|Joy That Long Endures, second in the Irish Blessings series of early Wyoming historical novels.|
Mention 1872 and sewing machine in the same sentence, and invariably people envision the ubiquitous Singer treadle-operated model. One of the characters in the second of my Irish Blessings novels, Joy That Long Endures, is a traveling seamstress. Her sewing machine is described more than once as hand-cranked, and I wrote about her having gone to some trouble to have a special case made for it so it could travel with her. The machine is described as heavy, but not so bulky that she can’t carry it herself.
|From an 1865 Shaw & Clark pamphlet.|
There were various models of sewing machines invented between 1790 and 1807, but the first working chain stitch model was patented by a French tailor in 1830. He opened a sewing machine based clothing company to manufacture army uniforms, but the factory was burned down, perhaps by persons fearing for their jobs. The American Walter Hunt invented a lockstitch machine in 1832, selling individual models but not patenting his invention until 1854.
|From a W.A. White & Co. pamphlet, 1871.|
John Fisher, an English inventor, beat Isaac Merritt Singer’s similar machine to production by seven years. In a legal dispute, Singer won the patent race over Fisher. In the 1850s and 1860s the firm of Wheeler and Wilson sold many quieter and smoother-operating machines.
Individual improvements and innovations by numerous companies led to a Sewing Machine War. Instead of continually fighting each other in court four companies pooled their patents and required anyone making use of them to pay $15.
Clothing manufacturers were the first to use sewing machines for factory-made clothing in standardized sizes, but by the 1860s there were many examples of such machines in private homes. Items of clothing that had previously taken hours to stitch together could be whipped up in minutes. Women who previously had no financial employment outlet could seek jobs outside the home. The demand for cotton fabric rose, metals industries profited from making sewing machine parts, and many household goods manufacturers benefited from the increased productivity provided by the use of machines.
According to TIME Magazine, Lady’s Book, a fashion magazine, enthused: “Next to the plough, [the sewing machine] is perhaps humanity’s most blessed instrument.” Certainly the ability to speedily add yards of embellishment like ribbons and lace changed the ladies’ fashion industry. Singer himself grew rich from the profits of sales of his machines, many sold on the installment plan to women who couldn’t afford to part with the total price at once.
So certainly by 1872, clever seamstress Ailis Tierney who made her living following and outfitting a traveling dance troupe, could have found any number of table-top, hand-cranked sewing machines to modify to her portable use with a custom wooden case—long before Singer seized on the idea in 1911 with his Model 99.
Before The Hon. Philip F. Thomas, Commissioner Of Patents. In The Matter Of The Application Of Elias Howe, Jr., For An Extension Of His Patent For Sewing Machines. Testimony Taken On The Part Of The Applicant, Elias Howe, Jr. New York: Wm. W. Rose, Job Printer, 1860.
The Sewing Machine. Its History, Construction, and Application. Translated from the German of Dr. Herzberg by Upfield Green. London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1864.
Genius Rewarded; The Story of the Sewing Machine. New York: John J. Caulon, Printer, 1881.
Alethea Williams is the author of Willow Vale, the story of a Tyrolean immigrant’s journey to America after WWI. Willow Vale won a 2012 Wyoming State Historical Society Publications Award. In her second novel, Walls for the Wind, a group of New York City immigrant orphans arrive in Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Walls for the Wind is a WILLA Literary Award finalist, a gold Will Rogers Medallion winner, and placed first at the Laramie Awards in the Prairie Fiction category. Partially based on the works of Canadian trader, explorer, and mapmaker David Thompson, Náápiikoan Winter spans a continent, examining the cultures in flux at the passing of one era and the painful birth of another. Náápiikoan Winter was an Inspirational Western Fiction Will Rogers Medallion Bronze winner, and a Best Regional E-book Independent Publisher Bronze winner. Joy that Long Endures, the second of the Irish Blessings historical novels, spans western early Wyoming Territory from the rails at Bryan City to the goldfields of South Pass City.
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