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A brief history on the
Invention of the Sewing Machine

 

Few inventions have proved as valuable to the world as that of the sewing machine. It ranks high on every list of great inventions and has freed women from drudgery as perhaps no other mechanical device in history. "Next to the plough" wrote Louis Antoine Godey in 1856, "this sewing machine is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument."

Before the sewing machine appeared, making clothes was the chief occupation of half the human race. Since this work had to be done by hand, it was time consuming and eyestraining.

The 19th century was an age of invention, and it is not surprising that during this period many men turned their attention to the development of devices for making stitches mechanically. History books have long credited Elias Howe, Jr. with the invention of the sewing machine utilizing an eye-pointed needle and shuttle. The machine in which he won fame was hardly practical and many of the principals which it embodied had been in the inventions of others years earlier. It sewed only straight seams and only a few inches at a time.

Isaac Merrit Singer invented the first truly practical sewing machine in 1850. Although cumbersome in appearance and heavy to operate, it embodied the basic principles found in all sewing machines of today. Most important of all, it could sew continuously any kind of seam, straight, circular or angular, and unlike previous machines, was so simple that the user did not have to be an expert machinist to operate it.

 

To no single individual can the full credit for the invention of the sewing machine be rightfully given. Probably the first device that could be described as a sewing machine was designed by Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker of Greenhill Rents parish of St. Sepulchre, England, and was patented in 1790. It was intended for stitching shoes and boots. The materials to be stitched were attached to a traveling carriage while a forked needle worked in a perpendicular manner from an overhanging arm in conjunction with a looping instrument below to form a chain stitch. Unfortunately, Saint's patent drawings were filed with those covering adhesives used in uniting pieces of leather and hence escaped notice for many years. They included certain features, which are essential to sewing machines used today, but there is considerable doubt that Saint ever made more than a single experimental and his idea was never put to any practical use.

Sometime later, between 1790 and 1800, *Baltasar Krembs in Mayan, Germany, invented a machine which made an elastic stitch by means of an eye-pointed needle, but he failed to patent his machine. Nevertheless it is still in existence, being on exhibition at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

*I recently received a correction to this above information, here is an exact copy of message >

>>Dear Mr. Bannen,

Your information on a sewing machine invented by

Baltasar Krembs is half right and half wrong. The

Deutsches Museum is in possesion of sewing machine

by Baltasar Krembs but this machine is only a replica

and not an original.<<

Yours sincerly

--

Dr. Winfrid Glocker

Deutsches Museum

 

In 1804, John Duncan of Glasgow, Scotland, devised a machine utilizing a barbed-eye needle which produced a chain stitch for use in embroidery, but he did not claim nor did he intend that it be used for making seams.

In 1814, Josef Madersperger, a master tailor of Kufstein in the Austrian Tyrol, made the first sewing machine capable of stitching a seam. His fellow tailors looked askance at his handiwork and he lacked the resources to develop his invention elsewhere. The Madersperger machine used a double pointed needle to produce a simple running stitch. Later he developed an improved machine which utilized a single eye pointed needle and a shuttle, but the arrangement for feeding the material under the needle was faulty. Had he combined the element of the two machines in one, he would have fully the principles on which later sewing machines were based.

In 1818, the Rev. John Adams Dodge of Monkton, Vermont, with the help of John Knowles, the local blacksmith, designed and built a sewing machine. The finished product was cumbersome, using a double pointed needle with the eye in the middle. It could produce a satisfactory backstitch for only short distances.

By 1829, Barthelemy Thimmonier, a poor French tailor, entirely ignorant of the principles of mechanics, produced a workable machine made of wood and capable of making a chain stitch by means of a crochet or barbed needle in which the loops lay on the upper surface of the material being stitched. In 1830, Thimmonier was issued a patent by the French government, and by 1841 eighty of his machines were making uniforms for the French Army. Unfortunately an angry mob of tailors fell upon his machines and smashed them to pieces.

In 1848, his second invention of the sewing machine, capable of making 200 stitches per minute, was destroyed by a mob. However, he took one of the machines which he had escaped destruction to England where obtained a patent the following year. In 1850, he obtained a US. Patent, but by this time other inventors had entered the field with more practical machines. Thimmonier perfected the first sewing machines made in commercial quantities and put them to practical use, but reaped no reward for his genius.

 

Henry Lye of Philadelphia, PA. In 1826 obtained the first US. Patent on a sewing device. However, his model was destroyed in a fire that swept the Patent Office leaving the description too meager for the determination of exactly how it worked. It apparently was never manufactured.

About the same time Thimmonier was perfecting his machine in France, a 39 year old Quaker genius named Walter Hunt created a machine which used an eye-pointed needle moved by a vibrating arm, working in combination with a shuttle carrying a second thread. It made an interlocked stitch fully as well as it is done by our present improved machines. Only in the manner of feeding cloth under the needle was Hunt's machine imperfect. Hunt started to manufacture his machine but abandoned his project after the urging of his fifteen year old daughter who convinced him that it would throw seamstresses out of work. Hunt failed to apply for a patented until 1854 when he belatedly realized his oversight: it was refused him on the grounds of abandonment. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Hunt perfected the first sewing machine that contained all the elements of practicability.

In 1841 two gentlemen in England named Newton and Archbold designed a chain stitch machine employing an eye-pointed needle, but aside from this bare fact little else is known of their invention. A year later an American, John James Greenough, patented a sewing machine which combined a stitch forming mechanism with a device for presenting work to a double pointed needle with an eye in the middle, but it was not practical in any broad sense and thus was never developed. In the next year, 1843, Dr Frank R. Goulding of Macon, Georgia also created a sewing device but he failed to develop it.

