Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875)

The son of a German immigrant, Isaac Merritt Singer was the man behind one of the sewing machine patents that succeeded within an extremely competitive market in the mid-1850s. Since the eighteenth century, inventors had designed sewing machines to serve the needs of tailors and for various industrial purposes. However, inventors had struggled to develop a machine appropriate for domestic use. Singer contributed to the sewing machine trade with important technological advancements and also with the development of a marketing system capable of selling sewing machines around the world.

Updated: July 30, 2015

Introduction

The son of a German immigrant, Isaac Merritt Singer (born October 26, 1811 in Pittstown, New York; died July 23 1875 in Paignton, United Kingdom) was the man behind one of the sewing machine patents that succeeded within an extremely competitive market in the mid-1850s. Since the eighteenth century, inventors had designed sewing machines to serve the needs of tailors and for various industrial purposes. However, inventors had struggled to develop a machine appropriate for domestic use. Singer contributed to the sewing machine trade with important technological advancements and also with the development of a marketing system capable of selling sewing machines around the world. The sewing machine transformed sewing work in households, garment shops, and factories across the globe by the beginning of the twentieth century. Founded in 1851, the Singer Company, later called the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was the largest provider of sewing machines both in the United States and overseas until the 1950s. Despite his professional accomplishments, Singer’s scandalous personal behavior was a source of concern for his partner in the firm and he eventually stepped down from active management of the company. He retired, moved to Europe, and died in a palatial English estate in 1875 at the age of 64.

Family and Ethnic Background

Little is known about Isaac Singer’s father, Adam Singer (née Reisinger). Scholars assume that the elder Singer had both Jewish and Hungarian ancestry due to his last name, and thus may have left the German lands in search of religious tolerance. However, confusion exists about where in the German lands Adam Singer emigrated from, when he arrived in the United States, to whom he was married, and how many children he had during his life. One author claims that Adam Singer emigrated with his Dutch wife, Ruth Benson, from the Rhenish Palatinate in 1803.[1] Others argue that he was from a community near Heilbron in the Duchy of Württemberg and he arrived in the American colonies in 1769. Some claim Benson was Singer’s second wife and he was married previously to an Elisabeth Gordon. Some sources assert his first child was by Gordon and he had another nine children with Benson, while others claim he had eight children with Benson. What is known with some certainty is that Adam Singer worked as a millwright and a farmer once he reached the United States and that Isaac was born to Adam and Ruth in Pittstown, New York, a small community along the Hoosic River near the Vermont border, in 1811.[2]

Singer grew up in a lower-class home in the upstate New York community of Cherry Valley. Ruth Singer was Lutheran and raised Isaac in the same faith. There is not enough information about Singer’s parents’ lives and experiences in the United States to determine if the inventor’s German heritage influenced his career in the machinery trade in any way. His mother’s Dutch heritage and his father’s Hungarian and Jewish background may help to explain Singer’s limited ties with the German ethnic community during his lifetime, or the younger Singer may have wished to distance himself from his ethnic background and embrace a more neutral “American” identity.

Adam Singer often disrupted the family’s life and Ruth filed for a divorce in 1821 while the family was living in Granby, New York, a small community between Syracuse and Oswego. One year after his parents filed for divorce, Singer left school in Oswego at the age of eleven and moved to nearby Rochester, where he lived with his older brother and attended school until 1828.

Soon after leaving school, at age 19, Singer married 15-year-old Catherine Maria Haley in 1830, with whom he eventually had two children. Singer’s difficult childhood and youth may have ill-prepared him for married life. While travelling with an acting company a few years after his marriage to Haley, Singer met Mary Ann Sponsler (1817-1896). Singer only revealed his marital status to Sponsler after they had been together for a number of years. Despite knowing that Singer was married, Sponsler lived with him in New York City from 1836 until the late 1850s. Singer had eight children with Sponsler at the same time he was involved romantically with a third woman, Mary McGonigal (1830-1893). Singer had an additional five children with McGonigal. Singer’s fortune increased rapidly as a result of his sewing machine’s success at the end of the 1850s. Having come into great wealth in an era or ferocious entrepreneurial competition, and seemingly without overt religious values for guidance, he may have seen little reason to maintain a righteous marital lifestyle. In 1860 Singer finally divorced his first wife, but later he allegedly had another child with a fourth woman, May East Walter, who died in Brooklyn, Connecticut, in 1898. The scandals resulting from Singer’s multiple affairs led him to travel abroad to France and England to escape the negative publicity of his philandering ways and in 1863 he married his second wife, Parisian Isabelle Eugenie Boyer Summerville (1841-1904). Together they had six children, bringing his total offspring to 22 children with five different women.[3]

Business Development

Singer’s professional career began in the theater, not the machine shop. He began performing as an actor while living in Rochester and toured with the Edwin Dean theater company and later the Baltimore Strolling Players. These troupes were not terribly successful, however, and Singer was forced to look for additional income to make ends meet. He worked odd jobs including clerking in a dry-goods store and working as a mechanic, a trade in which he had apprenticed as a youth. The early decades of the nineteenth century were an era of great popular enthusiasm for innovations in the American machinery trade during which famous inventors (and self-promoters) such as Eli Whitney became household names.[4] Singer’s background in the machine trade, as well as other trades including carpentry and printing, provided him with basic engineering skills and an understanding of mechanical devices and principles. He used this knowledge to develop a lathing machine and later gained recognition when he sold a rock-drilling machine patent in 1839 for $2,000 (approximately $50,000 in 2011$).[5] Singer’s primary interest, though, was the theater and he invested his profits from the patent sale into a new theater troupe, the Merritt Players Company. Traveling with Mary Ann Sponsler, he performed across nearby states including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania until the company went bankrupt.

