My grandma (my mom’s mom) recently gave me her Singer sewing machine. It is a beauty. I happen to have previous knowledge of Singer, beyond the fact that it is a household name. When I worked in the archives at Keweenaw National Historical Park, I wrote a finding aid for a collection from a local Singer branch, which involved some research into the company’s history.
Isaac Merrick Singer founded I. M. Singer & Company in 1851 in Boston, Massachusetts. Singer received his first sewing machine patent the same year. Singer’s machine was the first to be made of iron, as opposed to wood like earlier machines, and it was fast and durable. While a good seamstress could make about 40 stitches a minute, the original Singer machine was capable of 900 stitches a minute. In 1853, Singer changed his business’s name to the Singer Manufacturing Company and moved its headquarters to New York City. Singer used his acting skills to promote his product. Later his partner and lawyer, Edward S. Clark, helped him develop a business model where branch stores allowed customers to pay for the machines in installments. Eventually, the Singer Manufacturing Company would operate 5,000 branch locations in 190 countries. Customers could pay as little as $5 down and make small monthly payments. This lease-to-own system made the machine accessible to even low-income households. The company and its products gained a reputation for reliability and good customer service, and thus Singer soon became the household name we know today.
If you have a Singer sewing machine, you can look up its serial number on the Singer Corporation’s website, which will tell you when it was made. My grandmother’s machine was manufactured in 1954. It is 61 years old and still works. One distinct feature of this model is the knee-pedal, which operated the machine, as opposed to a foot pedal. It is part of a desk which opens up when the machine is needed. My great grandparents gave it to my grandma as a gift shortly after she got married. She bought patterns and fabric from the sewing shop and made baby gowns and clothes for her growing children. My grandma told me that in those days, everyone had a sewing machine and you couldn’t buy your clothes in a store. My great-grandma also had a Singer, and would often buy an oversize article of clothing from a resale shop and rework it into something new. In all the years my grandma used her machine, she had to have it repaired once.