The Sewing Machine : A Brief History
Arguments persist to this day over who invented the sewing machine. By default, Elias Howe usually receives the honour, more for his 1844 patents than for the machine he designed. But even here, there’s confusion. Englishman John Fisher may have beaten Howe to the patent office only to lose out because someone misfiled his papers.
Nonetheless, Elias Howe did hold the crucial sewing machine patents when Isaac Merritt Singer, Wheeler, Wilson and Grover Baker, soon to become the three biggest companies, began manufacturing their machines … a fact that led to what newspapers of the day correctly labelled The Sewing Machine Wars. And ironically, the blustering, cantankerous, hot-headed Isaac Singer could have owned Howe’s patents for a pittance–$2,000. A destitute Howe approached Singer in early 1851 with an offer to sell. Instead of buying, Singer, who at the time was strapped for money himself, flew into rage and threatened to toss his rival down a flight of stairs. Howe returned in the summer of 1852, this time with an offer to license his patents to Singer. Singer now had money and a new partner, attorney Edmond Clark (Clark subsequently constructed the Dakota Building in New York City, where singer/composer John Lennon was shot to death by Mark Chapman over a century later on December, 8, 1981). Clark doubted Howe had the finances or the fortitude to take his battle to court, and Clark questioned the validity of Howe’s patents. Singer and his lawyer-partner messed up, grandly … and thereby, especially to Singer’s later consternation, made Elias Howe a fabulously rich man.
The rhubarb over who invented the sewing machine stretches back to the mid-1700s, and more or less follows a now recognized path.
German immigrant Charles Weisenthal receives a patent for “a needle to be used for mechanical sewing”. No patent was applied for or issued for a device to perform his mechanical sewing.
Thomas Saint patents a machine fitted with an awl that makes a hole in leather and allows a needle to pass through it. No evidence exists that Saint produced a single machine, and those who followed his patent specifications failed.
James Henderson and Thomas Stone hand produce a machine that unsuccessfully attempts to duplicate hand sewing.
John Duncan demonstrates a working but unreliable machine that embroiders using several needles at once.
Balthasar Krems makes a machine for “sewing caps” but takes out no patents.
Josef Madersperger receives patent for a mechanical device that mimics the hand movements of sewing. Madersperger’s real genius, however, leads him to invent a needle with its eye near the needle point and a shuttle for pulling through a second thread. Madersperger fails to patent his inventions. He, however, can’t see beyond duplicating hand movements with a machine and continues to modify his patent. He fails to produce a single successful sewing machine. Still, those who single him out as the inventor of the sewing machine can and do build an interesting case for the Austrian.
1818, United States
John Doge and John Knowles turn out a machine that stitches reasonable well but only on short lengths of material. The machine also suffers from complicated and time-consuming resetting for each piece of fabric sewn.
Bathelemy Thimonnier receives a patent for a hardwood machine with a barbed needle. A decade later, Thimonnier has sold several machines for commercial sewing and owns a factory in Paris with up to 80 of his machines used to sew French army uniforms. Members of the Tailor’s Guild, fearing the demise of hand sewing, storm Thimonnier’s plant, destroy his machines, and burn down his building. Thimonnier improves the design of his machine and begins large-scale production. Members of the French guild again attack his manufacturing facility, forcing the beleaguered inventor to flee to England with a single machine he manages to salvage. Thimonnier scored three major firsts: his machines worked, he sold them to other businesses, and he established the first garment factory. In some quarters, Bathelemy Thimonnier qualifies as the inventor of the world’s first practical sewing machine.
1833, United States
Walter Hunt abandons attempts to emulate hand sewing movements and produces a sewing machine with a lock stitch that uses two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle. Hunt’s machine fails, limited like the Doge and Knowles machine to stitching short, albeit straight, seams.
1842, United States
John Greenough hand tools a working machine that pushes the sewing needle completely through the material being sewed. Greenough fails to raise sufficient funds to pursue his invention and abandons it.
John Fisher receives a patent for a machine that produces lace. Fisher’s design incorporates all the functions of a successful sewing machine, but his patent is apparently misfiled. This is essentially the same machine that will make Elias Howe and Isaac Singer millionaires.