Despite his failure in the theater trade, Singer’s acting experience, his personal charisma, and his background as a salesclerk proved helpful when he once again reentered the machinery trade. One amongst hundreds of references to Singer describes him as an “eas[y] rider, at least at first… fine-looking youth – over six feet tall, big and blond with a cheery manner– … [who] must have had considerable charm and magnetism.” [6] Singer’s affable persona and his ability to relate to others socially helped him to advance in the machinery trade in two key ways. First, he was able to form partnerships with a number of mechanics and investors who supported his (not always successful) efforts to develop new mechanical inventions. He understood the importance of gathering sufficient financial resources to both experiment and later promote an invention. Singer obtained loans, for example, from friends and other entrepreneurs, to finance the development of new, labor-saving machines and to tap into the popular enthusiasm surrounding mechanical invention during the era. Second, once Singer invented the sewing machine, his social skills helped him advance his position in the competitive sewing machine trade. Inventive skills were necessary to securing demand for a consumer good, but the ability to market the sewing machine soon became a key component in Singer’s success. Sewing machine marketing in the nineteenth century had much in common with marketing of other goods such as clocks. The consumer had to be reached directly, and charismatic salesmen pushed the potential benefits of sewing machines to consumers in order to secure a sale. The success and growth of the Singer Company in the 1860s and 1870s were largely due to Singer’s efforts to promote the sewing machine directly to customers and particularly to women.[7]

Before he began developing a sewing machine design, Single experimented with many different mechanical projects and worked with a number of different partners. He became well known for his mechanical inventions, but many of them failed, which made it increasingly difficult to locate financial backers. Printer George Zieber witnessed a woodcarving machine developed by Singer at a publisher’s workshop and recruited him to build a type-carving machine for the publishing house of Zieber and his partner, Orson Phelps. Zieber was of Dutch descent, like Singer’s mother, but there is no evidence that this played any role in Zieber’s decision to recruit Singer. Singer moved from New York to Boston and agreed to work at Zieber & Phelps’ shop. However, once he arrived at the workshop, he grew interested in a sewing machine that was being assembled there, the Blodgett & Leroy model.[8]

The sewing machine concept was very popular in the early nineteenth century. During the 1820s and 1830s, the United States Patent Office issued around “535 patents per year” for various mechanical sewing machine designs and improvements. Singer decided to develop his own sewing machine.[9] He had a particular eye for developing machines that would “replicate… hand motions.”[10] In the case of the sewing machine, he developed a chain mechanism by observing women hand-sewing. Singer also studied the history of mechanical sewing devices. In 1755, Frederick Weisenthal first registered a sewing machine patent in Great Britain. In the second half of the eighteenth century, inventors developed the chain stitch mechanism, which produced surface stitching that resembled embroidery. In the nineteenth century, inventors developed the lock stitch mechanism, which was composed of two thread feeders, one from above coming with the needle and another from below using a shuttle. Walter Hunt (1792-1859) was the inventor of this mechanism, a fundamental component of the modern sewing machine. The problem with this design, however, “was the lack of control or tension of the shuttle thread.” Earlier sewing mechanisms had also failed because in order to make a stitch, all the thread on the spool had to pass through the cloth and users had to stop constantly in order to add more thread to the needle. This issue was inventor Elias Howe’s main obstacle as he tried to convince tailors and seamstresses in Boston that his machine was faster than hand sewing. By the late 1840s, trained seamstresses and tailors could still sew faster by hand than someone using a mechanical sewing machine.[11]  

In 1850, George Zieber and Orson Phelps agreed to back Singer’s efforts to improve the mechanical sewing machine by investing $3,000 in the project (approximately $89,000 in 2011$). In spite of his mixed track record with mechanical inventions, Singer convinced them to support his project by outlining the ways in which the Blodgett machine could be improved. In his words, “[I] showed a machine with a table to support the cloth horizontally,” as opposed to the cloth hanging vertically, and “a vertical presser foot to hold the cloth and an arm to hold the presser foot and the needle bar over the table.” Singer’s improved design resulted in a machine capable of stitching with the necessary tension to keep the thread from breaking. Singer made an important addition that tensioned the cloth while stitching. Also, he introduced a “vertically moving needle-bar carrying a straight eye-pointed needle” instead of the curved needle used on previous models that presented an obstacle to fast stitching. Singer attached his devises to older sewing machine mechanisms already on the market and he patented the first workable sewing machine in the United States on August 12, 1851.[12] 

In 1851, after registering the patent, Zieber, Phelps, and Singer formed I. M. Singer & Company. Two years later, they relocated their factory from Boston to New York City.[13] The New York Times publicized the immediate response to the innovation:

