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19th-century Fashions and the Sewing Machine

The notion of mass-produced clothing, cheap and well made and available to all, is peculiarly American.

Perhaps nothing affronted old-fashioned European ideas of caste and class so flagrantly as the fact that by 1900 or so, a poor factory girl in America who worked six days a week in the same rough dress could, if she liked, wear store-bought silks or laces on Sundays. Or that an illiterate immigrant, if he had the cash, could go from Ellis Island to Broadway and after a few hours of shopping transform himself into a plausible-looking American.

In his essay "A Democracy of Clothing," in "The Americans", Daniel Boorstin observes that even by the middle of the 1800s, long before there was much of a garment trade, foreign visitors to the United States fretted about the upstart sartorial habits of the lower classes. As one British merchant complained in the mid-1850s: "You meet men in railroad-cars, and on the decks of steamboats, rigged out in super-fine broadcloth and white waistcoats, as if they were on their way to a ballroom, and common workmen you find attired in glossy black clothes while performing work of the dirtiest description."

Clearly the common people were not dressing as commonly as they had been expected to do in other times and places. And during the last half of the 1800s, the trend gradually turned into a torrent. Shopgirls and servants acquired fur-pieces and "Parisian" bonnets and, by means of newly published dress patterns, copied fashionable dresses and coats, so that it grew impossible to tell who was who. Wealthy women reacted to all this instant chic by adopting skin-tight bodices and elaborate styles that were extremely hard to tailor, let alone copy.

But as fashion moved down the social ladder, it also--curiously enough--began to move up. By the end of the 1700s, workingmen's trousers had already replaced fashionable men's breeches. This was not the first time that the dress of hoi polloi had been preempted at upper echelons, nor would it be the last. In the past two decades the process has accelerated astonishingly, with the result that youngsters with Fifth Avenue addresses set off to their private schools in work shirts and bib overalls, and the Queen of England is photographed at Balmoral in jeans.

The sewing machine might be blamed for all this. Isaac Merrit Singer designed his first marketable model in 1850. But there were other factors at work besides the sewing machine. The ready-made clothing industry had got underway in the United States much earlier, to supply not women's clothes but men's. It was not a matter of taste but of circumstance: few people really had the time or the purse for custom-made clothing. Tailors themselves, moreover, were eager to devise some system for proportional sizing, so that they could cut and sew for the "average" man during the slack seasons when there were few individual orders.

The Gold Rush of 1849 provided another great impetus. One of the forty-niners was an enterprising young dry-goods merchant named Levi Strauss. Realizing that a roof might be hard to come by in the California wilderness, he had brought along a supply of cotton tenting. But once he arrived, he found that the miners were as desperate for clothes as for gold nuggets, so he hired a tailor and turned his roll of cloth into work pants. He continued to use canvas for many years but he soon also began importing a sturdy French fabric known as "serge de Nimes," which had been anglicized to "denimes" and then denim.

But the sewing was still hand-done; the industry had begun to grow long before its basic tool arrived. The 1850 census showed over 4,000 men's clothing manufacturers in the United States, including some ready-made establishments competing with the more numerous traditional custom-tailors' firms. As Grace Rogers Cooper points out in her authoritative work on the sewing machine, "Here was the ready market for a practical sewing machine."

The invention and marketing of the sewing machine has all the elements of a pulp novel of the epoch--bitter rivalry, unabashed chicanery, showmanship, guile, acrimonious courtroom testimony, wealth, ruination, and sex. The sewing machine, like the light bulb, was the invention of many hands. Patents had been granted in both England and France in 1790 and 1830, respectively.

Some time around 1833, an American, Walter Hunt, made an enormous imaginative leap: he devised a sewing machine that used an eye-pointed needle and the principle of the lockstitch. As Daniel Boorstin writes, this was the step that "liberated sewing-machine inventors from the temptation to imitate the seamstress' hand." Hunt was a practicing Quaker who feared his invention might cause seamstresses to lose their jobs, so he never marketed it. In 1846 Elias Howe, Jr., who is most often credited with inventing the machine, was granted a patent on a device that also had an eye-pointed needle and a lockstitch. But the needle was horizontal and for this reason (and several others), the machine did not work very well. Despite some imaginative publicity--the story goes that he challenged five seamstresses to a "race"--Howe was unsuccessful in marketing his machine.

Isaac Singer, the man who turned the sewing machine into a standard household and industrial appliance, had no such problems. Born to German immigrant parents in 1811 in upstate New York (the wild frontier in those days), Singer earned his living by any means that came to hand. His profession of choice was acting. Forced for a time to dig ditches, he had invented a rock-drilling machine. As a stranded actor in Fredericksburg, OH, he perfected a machine that cut wooden type blocks. Back East again, he persuaded a bookseller named George B. Zieber to stake him to $40 and give him a chance to perfect a sewing machine. His motive, he readily admitted later, was greed. "I don't care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I am after." He took the horizontal needle and made it vertical and added a foot treadle. It worked, and the basic design is much the same today.

Elias Howe was now completely down and out, and when Singer went into production, Howe brought suit for patent infringement. The litigation went on for years, and Howe was eventually awarded a royalty on every Singer machine sold until 1867 when Howe's patent expired. During the long trial, Singer once rose to his feet and described, with true Shakespearean flair, how he had worked on his invention around the clock while his backer, George Zieber, held a flickering lamp. So zealous had Singer been to get the work done before the $40 ran out that he had hardly eaten or slept.

