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A pretty 116 year-old sewing machine

One of the sweetest memories of my childhood, that I still have vivid on my mind, is the perfume of the original dried lavender I could easily recognise whenever I stepped into my grandmother's house. When I was a child, my family and I used to spend 2 weeks by her during the month of August. This is one of the hottest periods of the year in southern Italy, so the warm summer breeze delighted us with some opf the alluring floral buquets that it carried along her path.

As soon as I walked in her garden, I immediately recognized some of the typical Mediterranean scents that reminded me I was away from the chaotic grey city: the aroma of lavender and apricot pink climbing rose blended with the smell of citrus fruits and spices like basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram and sage. Those spices, that she made extensive use to season her delicious summer salads, were planted inside a circular stone well. It was quite a small garden but it was well kept. Behind the building there was a small courtyard where my grandma used to hang the linen. Needless to say how the fresh laundry sweetness matched very well with the garden bouquet!

The Flowered Garden, Claude Monet

Her love for vintage stuff was totally unknown to me and not because I paid no attention to the furnishing and the decoration objects she jealously kept in to her house. I was just a little girl and I totally ignored the importance of those outstanding items. The window cabinets, full of precious porcelain sets and small antique items, have always been there. These were authentic cabinets of curiosities, which value I actually started out to appreciate just some time ago.

Five years ago, I came back to my grandma house after a long time. Everything was there as if time had not passed by. She sadly passed away some years ago but she will always be in our hearts and I think it will even be impossible for us to forget her soul simply because her vintage curiosities, she wisely left to her offspring, will always remind to us her personality and her good taste for beautiful things. Even her bedroom my mother wanted to keep the same and when I stepped into this room my attention was soon caught by a presence … no, it was not my grandma’s ghost but this little precious machine …

Singer 27k Sphinx (aka Memphis, Egyptian) model of 1903

This seemed liked an early sewing machine to me but I did not have a clue about what the year of its production could be. It was a stunning piece of manufacture, beautifully decorated with golden decal flowers on a black polished aluminium body. I could barely notice some scratches due to its regular use, however it was in good condition in general. It was love at first sight, especially with the cast iron treadle and Singer label of the machine base table. I decided to bring her with me and, once arrived at home, I wanted to find out more about these lovely early sewing machines.  Quickly browsing some google pictures during my trip back home I could easily notice how these early dressmaking tools were often considered the most beautiful of all the machines man had made up to that point. Their design was truly original and unique and it has never ever been replicated in future decades.

When I got home I discovered this website where one could look up its serial number and find out when the Singer sewing machine was made as well as the model. I could not believe I was owing a stunning Singer Sphinx limited edition model from 1903. Most of the classic models produced by this manufacturer were decorated with gold decal flowers but this one was actually one of a kind with its Egyptian sphinx depictions that made this model even more unique and special at the time!

The birth of mechanical sewing

No one invention has brought with it such a great relief for our mothers and daughters as these cast iron treadle sewing machines. Before their invention housewives spent much of their time maintaining their family's clothing. Powered by a foot pedal, they stood out for being a true revolution during the time they were invented. The time for making a dress or repairing it was drastically reduced, letting women have more spare time. With the help of these mechanical sewing models, seamstress did not have to spend 14 hours to make a piece of cloth anymore and dressmaking became large-scale factory.  Even though these machines would appear so old and obsolete today, most of the models can still be used if well cared and restored over time. This makes these machines an eloquent testimony of the quality of these early models, because they are strong and so many have survived over time. Among the most high quality models produced between the 1900s and the 1930s, Singer for example built a durable machine and its antique treadle sewing machines still exist. 

"One of the few useful things ever invented."

- Mahatma Gandhi

Talking about the invention of the early sewing machines is not so easy. During the first half century of the 1800s, many attempted to build a mechanic tool for making cloths but they all failed to produce anything practical or they did simply forget to patent their models. However, in 1829 the first real serviceable sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor. The patent for his invention was approved in July 1830, and in the same year he started the first apparels manufacturing company with 80 sewing machines in the world. However, the factory was burned by his workers, moved by the fear to lose their jobs. Fortunately, a specimen of Thimonnier machine is exposed to the London Science Museum.

Barthélemy Thimonnier sewing machine, 1830. This is the one and only model that reached for us after the factory burning that destroyed all the models. Today, this is exposed at the Science Museum of London.

Between 1830 and 1845, many small companies tried to build their own models however, the world wasn't ready to welcome mechanised sewing.

In September 1846, Elias Howe. Jr. obtained a patent for his sewing machine. He brought an important improvement to his model, in comparison to the first attempts of his predecessors. The Victorian era, with its massive expansion in industry and technology proved to be a fertile ground for the development of this new kind of technology. 

Elias Howe's lockstitch machine, invented in 1845

After a lengthy stay in England trying to attract interest in his machine, Howe returned to America and found various people infringing his patent. From that moment on, the mechanics of all countries began to compete with each other in their wits to create ever-more perfect models. 

But it’s in 1851 that a real innovation in this field took place, thanks to the pioneer of sewing machines Isaac Merrit Singer from New York. Son of a baker emigrated from Germany, he was interested in mechanics. Singer designed the first sewing machine with a parallel arm to the worktop, with a spring system that held the fabric firmly under the needle during work. A true innovation for the time.

Throughout the 1850s more and more companies were being formed, each trying to sue the others for patent infringement. This triggered a patent thicket known as the Sewing Machine War. Among these companies, Wheeler and Wilson produced a machine with a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than other methods, with the result that the Wheeler & Wilson Company produced more machines in the 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer.