Singer’s Patent Straight Needle Perpendicular Action Sewing Machine… To this Machine was awarded a premium of the first class at the last New York State Fair, and again at the last Fair of the American Institute it bore away the palm, receiving a gold medal. Though far in advance of all competition where these premiums were awarded, the machines are much more perfect as manufactured now, as several valuable improvements have just been completed and added by the inventor. The machines execute all kinds of Seaming and Stitching in a style of strength, durability and beauty never before attained.[14]

Singer had developed a mechanical invention superior to other sewing machines on the market, but as other inventors in the nineteenth century and beyond would concede, possessing the best invention and making profits did not always go hand-in-hand. The secret to Singer’s entrepreneurial success lay in marketing his improved sewing machine to the public.

Marketing the Sewing Machine

In 1852 the high cost of sewing machines precluded the notion that such machines could be purchased by individuals. The New York Daily Times advertised a sewing machine in 1852 for $125 (approximately $3,700 in 2011$), an amount unaffordable to middle- and working-class families. In addition to the prohibitively high cost, consumers lacked information about how to use sewing machines. They needed appropriate demonstrations of what sewing machines could do and careful instruction about how to use them. Public demonstrations were extremely expensive to arrange. A merchant would need a network of shops in which to store and display different types of machines and an approachable salesclerk to demonstrate the appliances and offer instruction. The network of retail outlets would also need to provide maintenance and repair facilities for the expensive machines, which would reassure customers about the long-term reliability of their purchases. However, as economist Fred Carstensen explains, if one merchant invested in promoting the sewing machine, demand might increase, but not necessarily for the brand he was selling if the marketing was not brand specific. Increased demand would benefit all brands and thus make the investment in marketing not worth the cost for the merchant.[15]

In 1852 Singer partnered with Edward Clark, a New York City lawyer, to cope with increasing patent litigation against his sewing machine design. Together, however, they also worked on how to best market Singer’s new machine. They developed a very successful advertising and marketing system that focused on maintaining control of the company’s brand while marketing to consumers. At first they focused on tailors. Tailors were the authority in custom-made and ready-made clothing for men and also, in part, for women well in to the nineteenth century. This made tailors in the United States important potential consumers for sewing machine manufacturers.[16] Tailors, at times, feared that sewing machines would lead to a loss of craftsmanship and thus Singer and other sewing machines marketers were not very successful initially in selling the sewing machine in this sector. In England and in the United States, however, as tailors developed standardized clothing and suits patterns, more and more tailors used sewing machines to provide cheap, ready-made clothing to middle and lower-income consumers.

Sewing machines were also used in the production of uniforms in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.[17]  As armies sought to standardize garments in order to identify troops in the battlefield, sewing machines became extremely useful. Prior to the 1850s, sewing machines were designed to be used in factory-like workplaces. Manufacturers expected to sell machines in bulk rather than to single purchasers, therefore early sewing machines were not particularly small and were often noisy. Since they were not mass-manufactured, sewing machines continued to be pricy. Hence only a small group of garment manufacturers were ready to invest in industrial sewing machines.

Besides tailors, Singer began to look in a different direction to increase sales. Sewing women’s clothing and dress accessories remained the task of professional milliners and dressmakers, or women working from home. By the eighteenth century, women had established the millinery sector as a “female pursuit,” serving aristocratic women’s interest in fashion. Middle-class women’s focus on fashion increased throughout the nineteenth century but custom-made clothing remained the norm for women’s clothing. As historian Wendy Gamber explains, in “an era when the canon of domesticity was just beginning to crystallize, some Americans feared that devotees of fashion would abandon the home.” These views did not hinder women’s increasing interest in fashion but production remained in the home or in small shops staffed by female dressmakers and low-skill seamstresses.[18]

Producing casual women’s clothing and clothing for children, as well as household linens, were considered part of women’s household tasks prior to and during the nineteenth century. Following gendered social norms, women were in charge of hemming, seaming, and repairing family clothes and household items, as well as embroidering and ornamenting clothing if they had the time and resources to do so. Although women used their sewing skills to work in tailors’ shops, becoming an important source of cheap labor within the emerging ready-made industry, society’s association between home sewing and women persisted. [19]

Singer was aware of women’s sewing skills and his experience in building social networks and his reputation as an outgoing person allowed him to visualize and approach potential consumers within every-day routine activities. For example, he found one of his first clients while shopping for his son in a family-owned clothing store in his neighborhood. In addition, while traveling “around country fairs… he engaged pretty young women to demonstrate the sewing machine” rather than trying to deal with resentful industry tailors and other manufacturers.[20] 

Singer wanted to demonstrate that even "tiny, frail women can operate a Singer!" for which he hired seamstresses to perform their usual jobs on sewing machines in beautifully decorated storefronts, first in New York City and later in other locations.[21]  Shops became essential elements of Singer’s selling system. In 1857 the Singer Company prepared its first decorated window shop in its main office in New York. In demonstrating and sampling work, art sewing or embroidery became noticeably crucial for Singer’s marketing. Women demonstrators, and samples of work, showed how the sewing machine was perfectly suited to pursue traditional embroidery and artwork, which was demanded to decorate the home as well as clothing. These tactics facilitated the sale of machines to women and households.

