he had decided to stay with the firm despite Singer’s gaudy peccadilloes, turned out to be precisely the man for the job. By that time he had discovered (or thought he had) how far the warmth of Singer’s nature could lead him; but he had discovered as well that Singer’s machine was so far superior to any other on the market that, if all went well, he would soon be a very wealthy man indeed. Despite his wife’s advice, then, and to protect his stake, Clark plunged enthusiastically into the welter of lawsuits that had been let loose by Elias Howe’s charges of infringement.
By 1852 there were a dozen or more manufacturers elbowing their way into the sewing-machine business, each seeking any means, fair or foul, to wring an advantage from the rest. Of these, the largest were I. M. Singer & Co., Wheeler & Wilson Co., and Grover & Baker Co. In addition, Howe, although at first he manufactured no machines, bulked big because of his patent. From 1852 until late in 1856 each of these parties zestfully sued every other in what the press hailed as “the sewing machine war.”
It all began quietly enough with a suit brought by Howe against an unimportant company, but by 1854, having won a series of minor victories, Howe was able to force I. M. Singer & Co. to pay $28,000 in settlement of past claims and, furthermore, to pay a license fee of $10 on every machine sold in the future. By that time Clark had cunningly purchased the rights to a number of early patents, in consequence of which he was ready to bring suit, on behalf of I. M. Singer & Co., against all his rivals. In October, 1854, Clark wondered whether, like himself, those rivals might not be wearying of the struggle. “There are many cogent reasons,” he wrote to Howe, “why, in the future, we should act cordially together in respect to the maintenance and enforcement of our various patents.” But this reasoning failed; he was obliged to club his mulish competitors over the ears with lawsuits for two more years.
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.”
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.
In the offices of I. M. Singer & Co., Edward Clark was understandably scandalized. For months he had been seeking general acceptance of the sewing machine by offering it to community leaders—parsons and teachers—at half price. And this was his reward. He sent off one stinging letter of rebuke after another to his chastened partner. When the Civil War broke out, Clark seemed almost to blame that cataclysm, too, on Singer. “Business is pretty much at a standstill,” he wrote. “I am suffering for all the large public show of wealth which you made in 1859 and ’60. It was industriously spread abroad that the firm was rich. Now all who are rich are expected to be patriotic and to give liberally. … I am called on many times a day to subscribe and am obliged to refuse.”
Soon after his return to America in 1861, Singer was served with papers by counsel for Mary Ann Sponsler; this time she was suing him for divorce. It was a curious case: a woman who had lived with him intermittently for a quarter century, who had borne him ten children, yet to whom he had never been married, suing for divorce. Her grounds were that Singer had lived with her as his common-law wife for seven months after his divorce from Maria Haley, and in her complaint she made it clear that she had been brooding powerfully for some time over Singer’s iniquities. He was, she declared, “a most notorious profligate”; she had concluded, moreover, that “a more dissolute man never lived in a civilized country.” This was drawing a very long bow, but apparently the judge agreed with her, for he awarded her $8,000 a year as temporary alimony—a record for the timepending a permanent settlement. In a commendable effort to save himself still greater notoriety should the suit be prosecuted further, Singer settled out of court: he bought and furnished her a house in a8th Street, paid her lawyers’ fees, and gave her $500 in a lump sum and $50 a week for life or for so long as she should not marry. Then he wrote a crestfallen and characteristically illiterate letter to his partner: Mr. Clark, dear sir, My private afairs (though justly merited) hangs heavly upon me and my soul sicends [sickens] at the prospects befor me and for the well fare of all conserned try to make my load of grief as light as posabl. …
This done, Singer retired again to Europe.
In France, he found, matters were managed differently and, he considered, rather better. He stopped at a pension in Paris owned by the English-born widow of a Frenchman. This lady, Mme Pamela Boyer, had a daughter—intelligent, attractive, tactful, and gay. Her name was Isabella, and neither she nor her mother knew of a reason why she should not become the rich American’s mistress. And so not only love but also a measure of peace came to the distracted Singer. For Isabella Boyer seems, altogether, to have been a remarkably able woman. When they came to America in 1863 (Singer had learned that Mary Ann Sponsler had secretly married, which obliged him to come to a new settlement with her), Isabella promptly endeared herself to all of Isaac’s children, whether of the left hand or the right; moreover, though Isaac had been divorced, she somehow managed to inveigle an Episcopal rector into solemnizing her union with him.
But this belated access of respectability did not suffice to appease Edward Clark. Too long had the partners rasped on each other; in July, 1863, they rancorously agreed to dissolve the partnership. I. M. Singer & Co. became The Singer Manufacturing Company, but, at Isaac’s stipulation, neither was permitted to be president of the new corporation so long as the other should live. There were, however, compensations. Of an original capitalization of 5,000 shares priced nominally at $100 apiece, Clark and Singer each held 2,075; the balance they sold (at $200 apiece) to seventeen officers and employees of the company. The first dividend was declared in October, and within five years those who had paid $200 a share for their stock had gotten $225 in dividends. The golden flood was still only a trickle; the company has never skipped a dividend. One share in 1863 had become by 1958, through splits and stock dividends, 900 shares, worth about $36,000 at the current market price of about $40 a share, during which long time it had paid cash dividends of $131,340.
