Sex, Lies and Sewing Machines
I hate a woman who offers herself because she ought to do so, and, cold and dry, thinks of her sewing when she’s making love. Ovid, 43BC – 17
Isaac Singer, the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was a cunning and ruthless bigamist who fathered over 25 children (apparently he lost count) and left an inheritance of $14M. (I wonder why it is that men who succeed in business often cheat on their spouses? I suppose the lying, cheating and stealing they get away with in one area just carries on into the other.)
There’s no argument that he was a street smart entrepreneur, though formally uneducated. He was a narcissist who repeatedly made a fool of himself on stage in several failed attempts at acting, and he was functionally illiterate, having dropped out of school and run away from home at the age of 12. He made his first fortune inventing a machine to drill rock and then in 1853, spent 11 days and $40 to come up with a new and improved sewing machine that made the machine easier to use and make.
Whether he actually invented this or simply stole the idea is also in dispute – he spent years entangled in lawsuits over the rights to the patent. After reading that at one point he carried on with 4 women at the same time, fathering children secretly with each, I am inclined to think he would have had no qualms stealing the idea.
Credit does have to be given to Singer for being the first to widely commercialize the sewing machine. In 1839, a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, patented the first sewing machine, and within a couple of years his invention was being used to make uniforms for the French Army. Alas, a mob of tailors, afraid the sewing machine would replace them, stormed his factory and destroyed the place. The Frenchman died penniless.
The next attempt was by an American named Walter Hunt, in the mid 1840’s. Hunt, also the inventor of the safety pin, came up with a sewing machine that was very similar to the one Singer patented several years later. However, Hunt did not pursue the commercialization of it because he believed it would put impoverished seamstresses out of a job. Of course, Singer didn’t give a hoot about that.
By 1855, the Singer sewing machine was selling like hotcakes in the US. Wealthier Americans could easily afford the machines, and the Singer Sewing Machine Company wanted to take the product to Europe. Singer won first prize at the World’s Fair in Paris and he began expanding overseas, becoming one of the first companies to expand internationally.
Within a decade, Singer had captured over 80% of the European market. How did he manage to sell Singers profitably in countries such as rural Yugoslavia to women like Pauline and Karolina, to people whose annual household incomes were far less than the cost of a single sewing machine?