Over time, Singer Company officials became convinced that women composed an important part of the market for sewing machines. However, women’s use of the machine generated resistance from a number of fronts – doctors and moralists feared for women’s health and honor as they left the home for factory work or worked inside the home without breaks or adequate sanitary conditions. To appease critics and change their perspective, the Singer Company developed different strategies. Singer’s partner, Edward Clark, offered sewing machines at half price to ministers’ wives. If the ministers’ wives used the machines, they would likely demonstrate to other female congregants and also their male partners the various possibilities offered by the sewing machine, apart from freeing the poor seamstress as depicted in Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt.”[22] To further gain society’s confidence in the company, Clark donated machines to the Union Army in the early 1860s.[23]

Singer’s advertising approach concentrated on transmitting a sense that the firm was on the side of women and social reformers. The Singer Company developed the image that it was a protector of domesticity and femininity. In doing so, the company’s executives, and also the women that increasingly became part of the corporation’s staff, helped to create the idea of the modern home as a space for leisure rather than (strictly) a space for work. During the late 1850s, improvements in Singer sewing machines included new ornamental additions. Family machines came “richly ornamented in pearl” and they were manufactured to function as pieces of furniture as much as functional appliances.[24] An 1866 description of Singers models served to highlight their status as status objects for the home:

New designs of the unique, useful and popular folding tops and cabinet cases peculiar to the Machines manufactured by this Company have been prepared… every variety of wood… and from the plainest to the most elaborate pattern and finis… being more or less ornamented, to correspond with the Tables or Cabinets for which they are intended.”[25]

To support the firm’s consumer-driven strategies, the Singer Company began selling sewing machines on credit in 1856, which greatly enlarged the company’ total sales as the appliance became economically affordable.[26] The introduction of the “hire system” or installment payments as a method to finance the purchase of a sewing machine opened new opportunities to middle- and working-class families, who could hardly afford the burden of paying $130 for a domestic sewing machine in the early 1850s (approximately $4,000 in 2011$). Although the final price of the sewing machine would not vary by purchasing the appliance through the hire system – only later in the 1860s did manufacturers intentionally lower prices and pass along savings to consumers from enlarged mass production and distribution facilities – the economic burden of paying from $2 to $10 a week (approximately between $60 and $300 in 2011$) was somewhat more bearable for lower- and middle-class consumers.

Defending the Singer Patent

Like other appliances invented in the nineteenth century, the domestic sewing machine was the result of a truly collective engineering effort. During the 1840s, Walter Hunt, Charles Morey, John Bachelder, Allen B. Wilson, William O. Grover, and William E. Baker contributed to the development of the sewing machine by patenting different mechanisms to sew faster and more precisely. Patented sewing mechanisms for domestic use were extremely similar. All manufacturers sought to provide an efficient domestic machine that could make a chain stitch. Hence conflict among designers appeared almost immediately. Between 1851 and 1856 sewing machine manufacturers were involved in a relentless patent litigation processes, which also made the machine more expensive and thus more difficult to sell. Only the manufacturers that further devised marketing strategies to help overcome rampant competition could succeed in this environment.[27]

Elias Howe was involved in sewing machine patent litigation in the United States in the late 1840s. Howe had patented his mechanism in 1846 but his machine did not sell in great numbers in the U.S. He traveled to Europe to survey the market for sewing machines but met with failure there too. Howe came back to the United States and discovered that Singer’s machine had become successful in his absence. He sued the Singer Company, arguing that the machine’s mechanism closely resembled his own patented sewing machine. Although Howe’s 1846 patent described a device that “sew[ed] only short, straight lengths,” Singer ultimately settled the suit and ended up paying $25,000 in 1856 (approximately $684,000 in 2011$). Howe’s victory in court secured him ownership rights over lock stitch mechanisms in any sewing machine manufactured and sold in the United States. To use Howe’s license, other manufacturers, including Singer, had to pay $25 per machine (approximately $684 in 2011$).[28]

By 1854 Singer had reached a sales threshold of almost a thousand machines per year, which provided good profits for his firm. Although Howe was recognized as the inventor of the domestic sewing machine, Singer sewing machines sold in greater numbers than Howe’s ever did. By this point, I. M. Singer & Company was no longer a partnership between Singer, Zieber and Phelps. The latter two investors had sold their shares shortly after the company had been founded. Instead, Singer had formed a new partnership with the lawyer who had defended his patent against Howe’s court challenge, Edward Clark.[29]

Competition among sewing machine manufacturers continued to grow under Howe’s ownership of the chain stitch mechanism patent. Grover and Baker, Wheeler and Wilson, and Singer manufactured and distributed machines in greater numbers than those produced by any other firm. Two factors explain the success of these three manufacturers. First, “although Howe held the master patent,” others were patenting useful improvements to assuage the noise of the machine or attachments that allowed the sewing of ornaments onto garments. Second, manufacturers began developing efficient distribution and marketing strategies. As author Robert Bruce Davies documents, beginning in 1851 Grover and Baker started opening branches in other locations in the United States and in 1853, Wheeler and Wilson manufactured 85,000 machines and became the leading manufacturer for the next five years.