1844, United States
Elias Howe receives a patent and demonstrates a reliable, commercial sewing machine but fails to make a single sale.
1851, United States
Isaac Merritt Singer introduces sewing machines based on Elias Howe’s patents. Singer soon realizes there’s little money in manufacturing commercial sewing machines for garment makers. He turns his energies to selling his machines for household use and his company becomes the first to deliver a product and then collect monthly instalment payments. The concept revolutionizes the sewing machine industry, then spreads to other industries.
Elias Howe, born in 1819 Massachusetts, left his father’s farm in 1835 for the small nearby town of Lowell. He quickly established himself as a man with an aptitude for machinery repair. Within a short time, Howe went to work for Ari Davis in the latter’s machine and repair shop. It was Davis who introduced Howe to the idea of producing a sewing machine. Davis had tried unsuccessfully and half-heartedly to build such a device. Howe became fascinated with the idea, almost to the point of obsession.
In spite of being married and having children, and suffering from a hereditary lameness and poor health, Howe left his job. He convinced a friend and moderately successful investor named George Fisher to support the Howe household and to put up enough cash for raw materials and tools. At first, Howe scored few successes, and Fisher was called upon to commit more and more money. Discarding failure after failure, Howe ultimately developed a lock stitch which proved vastly superior to the chain stitch used on earlier inventions. Howe’s lock stitch used less thread and resisted unravelling as thread was pulled through the machine. Finally, Howe turned out and demonstrated a successful machine that could out sew five professional needle workers. Unfortunately, his machine was expensive, broke down repeatedly, and sewed only a straight seam. Howe failed to sell a single machine.
Howe soon produced a second machine. It cost less, proved mildly reliable, operated smoothly, and was more compact. With George Fisher’s money, Howe patented his machine in September, 1846. But it failed to sell. Fisher exited the venture and Howe retired to his father’s home with no money and no prospects.
Months later, following up a lead developed by his brother in England, Howe crossed the Atlantic to build a corset-sewing machine for a man named William Thomas. Thomas proved himself a total rascal who cheated Howe out of his patent rights in England, who failed to pay the American the wages promised, and who fired the financially and physically exhausted inventor once the task of adapting his machines to corset sewing was completed. Howe finally managed to scrape together enough money to return to America, destitute and sick in both mind and body. He landed in New York, learning almost immediately that his wife was gravely ill. Howe’s father provided him enough money to join his wife at her bedside. Shortly after his arrival, she died of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis). Her friends ascribed her passing as much to her family’s poverty as to the consumption she had suffered with for years. Howe was so strapped for money he had to attend her funeral in a suit borrowed from his brother-in-law.
Five years after patenting his invention, Elias Howe inadvertently fired the first salvo of what the New York newspapers quickly dubbed The Sewing Machine War. He approached Isaac Merritt Singer, quite correctly informing him the machines the Singer Company was manufacturing infringed upon patents legally belonged to none other than Elias Howe. Howe offered to sell his patent rights to Singer for $2,000. Singer went ballistic, loudly and repeatedly threatening Howe with physical violence. Howe quickly withdrew, but his experiences in England with William Thomas served him well, and he returned in short order, this time with a price tag of $25,000, and not for the patent rights, but only for the right to manufacture machines under license from Howe. Edmond Clark, Singer’s attorney and new partner, joined Isaac in unceremoniously ushering the frail Howe out the door and off the premises.
Elias Howe, with financial backing from a new partner of his own, filed suits against every American company making sewing machines. Within two years, everyone settled and manufactured under Howe’s license – except I.M. Singer & Company. Isaac Singer was a large, powerfully-built man given to sudden fits of uncontrollable rage. He had previously forced all of his several partners out of his company, nakedly cheating each in the process. Edward Clark was smart, inventive, and accustomed to intimidating lesser souls who “muddled through life” without the physical or financial resources to stand toe-to-toe with him. The Singer-Clark partnership posed a formidable challenge to the sickly, gimpy inventor from Massachusetts.