By the end of the Civil War the corporation began to expand in earnest. By 1867 the first foreign factory had been built, near Glasgow; and already the Singer salesman, America’s first world-wide commercial ambassador, was pressing his obstinate finger on the doorbells of the world. Everywhere he carried the Singer name; everywhere he enhanced his own reputation for pertinacity. He was incredibly competitive: once, when a Singer representative shot and killed a Wheeler #38; Wilson rival in a frontier saloon near Tacoma, Washington, he found he had gone too far, for he was lynched. Jokes (many of them, to our sophisticated ears, unbearably corny) grew up around the Singer salesman and his product as, two generations later, they would grow up around the Tin Lizzie. Thus:
“Why is a Singer Sewing Machine like a kiss?”
“Because it seams so good.”
On its centennial, not long ago, The Singer Manufacturing Company was able to hand out instruction booklets in 54 different languages, boast of more than 100,000,000 machines sold, point to fifteen factories —seven in the United States and the others scattered over Europe and South America—and glory in 5,000 Singer sewing centers all over the world.
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.)
The chief recalcitrant was Mary Ann Sponsler Foster. She had embittered Singer’s life and blackened his name. Her own children—save one, John Albert Singer—had turned against her. She had struck a deal with Isaac but concealed from him her violation of it. Now she insisted on $1,000,000, rejected any smaller settlement, and required that her suit be brought in the surrogate’s court of Westchester County. In a courtroom crowded with fashionably dressed, scandalminded onlookers, Mary Ann was her own worst witness. Her attorneys were hard put to find witnesses who would support her, even from among her own children. Only Orson Phelps stepped forward, a figure out of the past, to prate of how, a quarter century before, Singer had spent more time reciting Shakespeare than working on his own invention. At length Mary Ann accepted $75,000, in return renouncing all claims.
The subsequent careers of many of Singer’s children recalled the gaudy ways of their progenitor. Of the 22 who survived him, all but six had issue, and they contracted among them 35 marriages. One daughter married Prince Edmond de Polignac and was a friend of Marcel Proust; her musicales were celebrated events in Paris, and when she died she left behind a fund, administered by the Fondation Singer-Polignac , to give grants-in-aid to talented artists, musicians, and scientists. Another daughter married the downstart son of an impoverished southern banker, passed her middle years storming the aristocratic citadels of Newport, and retired to the Riviera, where, her husband having died, she engaged a succession of handsome chauffeurs and eventually dwindled away into a Noel Coward joke.
The true throwback among the Singer children was Paris, who died in 1932 but was immortalized in Isadora Duncan’s memoirs as her lover (she called him Lohengrin). Paris inherited his father’s splendid stature (6′4″), his father’s vitality and animal magnetism, a generous slice of his father’s fortune (worth, at Paris’ majority, perhaps $15,000,000), and his father’s faculty for invention (an electric organ and an internal-combustion engine). He was also capable of the grand gesture. Thus, he paid out $200,000 for an option on the old Madison Square Garden as a gift to Isadora Duncan; but when she was not properly appreciative, he allowed the option to lapse and let the $200,000 gurgle down the drain. When they parted in an emotional thunderstorm, Paris consoled himself by staking Addison Mizner as architect of Palm Beach and by himself becoming that resort’s arbiter elegantiae ; the dissolution of his Florida dreams reduced him to sailing up and down the Nile on chartered dahabeahs.
Thanks to their elders, Singer’s grandchildren (there were at least 54) had far less money to spend, and they spent or invested it far more primly—albeit not colorlessly. One shot wild animals in the African veld; one built an unimportant railroad; one made a hobby of attending National Amateur Golf Championships (“It brings out the best in me,” asserted Mortimer Singer, Jr.); one married a showgirl who, according to Ziegfeld, had the most beautiful legs in the world; one married a broker, and her child, grown to man’s estate, in 1922 plunked down a substantial sum of money to back Time , then still a struggling infant of a news magazine; one, dying in London, left her will so well hidden that a spiritualist who undertook to locate it by means of its emanations swooned from the strain as he left her premises; one retired as a nun into a French convent.
It is difficult, in surveying this assorted brood, to find a clue to a final judgment of their sire. What was Isaac Singer? Was he merely a Casanova? Was he a Don Juan in the Mozartian sense—a rebel, unscrupulously at war with every convention? Or was he simply an amoral and energetic hooligan blessed with a useful mechanical aptitude?
That there were many women in his life there can be no doubt. That most of them were genuinely fond of him is manifest, and it is the rawest of ironies that, in attempting to assess Singer, we must depend almost entirely on the evidence of the one woman who came to hate him. For the only detailed account of his private life is to be found in the divorce proceedings brought against him by Mary Ann Sponsler. She may be said to have been amply avenged for any hurts he gave her; thanks to her, posterity’s picture of Singer is that of a blackguard. Yet surely her account was not disinterested.
A less prejudiced witness might have concluded that Singer, while he was not the most punctilious of men, must have been, more often than not, a charming, likeable vulgarian, bubbling over with animal spirits, with a voracious appetite for life and a ready, if rough, talent for savoring all its delights. And quite apart from what he bequeathed to his children, he gave the world a most useful appliance indeed, the more appropriate since it was the girt of a man who, to put it moderately, must have been aware of the toil necessary to raise and clothe a large family.