Between 1854 and 1856 patent litigation created an unsustainable situation. Judgments won by companies pursuing patent infringement cases were large, even those against Howe, whose machines were not particularly successful. In addition, as historian Andrew Godley points out, this environment produced by protracted patents war diverted manufacturers’ efforts into technology development rather than marketing, which restricted the reach of sewing machine manufacturers within the emerging industrial nation before the mid-1850s.[30]

Prices for domestic sewing machines greatly limited consumption, especially for those customers not looking to make large investments in the emerging garment industry. Sewing machine manufacturers spent large sums in patent litigation, which also explains why prices remained so high on machines. This led sewing machine manufacturers to negotiate a patent pool with Howe in 1856. Under the Albany agreement, all the innovations developed by Howe, Grover and Baker, Wheeler and Wilson, and Singer for building a domestic sewing machine were combined. Now, the payments to Howe by members of the patent pool decreased to $5 per machine sold (approximately $137 in 2011$), while the rest of American manufacturers paid the “big four” $15 per machine sold (approximately $410 in 2011$). The payment of fees to the leading sewing machine manufacturers decreased over the years until the agreement expired in 1877.

The pool was “a force in the industry” not only as inventors continued patenting but also as it monopolized the market for the big four manufacturers of sewing machines and provided them with great revenues. By the mid-1870s the main members of the pool continued lobbying to maintain the agreement, as it had become an important source of revenue for them. Singer’s revenues from its license share amounted to $420,052.54 between 1860 and 1867 (approximately $6.6 million in 2011$) and $1,449,982.08 between 1868 and 1874 (approximately $29.5 million in 2011$).[31]

While costly, the patent wars of the 1850s fostered innovation as companies continued to improve their technology. As Frederick Bourne, president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company between 1889 and 1905, explained, litigation never stopped Singer’s inventive spirit and he continued to improve his machine. In 1854, Singer launched the “latch under needle” mechanism as a means for competing with Howe’s lock stitch mechanism. Also, he designed a “machine [for] making the single-thread chain-stitch; and… a machine for embroidering, using two threads and making a double-thread chain-stitch.” Later in 1856, Singer invented different mechanisms to attach to the sewing machine to perform elaborate non-linear stitching and to sew the fabric in diverse ways (rufflers, for example).[32] These innovations helped Singer to increase sales between 1853 and 1856. In 1853 Singer sold 2,629, a figure that tripled by 1856.

The way Singer presented his sewing machine to individual customers during these years also reflected a turn toward meeting consumer preferences. In 1853 Singer machines “were delivered in a wooden package, which [also]… served as a stand for the machine.”[33] Consumer preferences also helped to drive Singer’s technological innovation. His “Turtle Back” model was the inventor’s first machine for family use. It was treadled-powered and contained all the patents that Singer had registered in 1851. In 1859 Singer patented seventeen more mechanisms for making the machine more appropriate for use in the home or in small workshops. Singer’s intention was to combine patents or mechanisms to make, in his words, “the best practical machine for general purposes.” Quieter and lighter machines were preferred for new working spaces and routines. In 1859 Singer patented his most successful machine at the time, the Model A. This model reduced the weight of the stand and the table, included all new improvements to control tension and speed, eased the used of the hand-wheel and the treadle, and reduced the size of the arm and table.[34]

The New Family model launched in 1865 contained many new improvements and attachments. More than four million of this model were built during the next twenty years.[35]  In a pamphlet for an industrial exhibit in 1866, the New Family or “Perfected Letter A” was advertised as:

Simple, compact, durable and beautiful. It is quiet, light running, and capable of performing a range and variety of work never before attempted upon a single Machine, -using either Silk, Twist, Linen or Cotton Thread, and sewing with equal facility the very finest and coarse materials, and anything between the two extremes, in the most beautiful and substantial manner. Its attachments for hemming, braiding, cording, tucking, quilting, felling, trimming, binding, etc., are novel and practical, and have been invented and adjusted for this machine.[36]

Singer also invented and produced industrial machines during this time. Since the firm was supplying the machines to a specific market, public promotion was limited. They were used in leather-making sectors or in finishing up (over seaming and trimming) large projects, ready-made garments, and thick-type fabrics. Industrial machines used mechanisms similar to the domestic sewing machines, yet they were not portable and did not have any ornamentation.[37]

Mass Manufacturing

By the mid-1860s, Singer Company production averaged 60,000 sewing machines a year. Of this, Singer exported an average of 14,000 per year between 1862 and 1865. Between 1873 and 1876 Singer plants abroad manufactured an average of 88,422 machines per year.[38] Prior to 1858, machines were produced and finished by hand, which reflected a mid-nineteenth-century focus on product quality. The success of the Letter A sewing machine and the firm’s focus on households as major consumers of sewing machines in the late 1850s reduced the company’s manufacturing to a few models. Increased demand for family sewing machines contributed to the firm’s decision to mechanize its manufacturing process. Singer’s international operations also contributed to the integration of the American manufacturing system in the production of sewing machines, as uniformity of parts was preferred.