In 1857, James Edward Allen Gibbs a farmer from Virginia patented the first chain stitch single-thread sewing machine. In partnership with James Willcox, Gibbs became a principal partner in Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company that still exist today, despite other small companies that have disappeared over the century. 

If in the United States there was a huge patent competition among sewing machines manufactures, in Europe the German Pfaff had their own model make 200 stitches per minute in 1862, a true record at the time. 

Isaac Singer sewing machine (for which he received the patent in 1851), 1853

Wilson sewing machine earliest model filed in Patent Office November 12, 1850

Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company, 1858

PFAFF sewing machine, 1862

Before being put into the market, early sewing machines underwent a careful painting process with black lacquer and embellishment in silver or gold-plated filigree, or finished with nacre inserts, decal application and decorations. Designs were often inspired by the liberty style.

Singer 12k model, 1865

The spread of the commercial sewing machine

“No useful sewing machine was ever invented by one man; and all first attempts to do work by machinery, previously done by hand, have been failures. It is only after several able inventors have failed in attempt, that someone with the mental powers to combine the efforts of others with his own, at last produces a practicable sewing machine.”

— James Gibbs, sewing machine pioneer, 1901

Clothing manufacturers used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. Women's magazines and household guides offered dress patterns and instructions on how to sew.

In 1877 Joseph M Merrow created the first production overlock sewing machine, commonly referred to as the first crochet machine. The Merrow Machine Company went on to become one of the largest American Manufacturers of overlock sewing machines, and continues to be a global presence in the 21st century as the last American over-lock sewing machine manufacturer.

In 1885 Singer patented the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine and was a better lockstitcher than the oscillating shuttles of the time. They were probably the world's first really practical sewing machine for domestic use. Millions of the machines were produced until finally superseded by rotary shuttle machines in the 20th century. 

Singer Vibrating Shuttle, 1885

In 1889 Singer Sewing Co. introduced the first electric sewing machines to the world and by the end of the First World War the company became the first to be spending over $1 million a year on advertising. The success of Singer over the year, compared to its competitors, was probably due to its efforts in marketing and promotion rather than big innovation brought to the machines. Singer is said to be the first modern multi-national company ever, eventually becoming the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world.

However, electricity in private houses was not usual in the 19th century — gas lighting was then more modern than candles and kerosene lanterns, but all were in use. Most home sewing machines were run by human energy: a hand crank or a treadle.

Singer sewing machine advertising, 1904. Look how beautiful and intricate was the cast-iron treadle and base of the sewing table.

At first the electric machines were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side, but as more homes gained power, they became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Over the years, the design of these sewing tools became as important as the functionality. Floral Art Nouveau style motifs and decals were applied to the black lacquered aluminium base of the machine. Singer was offering hand, treadle and electric machines for sale. 

Soon these precious inventions bccame more and more present on women magazines. As you can see in the pictures below, the sewing machine started to be widely advertised. It was far from being a niche product anymore and it was considered like the new "vital asset" for every busy housewife.

Advertising, "Machine à coudre H Vigneron", 1885

Sewing machine for babies,1885

Family sewing machine, 1860

New home sewing machines company, 1882

One of the first sewing machines, 1860 ca

One of the first sewing machines, 1860 ca

One of the very early sewing machines model, probably 1850s

Whight & Mann first offered the “Alberta” on tripod during the 1860s

Whight & Mann first offered the “Alberta” on tripod during the 1860s

Wheeler&Wilson sewing machine, 1878

The Grover & Baker sewing machine hand attachment, an optional extra in 1863

Singer 13K model machine, 1880s

Singer sewing machine 1880

Singer sewing machine, 1899

Singer Sewing Machines, early 1900

Pfaff sewing machine, 1899

Victorian period sewing machine 1901

Singer Sewing Machines, early 1900

Royal st. john sewing machine, 1900

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, March 1917. “You don’t have to pedal it.”

Minnesota sewing machine advertising, 1918 ca

Goldsmith sewing machine, 1920s

Singer sewing machine, 1920s

Pfaff sewing machine, 1920 ca

Advertising card from 1920s showing motor kit

Sewing machine advertising, 1920s

Singer sewing machine, 1920s

The evolution of sewing machines

My grandma Singer 27k Sphinx model of 1903 was one of the first so called “modern” sewing machines of the time. And it was indeed, especially for its design and exotic decorations. These early sewing machine models were considered as true little precious inventions through the Victorian Age and the Belle Epoque later. They not just changed the habits of housewives, that had to spend hours repairing cloth by hand, but also represented a true revolution for the birth and the development of the fashion ready-to-wear industry. They were not just functional models but they were so beautifully designed that through the years they have become a stunning object of decoration inside a collector's home! Made up with high quality materials, they were built to last … Those were the days of top-level craftsmanship!

Hurtu sewing machine, the first machine conceived to sew leather, 1861

Singer sewing machine, 1903

Singer sewing machine, 1920s and 1930s design

1 comment

1 Comment

Gary Kleiner
4 days ago

I appreciate the time and thought that went into putting this page together. However, I am going to point out several misstatements and an important omission: The Sphinx decals are lovely, but far from a "limited edition". In fact, they are the most common decal found on Singer machines of this era and were produced in the millions for over 50 years on Singer 27s, 127s, 15s, and 115s, Singer's machine did not have its arm parallel to the worktop. The arm was PERPENDICULAR to the worktop, and was touted as "Singer's Perpendicular Action Sewing Machine". This was one of Singer's most important attributes of his patent and became the standard for a majority of sewing machines to this day. You mention the "sewing…

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