Edward Clark, supported by his partner, laughed off Howe’s threats to sue the I.M. Singer Company, arrogantly convinced the upstart Howe possessed neither the money nor the fortitude to pursue his claims in court. Clark also vowed he could legally prove Elias Howe’s sewing machine was based on the work of previous inventors, which made Howe’s patents void and unenforceable. Clark erred grievously. Howe, buoyed by his successes against other companies, went after Singer with a vengeance a stunned Isaac Merritt Singer was totally unaccustomed to facing. And equally startling, other companies, protecting their patents, went after him as well. Suddenly, the I.M. Singer Company saw profits plummet as the expense of defending itself in court escalated. A now bedraggled Edward Clark found his entire work load turned over to facing opposing attorneys in one court after another.
The Sewing Machine War involved more than a long series of court cases, all dutifully, sometimes joyously reported by the East Coast press, especially in New York. Both Howe and Singer repeatedly took their cases to the public via newspaper advertising in which each lauded himself and belittled the other.
Howe advertised, quite correctly, that he originated the sewing machine that he had a court-ordered injunction against Singer for patent infringement. He cautioned his readers that, if they bought a Singer, they might be legally compelled to pay twice – once to Singer for their original purchase, and again to Howe for patent rights compensation. Singer countered, assuring the public that his machines were expertly designed and reliably made, and that Howe’s were poorly designed and didn’t work. He also hammered away at the contention Howe had invented, claiming Howe’s sewing machine was bogus and his patents invalid.
Howe soon turned his guns on the very newspapers that ran his advertisements, warning anyone who published Singer’s libels be prosecuted. Singer claimed repeatedly that he alone was opposing Howe and thereby forestalling the latter’s attempts to establish a monopoly under which he could cheat the public. He also took regular pot-shots at Wheeler & Wilson Co., Wilcox & Baker Co., and Grover $ Baker Co., his three largest competitors, each of whom manufactured profitably under license from Howe and enjoyed immensely the new woes of the I.M. Singer Co.
Isaac Singer’s angry outbursts and Edward Clark’s array of courtroom manoeuvres made good newspaper copy, but one raw fact remained incontestable – No sewing machine could work unless it relied on Howe’s basic patents. Clark set out to prove Walter Hunt invented the sewing machine some 12 years prior to Elias Howe receiving his American patent. Singer personally met repeatedly with Hunt, flattering, threatening, pleading, suggesting – he needed a model of Hunt’s original machine to show in court. Hunt at last recalled that his former partner George Arrowsmith might have one of the machines at his old blacksmith shop. Indeed, Hunt did find some metal pieces, which he promptly declared were part of his machine. Singer excitedly bankrolled Hunt and several workers, demanding they recreate the Hunt machine. But they couldn’t. Singer next brought in a man renowned for his mechanical expertise. The machine still failed to materialize out of the assortment of old metal pieces, but the man suggested ways the pieces might have combined with other pieces still missing. Hunt readily agreed that exactly they did.
Walter Hunt applied for a sewing machine patent seven years and nine days from the very day Howe’s patent had been granted. Hunt then announced to the public that he, not Elias Howe, was the true inventor of the sewing machine. With Singer’s encouragement, Hunt sued Howe for patent infringement. Howe, in turn, filed suit against two companies selling Singer machines, and Hunt, best remembered today as the inventor of the safety pin, soon withdrew quietly from the arena. The court quickly ruled in Howe’s favour. His patents were valid. The court ordered Isaac Singer to pay Elias Howe thousands of dollars in damages. Howe now prepared to file similar suits in both New York and New Jersey. Clark finally acknowledged any further litigation with Howe would end with the result. Isaac Merritt Singer capitulated, agreeing to make his machines under license from the victorious Elias Howe. The cost of that license? $25 per machine!
Within months, Elias Howe’s income jumped from a few hundred dollars a year in royalties to over $200,000. Eventually, his sewing machine patents brought in almost $2 million. He and his children were never again to know poverty.