Until 1863, the Singer factory in Elizabethport, New Jersey, “was jammed with automatic and semiautomatic tools.” As historian David Houndshell explains, Singer and Clark soon turned to the American System, which introduced mechanization to produce uniform and interchangeable parts. The number of departments in Singer’s U.S. factory continued to increase from the early 1850s, integrating vertically in a single production chain from the foundry to the inspection department where polished and ready-to-sell machines were given a final check. In 1873, Elizabethport “employed 3,000 machinists and factory workers within its 1,805,100 square feet of floor space,” and continued growing.[39]

By the early to mid-1860s, Singer’s involvement in the company had been significantly reduced. The success of the Model A and the new additions that came with the 1865 New Family were his last technological contributions. In 1863 the partnership between Clark and Singer was terminated and the firm was incorporated. Clark and Singer were still the directors of the company but “they agreed not to serve as president of the new corporation during the lifetime of the other.” As Robert Davies documents, Clark despised “Singer’s flamboyant life style” and he did not think the inventor’s involvement as an executive could benefit the company. Only when Singer died in 1875 did Clark become president of Singer.[40]

Private Life – Public Burdens

Singer’s buoyant and outgoing personality certainly facilitated the popularization of sewing machines and their spread beyond tailors’ shops and large production and industrial facilities. Singer and Clark cultivated excellent relations with the public and thrived on pursuing households as consumers of sewing machines. Personal relations among the founders of the company – Singer and Clark in particular – unquestionably shaped the evolution of the business organization.

During the first ten years of the business, Singer and Clark both maintained the executive direction of the firm. Scholars acknowledge that Clark’s structured and educated approach was essential to the establishment – legally and financially – and growth of the business. Singer’s public appearances, something that Clark usually avoided, however, also contributed to the prosperity of the company. As Singer’s sales increased, the sewing machine inventor appeared more in public, signifying his success through new carriages, clothing, and by attending various festive gatherings. Among other public showings “to mark his arrival within the city’s elite, Singer personally designed an ostentatious 3,800–pound horse-drawn carriage.”[41] In this era, executives’ public standing remained important for their business reputation, something that was also transmitted to the employees who, beyond their mechanical and commercial skills, were valued based on their ability to convey accepted social models to their customers.

Singer’s public relations endeavors went beyond gatherings of businessmen and sidewalk displays. Although his multiple relations with women were suspected and probably well-known within certain social circles, they did not pose a problem initially for the company. Until 1860, he maintained relations with various women, with whom he also had children. By then, his first wife Maria Haley had moved to New York City and soon found out about her husband’s extramarital affairs. Singer had fathered children with both Haley and Many Ann Sponsler, to whom he promised marriage (but never did), while continuing to maintain a public relationship with Sponsler in New York City. Their relationship portrayed “a model of Victorian respectability” as it encompassed a life together in a modern and wealthy furnished house, which included “a grand piano, expensive pictures, ornate furniture” – and they frequently appeared in public together as a family.[42]

Trouble eventually arose for Singer and his firm when Mary Ann Sponsler finally found out not only about his extramarital relationships with other women but also that he was still married to Maria Haley. As Ruth Brandon narrates: “Mary Ann who was driving along Fifth Avenue in her own carriage, met Singer driving in the opposite direction... with… Mary McGonigal... she made a public scene... she had had enough... [also] beaten and choked….”[43] When Clark read about the confrontation in the newspapers, he urged Singer to divorce Haley and compensate Sponsler so that the standing and reputation of their company would not be jeopardized. In addition, as an article in the Baltimorean after Singer’s death reported, “In the language of Artemus Ward, in his time, Mr Singer had been much married, and owing to his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, his business associates sent him abroad.” Sponsler not only sued him for his multiple affairs but also came forward and accused him of domestic violence and failure to fulfill his household responsibilities. While Sponsler sued for compensation, Singer went to Europe to avoid causing more trouble for the company.[44] During this time, due to Singer’s public scandal, a bank rejected a line of credit that Clark required for the firm. This event led Clark to question Singer’s role in, and involvement with, the company.

In France, Singer met the woman who became his second and final wife, Isabelle Eugenie Boyer Summerville (1841-1904). On June 13, 1863, they married in New York. Summerville was known for her beauty and “it is rumored” that architect Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi modeled the Statue of Liberty after her.[45] Despite Singer’s stable marriage with Summerville, Clark made Singer agree to no longer be involved in the company’s executive matters. The incorporation of the firm dissolved a decade-long partnership but left Singer as a half owner and thus receiving yearly funds through which he accumulated a great personal fortune.

