Sewing Machine


In 1829 Thimonnier, a French tailor, innovated the sewing machine. Thimonnier found financiers to build a factory to help commercialize his new machine but workers – fearful the new machine would destroy their livelihood – burnt down the factory. He obtained further patents on better models of sewing machines and won prizes. However, he eventually failed to commercialize the technology and died in poverty. Historians later found a 1755 patent by English innovator Thomas Saint for a sewing machine but there is no record he ever attempted to commercialize his innovation. Walter Hunt also created a sewing machine he purposefully refused to patent, concerned about job loss.

Others tinkered with sewing machines until Isaac Singer, in 1850, took an interest and created his Singer sewing machine company.

“I don’t give a damn for the innovation, the dimes are what I am after.”

Isaac Singer. (Evans, They Made America)

Isaac Singer

Singer was a polygamist libertine, simultaneously married to four women (one legally, three illegally). His legal wife was named Catharine Maria and the other three named Mary. Altogether, he fathered at least 18 children out of wedlock and another four with his legal wife. “Singer loved women for their bodies,” writes biographer Ruth Brandon, “and not for anything as abstract and uninteresting as their minds.” Evans (p. 96). He fled to Europe after one Mary caught him with another. Eventually, he divorced his first and only legal wife to marry Isabella Boyer. She bore him another child 12 days after the marriage.

Singer bullied out his early partners, buying one out for $4,000. The funds came from selling machines the partner was arguably entitled to anyway. He formed a partnership with lawyer Edwin Clark, who provided financing and legal help. By all accounts, the two despised one another. Clark was a blue-blood prude and Singer a charismatic Jewish man who openly paraded his enormous brood of children borne by many different women. Still, the partnership ー where Clark owned one-third of the business ー ended up working well. Singer stole his first partner’s shares, for $6,000. He told the partner, Ziebler, that a doctor diagnosed Zieber with a terminal disease and offered a quick buyout. Ziebler had spent all his personal wealth backing the machine. Within half a year of the buyout the company had assets of about a half million dollars.

Patent Truce

Singer, Howe, and countless others fought a patent war ー just as McCormick had for his combine harvester ー but collectively decided to quit, pool their patents, pay a reasonable royalty (Howe collected $5 per machine), and compete on technology and business merit rather than patents. Eventually, Clark copied McCormick and offered sewing machine on credit, selling them into homes with the promise that women could earn a living sewing clothes at home.

“His paradigm was do your own financing, invest in quality, go where the people are of whatever nationality and sell, sell, sell—sell not just a machine but a way of life.” (Evans, They Made America)

Clark eventually changed the partnership to a stock corporation and Singer retired in Europe, rich though no longer in control of his company.

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