Howe’s patent rights settled, and his projected fortune noted, the other companies examined their position and patents, and decided Howe’s success was something worth duplicating. Company after another filed traipsed off to court, suing, being sued, and countersuing. Close to 1,000 sewing patents existed, and every machine made infringed on not one or two, but several patents held by somebody some place. Court dockets filled to overflowing. Attorney’s specialized in the complicated in and outs of sewing machine patents and raked in hefty and seemingly unending fees.
Edward Clark, however, was not the only attorney heading up a sewing machine company. Orlando Potter of Grover & Baker Co. was Clark’s counterpart, and a worthy one at that. In 1856, Grover & Baker, as well as Wheeler & Wilson Co., were squaring off to battle I.M. Singer Co. and each other in yet another long, costly patent infringement trial. Orlando Potter, was tired of the bloodletting, had a better idea. The companies of Grover & Baker, Wheeler & Wilson, and I.M. Singer made a substantial number of America’s sewing machines and held a majority of its patents. Instead of suing and warring each other into bankruptcy, Potter suggested the pool their patents under a single agreement that benefited them and excluded everyone else. They would form a consortium, pay fees to themselves based on so many dollars per machine sold, and reserve a small portion of those fees to sue any new company that came into existence without their blessing. They’d also sue any established company that was not a member of their closed group.
The principals in all three companies saw powerful advantages and huge profits in such an arrangement and immediately formed the Sewing Machine Combination. They also realized the one inescapable stumbling block facing such an arrangement: Elias Howe, holder of the three most important patents in the industry. To secure Howe’s participation, the Combination agreed to two of his prerequisites. First, he was to receive an additional payment for every machine sold in the United States and a smaller amount for every machine exported to other parts of the world. Second, at least two dozen members would make up the Combination, thus thwarting the founding members who wanted to establish a sewing machine monopoly. The three manufacturing giants hesitated, but Howe held the balance of power and refused to budge. Faced with more court skirmishes over the troublesome patents issues, they sued this time for peace and capitulated, reluctantly giving Howe his way. demands.
The 1856 agreement effectively ended the Sewing Machine War. Manufacturing increased dramatically. I.M. Singer Co. adapted the arms industries mass production techniques to sewing machine manufacturing, and other industries quickly followed suit. However, despite Elias Howe’s good intentions, a flurry of patent pools in other industries gradually led to the rise of huge monopolies able to completely dominate the American economy.
As the early sewing machine producers turned more and more from manufacturing to filing patent infringement suits against one another, Isaac Singer, the most bellicose and uncompromising of the group, found himself sued, totally without merit in his view, by every one of his major competitors. He lashed back, verbally and print, accusing Wheeler and Wilson of stealing from him, labelling Grover and Baker unprincipled scoundrels, faulting Willcox and Gibbs for robbing him his peace of mind, and savaging Elias Howe, his nemesis, for perjuries that would doom the latter to hell.
Willcox and Gibbs certainly robbed Singer’s peace of mind with more than their contentious court battles. James Gibbs invented and manufactured what many regard of the premier sewing machine of those days.
James Gibbs was born near Raphine, Virginia, on August 1, 1829. He worked in his father’s wool mill until it burned down in 1845. Following the fire, at age 16, James Gibbs left home to find work. Interestingly, one of the first things he accomplished was to significantly improve the process for carding wool. He had no money, however, and was unable to patent invention.
Still in his teens, Gibbs made an adequate income surveying Randolph County in Virginia. On his last surveying job, while cutting down a small tree, he sliced open his right knee cap. The accident kept him unemployed for almost half a year. When he finally recovered, he hired out as a carpenter.
In late 1851, James Gibbs met Catherine Givens, whom he married in August of the following year. Catherine’s father, Colonel Samuel Given, graciously offered the young couple a substantial amount of land and equipment to start a farm of their own. Gibbs, however, declined the offer and continued to work as a carpenter.
In January, 1856, at age 27, Gibbs examined a Singer sewing machine recently purchased by a local tailor. He thought it heavy and complicated – in fact, too heavy and too complicated. And it sold for something like $125. That was a princely sum, and, in his view, excessive. James Edward Allen Gibbs decided, then and there, that he could make a lighter, simpler, less expensive sewing machine. By April, being an accomplished carpenter, he had created a model of his machine in, of all things, wood, including a revolving looper he reportedly formed from the root and a plant!