After one year of marriage, Singer and Summerville moved to Paris. The beginning of the Franco-Prussian War prompted them to relocate to Paington, England, in 1871. Here, to demonstrate his economic achievements, Singer began the construction of the Oldway Mansion. It took four years to complete the construction of the palatial, French-inspired home designed by the British architect George Soudon Bridgam, leaving little time for Singer to live in, and take pleasure on, his estate. The Oldway Mansion is a notably large house. Reviving his love for theatrical performances, Singer ordered the construction of a large theater he named “The Wigwam.” He also ordered the construction of large ballrooms, zoos, and equestrian training areas. Singer’s out-of-wedlock children spent some days in this mansion after Singer died, but there is no evidence that he invited other family members such as brothers, sisters, or even possible relatives on his parents’ side that still lived in Europe to visit. Isabelle took over the management of the mansion after Singer’s 1875 death. Each building went through renovations and alterations after Singer and Summerville died and today the mansion belongs to the municipality of Paington.[46]

On May 16, 1870, five years before his death, Singer wrote a will. He already had in mind the expansion of his estate in England and he expected to leave all of it – “any house or domicile with the land” – and all of his valuable possessions– “all the household furniture, useful and ornamental beds, bedding, silver ware and silver plates, statues, parlor and mantle ornaments, crockery pictures books, horses harness carriages” – to Summervile. In his 1870 will, Singer also left $10,000 (approximately $178,000 in 2011$) to his first wife, Maria Haley, and $500 (approximately $8,890 in 2011$) to the children they had together. To Mary McGonigal, who owned a dressmaking shop in San Francisco at the time, and Mary Ann Sponsler, Singer left some property in the United States. By the time of his death, however, Singer’s personal wealth had grown and Summerville had to pursue judicial proceedings to distribute Singer’s immense estate (over $14,000,000 or approximately $296 million in 2011$).[47]

Conclusion

The Singer Company continued to grow in the United States and became the “first American international business” after Singer agreed to step aside in 1863. Singer’s partner, Edward Clark, played an active role in building the company, particularly by introducing innovative marketing strategies such as installment payments and streamlining operations of the firm under a single brand and management. After the founder of the I.M Singer & Company died in 1875, Clark became president.

In retrospect, there is no evidence that Singer drew upon German or Dutch networks to develop the company. Yet Singer was aware of how social norms and culture influenced business and economic practices. After stepping back from management of the company, Singer urged Inslee Hooper to become the president of the firm. To do so, however, Singer recommended that he should get married in order to be considered respectable enough for the position.[48]

The evolution of the company from the tripartite partnership of Singer, Phelps, and Zieber in the early 1850s to its 1863 incorporation and growth into a vertically-integrated, multinational company in a matter of thirty years has attracted the attention of academic and non-academic writers. The company’s development over time is representative of how entrepreneurial initiatives created managerial capabilities in a context of growing mechanization in the United States. Singer constitutes a textbook case that exemplifies the emergence and growth of a system for mass producing consumer durables, the development of the modern multi-unit firm, and the emergence and “maturation” of multinational enterprise in the second half of the nineteenth century.[49] The diffusion of Singer sewing machines reveals new aspects about the formation and transformation of identities such as the modern salesman and dressmaker, which are crucial to understand the history of capitalism, the evolution of the United States as an industrial nation, and the role of individuals such as Isaac M. Singer in these processes.[50]

Notes

[1] Ned Herold Benson, The Ancestors and Descendants of John Lewis Benson and His Sisters and Brother: A Genealogy and Social History (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2011), 27.

[2] Ruth Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1977), 5, 13. See also Charles M. Eastley, The Singer Saga (Braunton, Devon: Merlin Books), 9. Aaaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 18-23, 36-50.

[3] Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine and Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 14-20. Ancestry.com.

[4] See David Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

[5] This and all subsequent purchasing power calculations are based on the U.S. Consumer Price Index series available on MeasuringWorth.

[6] Brandon, 18.

[7] David Jaffe, A New Nation of Goods: the Material Culture of Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 156-186.

[8] Eastley, The Singer Saga, 17.

[9] Frank P. Godfrey, An International History of the Sewing Machine (London: Robert Hale, 1982), 87, 259.

[10] Don Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company (Brunswick, ME: Audenreed Press, 1999), 15.

[11] Godfrey, An International History of the Sewing Machine, 22, 37-49.

[12] Eastley, The Singer Saga, 41-42. Godfrey, An International History of the Sewing Machine, 58-62.

[13] The Singer Light. 90th Anniversary Issue (Singer Sewing Machine Company, 1941),  Wisconsin Historical Society, SSMCO Records; Box 1.

[14] New York Daily Times (1851-1857); February 23, 1852, p. 3.

[15] Fred Carstensen, American Enterprise in Foreign Markets: Studies of Singer and International Harvester in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 15. Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 23.

[16] Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy. The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 10 and Michael Zakim, Ready-made Democracy: a History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 69-79. In France women were part of tailor’s guilds since the mid seventeenth century. For more information see Clare Haru Crowston, Fabricating Women. The Seamstress of Old Regime France, 1675-1791 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

[17] Godfrey, An International History of the Sewing Machine, 88. Zakim, Ready-made Democracy, 69-79.

[18] Gamber, The Female Economy, 16.

[19] Ibid., 9-11. Susan Strasser, Never Done. A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 130-138.

[20] Jeremy Coller and Christine Chamberlain, "A Toad in His Time. Isaac Merritt Singer." in Splendidly Unreasonable Inventors. the Lives, Loves and Deaths of 30 Pioneers Who Changed the World., eds. Jeremy Coller and Christine Chamberlain (New York: The Overlook Press, 2009), 16, 19; Eastley, The Singer Saga., 18. See also Bacon, Marketing Sewing Machines in the Post-Civil War Years, Business History Review 20, 3 (1946), 92.

