The Impact of the Invention of the Sewing Machine on America
The transition that took place resulted in reliance on mechanical sources of power/energy rather than the traditional human or animal sources to produce the products needed (Hackett, 1992). One of those inventions, the sewing machine, dramatically changed the lives of women across the world during the mid to late 1800’s (Kramarae, 2005). Prior to the invention of the sewing machine, women homemakers were responsible for making almost all of the family’s clothing. Even with help, creating and repairing family garments by hand usually consumed a large part of a women’s daily routine.
As the sewing machine evolved and became more suited to home use, women had more options available to them with regard to management of household duties as well as adding to the household income by working as a seamstress either inside our outside of the home (Kramarae, 2005). Even so, there were both benefits and burdens that resulted from this all-important invention. Evidence of the basic sewing function goes back as far as the Ice Age where needles were made of bone and animal sinew was used for thread (Bellis, 2011).
During the 18th and 19th centuries, several attempts were made by inventors to mechanically reproduce the hand sewing performed by small tailor shops and women in the home. In 1755, Karl Weisenthal, a German inventor, came up with the first sewing machine needle, but did not produce the actual machine. Most of the early prototypes either did not work at all or were only partially functional. In 1790, Thomas Saint, a British cabinetmaker, patented the first functional sewing machine.
It was primarily designed to sew leather and canvass for boots and used a single needle to produce a simple chain stitch (Museum of American Heritage, 2010). In 1830, Barthelemy Thimmonier, a French tailor, patented the first functional sewing machine that used a hooked embroidery-type needle to produce a chain stitch. However, in 1841, after successfully using his machines to mass produce army clothing, his production facility was destroyed and he was almost killed by other tailors in the town who were angry and threatened by the machine’s efficiency and utility.
In America during the early 1830’s, a New York inventor, Walter Hunt, produced the first sewing machine that created a lockstitch. As a result, thinking changed and duplication of the human hand stitch was no longer the standard that inventors were measured by. Hunt at that time did not see the promise of his invention and did not file for a patent to protect it. He sold his interest for a small fee. (Museum of American Heritage, 2010). In 1846, Elias Howe filed a patent for a sewing machine that used two needles and generated thread from two different sources, resulting in a lock-stitched seam.
However, Howe spent several years trying to defend his patent in America and market his machine abroad. In 1856, Howe successfully sued several of the patent infringers and received substantial income from the settlement, which paid him a fixed dollar amount for each machine sold using his technology. (Bellis, 2011). One of the companies involved in the patent lawsuit was the Singer Company, owned by Isaac Singer. Singer, a trained mechanic, duplicated Howe’s patented lockstitch seam, but modified the machine itself to operate with a vertical needle mechanism and a foot treadle as opposed to a hand crank.
His machine also included a table to support the fabric and a vertical pressure foot to hold the cloth in place while the needle moved up and down. Singer was a skillful businessman and was very successful in marketing the first commercially successful sewing machine during the 1850’s (Bellis, 2011) when the machine was mass-produced for the first time. His machine was more adaptable to home use than earlier models. To match his competition, Singer offered potential customers the ability to set up a payment plan over time to increase his sales and capture more of the market (Museum of American Heritage, 2010).
The development and refinement of the sewing machine was influenced early on by the increasing need to produce sewn goods quickly and efficiently. The early machines were large, heavy and specifically designed for factory use (Kramerae, 2005). However, as more women became proficient at machine sewing by working in the sewing factories, and the United States became involved in the Civil War, the sewing machine became more like a symbol of American innovation and achievement.
In particular, the machine was used to provide inexpensive clothing for people who could not afford to otherwise buy or make it (Museum of American Heritage, 2005). Women had an increasing sense of accomplishment and families who were fortunate enough to have a machine in their home were able to creatively use the sewing machine’s capability and efficiency to become more independent and confident. (Kramerae, 2005). Additional improvements to the machine continued into the early 20th century such as stitch variety and quality, the addition of quilting capability, and using electricity as the power source.
The machines became lighter in weight and eventually portable so that even more options were available to earn income for families struggling to make ends meet. An outgrowth of the wider use of sewing machines was the invention of sewing patterns, which allowed for production of better-made, more current, fashionable clothing. (Macklin, 2010). One of the social burdens brought about by the mass use of the sewing machine in factories was the unfair and sometimes inhumane treatment of factory workers who were mostly women and children.
Long hours, harsh working conditions, and aggressive production quotas led to employee frustration and the eventual development of unions to protect workers basic rights (Hackett, 1992). Even so, America as a whole was able to grow and flourish as a result of the invention of the sewing machine. During the civil war, there were musical tributes to the machine and the women who operated them to produce much needed wartime products. There were many other similar inventions such as the refrigerator and vacuum cleaner that affected the way in which families functioned within the home.