Needing money to apply for patents, Gibbs may have sold half interest in his invention to a local sawmill owner named John Ruckman. At any rate, he next journeyed to the patent office in Washington, D.C., where he studied several patent models built by other inventors. He then patented two of his distinct, and important, original features: 1) a revolving looper that pulled a measured amount of thread equal to the length of the stitches it performed; and 2) a feeding device that held and fed fabric under the needle as it was sewed.
A year later in Philadelphia, Gibbs met James Willcox, the latter introducing himself as someone who backed inventors. The two seemed to hit it off, and Willcox invited Gibbs to build one of his machines in the Willcox shop. Gibbs accepted and worked with Charles Willcox, James’s son, to produce the metal sewing machine that served as his patent model. He submitted the machine to the patent office in June of 1857 and received a patent number for his finished machine. James Gibbs, an inventor with little enthusiasm for selling, and James Willcox, an investor with a penchant for business and marketing, formed a partnership. Willcox immediately arranged for a small clock and measuring instrument company in Providence, Rhode Island to manufacture the new Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine.
Brown & Sharpe, the manufacturer, ran into immediate problems. Special dies and tools needed designed so the sewing machine’s parts would be totally interchangeable, a concept Isaac Singer borrowed from gun manufacturing. James Gibbs replaced his original sewing machine design with a smaller, more compact model. Iron castings contained several spots so hard they wore out the company’s drills with regular and expensive frequency. Manufacturing had begun in early 1858. By fall, James Willcox was losing patience and worrying about costs. They hadn’t completed or sold a single sewing machine.
Lucien Sharpe finally sent James Willcox good news in early October, 1858 – 50 machines were finished and ready for sale. And sell they did, with amazing quickness, for the Willcox & Gibbs machine performed one feat no other machine was able to match. It could form a chain-stitched seam without dropping stitches! And while the machines of Isaac Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, and Grover & Baker continued to command a $100 to $125 price, the Willcox & Gibbs model sold in an elegant stand for half that price.
Singer responded to the popularity of the Willcox & Gibbs machine with a smaller, lighter machine that still sold for $100. It bombed. Singer improved his machine and lowered its price to $75. The move had no effect on Willcox & Gibbs’ sales.
In 1861, Civil War came to America. James Gibbs abandoned his sewing machine business, now centred in New York City, to join the Confederate cavalry. Within a matter of days, however, he contracted typhoid fever and found himself dismissed from service. He stayed on in the South until war’s end, invested in a farm, and did see action as a lieutenant in a minor engagement during the summer of 1864.
After Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April, 1965, a financially strapped James Gibbs returned to New York City. The Pinkerton Detective Agency functioned as the Union’s secret service. One of their agents mistakenly identified James Gibbs as Louisiana Gibbs, the maker of a Confederate Army muzzle loading cannon. The detective trailed the sewing machine inventor all the way to his company office in New York, where he finally was able to verify that James was not the sought-after Gibbs from the Bayou State.
As soon as he returned to New York, James Edward Allen Gibbs learned that his partner James Willcox had continued making and selling Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines. His honest and ethical partner had also continued to set aside James’s share, which now totalled slightly more the $10,000, a magnificent sum in 1865 dollars.
In spite of the quality and affordability of their machines, the Willcox & Gibbs Company soon faced several serious set-backs. First, the U.S. Patent Office noted that Gibbs had left the Union and sworn loyalty to the Confederate States of America. Thus, he had engaged in rebellion and was not eligible to hold a United States patent. That ruling was overturned when Gibbs submitted close to 50 affidavits, mostly from American business owners, and received a patent extension in 1872. Then Gibbs made an ill-advised effort to sell his machines in the cash-stripped South. His company established offices in Richmond, Virginia, and ran up expenses it never recovered. The Panic of 1873, which was a full-blown depression whose economic devastation lingered on for years, siphoned sales down to a trickle. Willcox & Gibbs abandoned the domestic market to a much stronger Isaac Singer Company and concentrated on manufacturing industrial machines.