In Boston, Massachusetts in 1839, Elias Howe, Jr., a youth of 20, gravely listened to an argument between his employer and a well-dressed visitor. The visitor had contended a sewing machine would be much more practical than the knitting machine. Howe remembered the words of the visitor and devoted all of his spare time to the invention of such a device. He wasted many months endeavoring to copy the motions of his wifes arm when sewing. Then the idea came to him of using two threads and forming a stitch with the aid of a shuttle. There is no reason to believe that Howe was aware of Walter Hunt's previous work along the same lines. On September 10th, 1846 a patent was issued on Howe's machine embodying a curve eye-pointed needle carrying an upper thread and operating in a horizontal plane in conjunction with a shuttle for the lower thread to form a lock stitch. However, Howe found no market for his machine in the United States at the time so he went to England to set up manufacture, only to return to the States three years later to find the sewing machine had become celebrated, though his part in its invention was seemingly forgotten.

John A. Bradshaw of Boston, invented and patented in 1848 a lock stitch machine with a reciprocating shuttle. The following year Charles Morey and J.B. Johnson patented a chain stitch machine of limited practicality. Its only real contribution was that it handled the material on a horizontal bed instead of suspending it in a perpendicular plane as most of its predecessors.

On May 8th, 1849, John Bachelder secured a patent on a two-thread chain stitch machine which, because of its continuous feed and vertical moving needle above a horizontal plate, was destined to be one of the most important sewing machine patents issued. Later in the same year, SC. Blodgett, with the assistance of John A. Lerow, perfected and patented an ingenious lock stitch machine that featured the first continuously moving shuttle that traveled horizontally in an endless rotating baster plate.

In Boston in 1850, Isaac Merrit Singer, a journeyman mechanic, borrowed forty dollars and made the first sewing machine capable of sewing continuously. Singer was granted patents in 1851 and began to make machines, first in Boston and then in New York. He incorporated principles used before, combined them into the most practical arrangement, added important features of his own design and gave the world the first truly practical sewing machine. Instead of the shuttle moving in a circle, it moved to and fro in a straight line and instead of the needle bar moving a curved needle horizontally, Singer made a straight needle that moved up and down.

 

In addition to a straight eye pointed needle and transverse shuttle. Singer's invention called for an overhanging arm, a table to support the cloth, a presser foot to hold the material down against the upward stroke of the needle and a roughened feed wheel extending through a slot in the table. Motion was transmitted to the needle arm and shuttle by means of gears. None of the other sewing machines in existence at that time had any means of applying power except by a handcrank. Singer used the machine packing case as a table and conceived the idea of using a treadle similar to that on a spinning wheel. However, he failed to realize the value of this arrangement and did not take the trouble to apply for a patent.

A copy of the first Singer machine is in the Smithsonian Institute today. Dr. Frederick J. Lewton, formerly Curator of the Division of Textiles at the Smithsonian, described it as "The first successfully operating and practical sewing machine.

In the past century upwards of 46,000 sewing machine patents of various kinds have been issued. And today there are more than 4,000 different types of sewing machines made.

But none of the machines would have been possible without the prior inventions of men like Singer, Howe, Hunt and the others who established the basic principles on which all subsequent developments have depended. These are the true pioneers-the men who deserve major credit for the invention of the sewing machine.

 

This above article was featured in the 1960 copy of "Singer Students Manual of Straight Stitch Machine Sewing" There are many variations of the "History of the Sewing Machine" this version in my humble opinion is written with bias and establishes Isaac Singer as the patriarch of the Sewing Machine. This version fails to mention the sewing machine combination determined and enforced through the courts, where Singer and other manufactures of sewing machines were forced to pay Elias Howe a royalty for infringement of his patents.

My research in this field establishes without doubt that this period of history must have been a "free for all" with individuals and companies freely stealing or if you will, borrowing others ideas and inventions, incorporating these into the manufacture of their own machines.

One does not have to investigate this long before witness of this practice is brought to light. Today in my travels throughout the world brings me in contact with many machines that are unidentifiable by trademark or any name or manufacturing country stamped into castings. This was a common practice in the mid to late 19th century with many manufacturers intentionally not marking their machines, for fear of having to pay royalties to the combination.

The above article also fails to mention other significant inventors who went on to become very successful businessmen employing and contributing to the very livelihood and fabric of society. These were businesses that for the most part faded away through circumstances the modern age brought along.

Today is an exciting period in our history. The Sewing Machine history is enjoying a new interest. People from all corners of the world are collecting these machines and learning their history. Not only is the collecting of sewing machines of importance, also the collecting of operating, service manuals, company literature and promotional giveaways. As you can imagine all communication between offices and plants throughout the world was by pen & paper, there must be reams of this still in existence. Trade cards were another popular vehicle for manufacturers advertising. All this commonly referred to, as "ephemera" This is of utmost importance in establishing history of the sewing machine and its development. With this information we can better preserve the history of the sewing machine for this generation and many to follow.

by Bob Bannen, former owner of sew2go

 

 

Home
Invention of the Sewing Machine ~ Canadian Sewing Machine Manufacturers
Sewing Machine Values ~ Singer Dates ~ Willcox & Gibbs Dates ~ Needle Threading
Shuttle Identification ~ Common Problems ~ Why Make Quilts? ~ Sewing With Children
Packing a Sewing Machine ~ Paint a Featherweight ~ Favorites and Links

 

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