Even as he spoke, Singer was already making a fortune. The solicitous Zieber, who had so trustingly held the lamp, was bilked out of his share of the company when a new partner named Edward Clark came on the scene. Truly Mr. Clark deserves his place in some American hall of fame. Lacking any background as a merchandising tycoon--he had gone to college and had taught Sunday school--he was nevertheless one of the canniest businessmen in the country. With a promotional program that consisted (in part) of pretty young women demonstrating sewing machines in elaborately decorated showrooms, Clark overcame the prevailing prejudice against allowing women to operate machinery. To allay fears that the sewing machine would be forever broken down, he sold service contracts along with each appliance: an innovation in that day. And--here was his genius--he broke down resistance to the high price of a Singer, which at first retailed for the monumental sum of $500, by initiating installment buying.

Nevertheless Singer and Clark had their differences. In every department of his life Isaac Singer was more energetic than scrupulous. Over the course of some 40 years he was the father of 24 children by five women. Four of the five were named Mary, but only two of them were his legal wives. And he had other women besides, who escaped motherhood. In 1861, Mary Ann Sponsler, mother of ten illegitimate Singer progeny, had herself declared a common-law wife and then proceeded to sue for divorce. (She had caught a glimpse of the patriarch in a carriage with his new sweetheart.) The scandal rocked the company and disgusted Clark. In 1863 the partnership split up and an independent corporation was formed. The Singer Manufacturing Company continued to make a fortune for both men.

Like many another so-called labor-saving device, the sewing machine had some ambiguous and paradoxical effects. As a fixture of domestic life, it obviously improved the housewife's chances of adequately clothing her family. How much labor it saved is debatable. Now, of course, she could make ten stitches in the time it had previously taken to make one. But as one essayist of the day wrote, she might be tempted to put ten times as many stitches into one garment. Or instead of letting her husband and sons make do with two shirts apiece, she might now turn out a whole wardrobe for them. And while in the old days she might not have indulged in fancy handmade frills and trimmings, the Singer Company and others now offered her all manner of complicated frivolities--attachments that would ruffle, pleat, bind, and be-ribbon. So the number of furbelows multiplied. With an "automatic" ruffler at hand, what loving mama could refuse to add another tier of frills? But only with a great deal more time and effort, no matter what the advertisement claimed.

In the marketplace, the first and most important effect of the sewing machine was to drive clothing prices down. According to Grace Rogers Cooper, a pair of summer pants that had taken two hours and 50 minutes to sew by hand in 1861 could now be stitched in less than 38 minutes. In New Haven, CT, in 1860, a shirt manufacturer who installed machines drove his labor costs down from $6,000 a week to $1,600 a week and still produced 800 dozen shirts. The difference was that instead of employing 2,000 seamstresses, he now needed only 400. The 400 were now making $4 a week instead of $3. What happened to the surplus workers is not recorded.

Another development was that sewing, which had always been farmed out as piece-work to be done at home, could now also be done in contractors' shops or on salary in factories. One form of sweated labor went in tandem with another. In the 1880s, the weekly wage in cities like Baltimore, Boston, and New York might run anywhere from $3.50 to $7. Working conditions were unsafe and inhuman, and hours were set at the employers' discretion. "If you don't come in Sunday, don't come in Monday" was the famous admonition affixed to many sweatshop walls. And not too surprisingly, according to a report made in 1884 by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, "The running of heavy sewing machines by foot power soon breaks down a girl's health." Not to mention poor light and bad air.

Not just women but men and thousands of children toiled over sewing machines. In 1907, according to an article by the poet Edwin Markham, 60,000 children were shut up in sweatshops or sent out as messengers on the lower East Side of Manhattan. "Nearly any hour on the East Side of New York City you can see them--pallid boy or spindly girl--their faces dulled, their backs bent under a heavy load of garments piled on head and shoulders, the muscles of the whole frame in a long strain. The boy always has bowlegs and walks with feet wide apart and wobbling."

Another journalist of the day spoke of the fate of the young immigrant: "a bronzed, wirey young peasant, coming here to the land of freedom and hope from the oppression of Russia, sat down at a sewing machine in a hot, dusty, fetid tenement-shop in East Broadway or Clinton Street; and sometimes he lasted five years, sometimes seven, rarely ten." What it all led to, aside from a flood of cheap and excellently crafted clothing for the nation, was one of the most important events in the history of organized labor. In 1900, with 2,000 members and $30 in funds, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union was formed.

In these and other ways, the clothing industry has been a democratizer on multiple levels. It has made the United States the best-clothed nation in the world. It has discouraged class distinctions in clothes (if not entirely eliminated them).

"Suiting Everyone", a Smithsonian book by Claudia Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman, recalls a memorable event of the recent past. In 1959, when Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev paid a visit to Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, he was astonished to see that this multimillionaire, like most other men, dressed in an ordinary shirt and suit: "not just a capitalist but the biggest capitalist in the world" as Khrushchev wonderingly observed.

From the point of view of those who make the clothing, the industry has also been a democratizer--one of those chinkholes through which immigrants have traditionally been able to squeeze into the economic system of America. Once through the chinkhole, however, the newcomer might be enriched or devoured. Might one day own the factory or die of overwork in it or merely (and what a "merely") earn a decent living and survive.

From Shirley Abbott, The National Museum of American History, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1981) 213-223.



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