James Gibbs continued to work and travel until his retirement in mid 1880s. He and his wife Catherine had four daughters (Florence, Cornelia, Ellabel, and Ethel). Catherine died of typhoid fever in 1887. James married Margaret Craig six years later and died of a paralytic condition on November 25, 1902.
- The major players, the New Home saga
- Thomas J. White, inventor and founder of White Sewing Machine Company (1866)
- William L, Grout, salesman and early partner of White
- Stephen French, gifted mechanic, early employee of White
- William B. Barker, White salesman, co-founder of The Gold Medal Sewing Machine Company (later renamed New Home)
- Andrew J. Clark, co-founder of The Gold Medal Sewing Machine Company
- Yosaku Osa, founder of Janome
Even as the Sewing Machine War raged across the Eastern Seaboard, Thomas H. White opted to abandon his struggling furniture-making business, turning his energies in 1860 to making sewing machines in a small rented shop in East Templeton, Massachusetts. He named his first model The New England. William Grout, White’s partner in making furniture, William Grout, joined White, again as a partner, and assumed most of the selling responsibilities. Grout, however, didn’t stay long and sold his interest in the new company back to White in 1861.
William Barker assumed Grout’s role, both as partner and salesman. The company scored a mild success here and there, but nothing else. White, however, had hired Stephen French as a mechanic responsible for helping to assemble his machines. French turned out to be both extremely talented and surprisingly innovative. He soon moved into a position of authority and ultimately oversaw the entire production process, even adding design innovations of his own.
At the end of his first year, Thomas White’s landlord in East Templeton decided to increase the sewing machine maker’s rent. White regarded the increase as unwarranted, especially for a building that small. White soon moved, relocating to Orange, Massachusetts. He rented a relatively large building and increased his labour force to over 20 workers. He named his first machine made in Orange the New England Family Sewing Machine.
(Founded in 1734, the town of Orange is named after William, Prince of Orange. It promotes itself as the home of the New Home Sewing Machine and the home of the first automobile factory,)
For reasons not entirely clear, Thomas White quit his Massachusetts operation and transferred his sewing machine manufacturing to Ohio, where he established the White Sewing Machine Company in 1866.
With Thomas White out of the picture in Massachusetts, William B. Barker, once a salesman for White, joined Andrew J. Clark in April, 1867, to form the Gold Medal Sewing Machine Company. They hired the gifted Stephen French, whom White left behind, and named him their superintendent. French held the position until he later sold his interest in the company and was replaced by William Grout, White’s original partner in both his furniture business and his first sewing machine company. Grout became a partner, took over as superintendent, and was named general manager in 1877.
In 1882, The Gold Medal Sewing Machine Company renamed itself The New Home Sewing Machine Company. The name was coined by combining two of Gold Medal’s most popular sewing machine models, The New England and the Home Shuttle.
Co-founder Andrew Clark died in 1882, leaving William Barker and William Grout as the surviving partners. In 1889, they purchased the Orange Iron Foundry and moved all of New Homes manufacturing and distribution to this location. Within a few years, New Home was the premier manufacturer of sewing needles in the United States and even supplied other sewing machine companies, including Singer, with their products.
New Home turned out a steady line of successful machines for the next several decades. Then, in a move that proved disastrous, New Home decided to consolidate its sewing machine cabinet presence by buying National Furniture, a Pennsylvania company. Things went irretrievably wrong. Within a year, New Home failed to turn a profit for the first time ever. By the next year, 1921, the company failed to repay its bank debt, most of it generated by the purchase of National Furniture. The banks moved in and took over New Home, but proved unable to turn the ailing company around. Finally, Free Sewing Machine Company of Rockford, Illinois, took over for the banks, operating New Home from 1928 until the winter of 1930, when it completely took over New Home.
New Home continued to manufacture as an American-based company until 1960, when Janome Sewing Machine Company of Tokyo,Japan, bought all rights to the New Home name.
Note–Janome means eye of the snake. Yosaku Ose used a glass and metal bobbin that Japanese women said looked like a pair of snake eyes. Ose liked the reference and adopted it as his company name.