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Sewing And Reaping A Fortune
A 150-year-old invention keeps on remaking the world
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
As the stock market has bounced up and down this year, there has been much talk about the Old Economy and the New Economy. But the Old Economy, however temporarily unfashionable it may be on Wall Street, is still very much with us. Buildings are still made of steel and concrete. Oil and the internal-combustion engine still dominate transportation. You are probably reading this article by the light of an invention Thomas Edison first demonstrated in 1879.
And there are many parts of Planet Earth that even the Old Economy has not yet reached, where the people still live in what we might call the old Old Economy. This is a system of subsistence agriculture and hand labor, of grinding poverty for the many and vast wealth for the few. That was the condition of the Western world 250 years ago, and the only way out of it is to do what the West did then: industrialize. An industrial economy creates wealth much faster than does a nonindustrial one, and if history is any guide, however rich those at the top of the economic ladder become, the rest of society becomes much richer as well.
Obviously, the process of building an industrial economy has to start somewhere. In the Western world it began with cloth, when the manufacture of textiles was industrialized beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century in the English Midlands. Today, however, when the textile industry is highly mechanized and capital-intensive, the manufacture of clothes often is the starting point for industrialization.
Clothes is one of those curious English words that have no singular. The reason is simple enough: The singular used to be cloth . Clothes, after all, are just pieces of cloth sewn together to match the body’s contours. Sewing is about as ancient a technology as still exists, but while cloth making was industrialized very early on, clothes continued to be made by hand for almost another century. Someone had to invent a practical sewing machine.
Once it was invented, clothes making rapidly became industrialized, because the technology was inexpensive (one sewing machine per worker, who supplied the power) and easy for uneducated workers to master. Wherever there has been a large supply of cheap labor—New York’s vast immigrant population late in the nineteenth century, the Third World today—the sewing machine has often proved the first rung up the ladder out of poverty. Its development was thus one of the triumphs of the early Industrial Revolution, as important an engine of wealth creation in its way as the railroad.
It was no simple matter to devise a means to do mechanically what had always required delicate and complex movements by the human hand. Like many important inventions of the early nineteenth century, the sewing machine was the work of many. But so often the historical credit has largely gone to the man who finally put the pieces together, Isaac Merritt Singer.
Singer is a classic example of Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work. He was an extraordinarily self-centered man who used others shamelessly, especially women, but his pursuit of his own fortune greatly improved the standard of living of millions, particularly women.
He was born in upstate New York in 1811, the youngest son of Adam Singer, who had been born in Germany in 1753. The family fell apart when Isaac was ten. That year his mother, having apparently had enough of her husband’s chronic philandering, divorced Adam—a rare proceeding in early-nineteenth-century America—and moved to a Quaker community in Albany. She never saw her family again. Adam quickly remarried, and he lived to be 102.
Singer was more or less on his own by the time he was twelve, when he moved to burgeoning Rochester, where he apparently lived with an older brother. He managed to get a little schooling but would never write with fluidity or even good spelling. At nineteen he became an apprentice in a machine shop, where he quickly demonstrated a talent for mechanics. Isaac Singer was a born tinkerer. Unfortunately, he wanted to be an actor, but while undoubtedly possessed of considerable personal charm, he had at best only a pedestrian talent.
The pattern of his life established itself while he was still a teenager. He would act when he could and take jobs as a mechanic when he had to. In between he pursued women with the same cheerful relentlessness as had his father. He had married in 1830, when he was nineteen, and by 1837 he had two children to support. In Baltimore, touring with an acting company, he met an attractive young woman and soon became engaged to her. Needless to say, he did not bother to tell her he was already married. Not long after he returned to New York, his wife went back to her parents. The marriage was over, although he did send her money when he had any.
Singer’s fiancée then appeared in New York expecting to marry the young, handsome, and charming man who had won her heart. Singer had no choice but to tell her at least some version of the truth, and he persuaded her to accept the situation. Their first child was born on July 27, 1837, and nine more followed, but he never did marry her (indeed, he left her for someone else whom he did marry, divorcing his first wife in 1860), and he also fathered numerous children by other women.