Sewing Machines (1859)

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From: The Scientific American New York, February 19, 1859


We are not afraid to confess it. We have an intense respect for John Bull. There is an amount of steady jollity and sincere good humor in him that makes us like him, and his great solidity of character commands our highest esteem. Therefore, we are careful seldom to say anything against him, or to rake up old sores, and blister the ancient wound. We prefer to act rather as a healing salve among the nations, and to write with the intention of promoting universal good will. We never liked to tell John that he was a slow coach, but have always admired his unvarying speed. What was our surprise, then, to find in a recent number of the London Engineer an article on "Sewing Machines" which contains the following sentences: "Somehow or other, however, the invention seems to have spread slowly, and it is better known through the quarrels of the inventors than by any useful effects it produces." And again: "They seem, indeed, never to have got into the ordinary category of trade. No manufacturer tells you in an honest and straightforward way at what price he will supply his machines. One would imagine, indeed, that the whole business was spell bound - that the wonderful machine had only been employed in sewing ligaments for the inventor's energies, and in stretching toils from which he could not escape".

We ask in amazement, "Is this the progress the sewing machine has made in England? Why, Uncle John, you have had the invention as long as we have, and have done nothing with it! It is your own confession, not any invidious remark of ours. Listen, while we tell you what we are doing with the sewing machine, and it may, perhaps, stimulate you to give up law and turn to manufacture. For the benefit of the poor needle women, for the cause of humanity, for the prevention of the horrors which your own Tom Hood described in his "Song of the Shirt", we hope it may!

Messrs. Wheeler & Wilson made and sold during the last three months 4,700 machines, and are now producing and selling 100 per day. They vary in price from $50 to $100, and the highest priced ones sell best. In their business there is over $500,000 invested, and they keep over 400 men regularly employed in manufacturing machines. The system pursued is the same as that adopted in the manufacture of arms, every piece is made to a gage, and consequently the parts of any machine may be transposed with those of another machine of the same size, or should an accident occur, the broken part can be immediately replaced on application at the office.

Messrs. Grover and Baker manufactured and sold in 1858 fourteen thousand sewing machines, and more of the $100 ones than any other price. Their factory is at Boston, but in this city they employ 150 cabinet-makers to produce stands and ornamental covers for the machines sold. They sell a great number in South America, and many are bought here and carried to England by persons returning or going to live there.

Messrs. I.M. Singer & Co. produce and sell about 350 machines weekly, and they are now making arrangements to increase their manufacturing facilities. The prices of their machines vary from $50 to $125, and two-thirds of their sales are those of the highest price. Messrs. Singer & Co., taking advantage of the fact that Howe's English patent (now owned by Thomas, of London) does not cover Scotland and Ireland, have a branch establishment in Glasgow, and in the last year they sold machines in that city to about the amount of £25,000, thus proving that in the old country, wherever "Yankee Doodle" (as we are familiarly) called has a chance, he can make money and give value received.

There is not an establishment in this country where stitching of any kind is required in which the sewing machine is not employed, and there are few private families in which it is not an acknowledged article of furniture. It is impossible for us to estimate the number of other machines sold weekly in the United States, but when we mention the fact that a machine may be bought in New York or any other city in the Union from $5 upwards, it will not be considered an exaggeration, but considerably under the mark, when we say that over 1,500 sewing machines are sold weekly in this country.

Now, what is the cause of this difference? Why is it that, as the Engineer tells us, the sewing machine in England is a nut for the lawyers to crack and run off with the kernel, while here it is an increasing article of manufacture and a blessing to the community? We think we can solve the question in a few words. Firstly, the superiority of our patent laws, which, by our own system of examination before granting a patent, prevents much litigation; and, secondly, the conservative feelings of the English people render them unwilling to adopt a machine which will do that in a few minutes which, for centuries, it has taken their hands many hours to accomplish.

In a quiet, friendly way, Uncle John, looking at your patent laws and many social evils, (confessing at the same time, that we have some, too) we ask you, as the older man, the more experienced social philosopher and political economist, from this sewing machine contrast, to aid such men in your midst as your social science philosophers - Lords Brougham and Russell, to wit, and cease playing with the great obstruction to your progress - conservatism; but in the words of your own great poet -

"Reform it altogether".