[21] Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 2.

[22] Thomas Hood, “The Song of the Shirt,” in A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895, ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895). See online edition at Bartleby.com (accessed May 15, 2014).

[23] Genius Rewarded Or the Story of the Sewing Machine (New York: John J. Caulon, Book and Job Printer., 1880); Bisell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 73-75; Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, 126-128. Judith Coffin, The Politics of Women’s Work: the Paris Garment Trades, 1750-1915 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 108.

[24] Keith Reginal Gilbert, Sewing Machines. Science Museum illustrated booklets (Great Britain: H. M. S. O, 1970); Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 72.

[25] Singer’s Trade Catalog. Hagley Library and Museum. S617, 1866.

[26] Bacon, Marketing Sewing Machines in the Post-Civil War Years, 90-94; Bourne, American Sewing Machines, 528

[27] Frederick G. Bourne, "American Sewing Machines," in Chauncey M. Depew (ed.) 1795-1895: One Hundred Years of American Commerce... a History of American Commerce by One Hundred Americans (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 525; Eastley, The Singer Saga, 15. Robert Bruce Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World: Singer Sewing Machines in Foreign Markets, 1854-1920 (New York: Arno Press, 1976), 4.

[28] Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine, 12. For a full description of Elias Howe development of his sewing machine patent and for a detail narrative of E. Howe’s impressions when he came back to the United States and discovered I. M. Singer’s success see also 60-66 and 70-72.

[29] Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World, 12; Hounshell, 88-89.

[30] Andrew Godley, “The Global Diffusion of the Sewing Machine, 1850-1914,” Research in Economic History 20 (2001): 2.

[31] Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World, 13-17, 54-55.

[32] Bourne, American Sewing Machines, 525, 528-9.

[33] Godfrey, An International History of the Sewing Machine, 63-65.

[34] Ibid., 105-111. Eastley, The Singer Saga, 49. For a comprehensive and complete list of Singer household sewing machine models, see “Household and Toy Models,” International Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society International (accessed February 4, 2014).

[35] Keith. R Gilbert, Sewing Machines. Science Museum illustrated booklet (Great Britain: H.M.S.O, 1970).

[36] Singer’s Trade Catalog. Hagley Library and Museum. S617, 1866.

[37]Industrial Models and Accessories,” International Sewing Machine collectors’ Society International (accessed February 4, 2014).

[38] Godley, “The Global Diffusion of the Sewing Machine, 1850-1914,” 4.

[39] Hounshell, 87, 89, 91. See also Genius Rewarded Or the Story of the Sewing Machine. Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 77. The different departments involved in making sewing machines and their parts were the Rumbling Room, the Drilling Room, the Japaning Room, the Ornamenting Room and the Assembling Room. These usually employed male mechanics and female seamstresses who Singer trained directly.

[40] Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World, 31-33.

[41] Bissell, 27.

[42] Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, 141.

[43] Ibid., 160-2.

[44] Baltimorean, July 31, 1875; Eastley, The Singer Saga., 20; Bissell, The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, 91, 163.

[45] Alex Askaroff, Susssex Born and Bred: Tales from the Coast (Tucson, AZ: Fireship Press, 2010), 22.

[46]Singer Family,” Bytes of Torbays Past (accessed February 4, 2014). Pamphlet Oldway Mansion: Paignton. Clydebank Municipal Library (Clydebank, Scotland) GDWD1 1/7/8.

[47] Will of Isaac Merritt Singer, made in Paris July 16, 1870. SSMC Archives, Records 1850-1975, M95-159; Box 3; Donkers Gazette, May 27, 1876; Sun, July 8, 1878; Singer's Varied Wedlock. SSMC Archives, Box 1; Folder 1.

[48] Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World, 33.

[49] Alfred D. Jr Chandler, The Visible Hand : The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977); Wilkins, The Emergence of Multinational Enterprise: American Business Abroad from the Colonial Era to 1914, 310. Mira Wilkins, The Maturing of Multinational Enterprise: American Business Abroad from 1914 to 1970 (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1974), 590; Geoffrey Jones, Multinationals and Global Capitalism: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[50] Nancy Page Fernandez, "Creating Consumers: Gender, Class and the Family Sewing Machine." in The Culture of Sewing : Gender, Consumption, and Home Dressmaking, ed. Barbara Burman (Oxford ; New York: Berg, 1999), 21-350; Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Isaac Merritt Singer." (2017) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 28, 2017, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=210

Chicago Style

De La Cruz-Fernández, Paula A. "Isaac Merritt Singer." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified July 30, 2015. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=210

MLA Style

"Isaac Merritt Singer," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2017, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 28 Feb 2017 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=210>

Portrait of Isaac Merritt Singer by artist Edward Harrison May, 1869

  • Actor portraying Isaac M. Singer demonstrating his first sewing machine to printer George Zieber
  • Actors portraying Isaac M. Singer and George Zieber examining a Lerow and Blodgett
  • The Sign of Singer Service
  • Isaac M. Singer Tomb, Torquay Cemetery, Devon, United Kingdom

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