According to Wikipedia during the 1850’s many sewing machine companies were formed and filed lawsuits against each other for the patent of the sewing machine. This triggered a patent problem for the plans of the sewing machines, known as the Sewing Machine War.
In 1856 sewing machine manufacturers Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, Grover and Baker pooled their patents. All other sewing machine manufacturers had to pay them $15 per machine to use their plans to manufacture sewing machines. I am sure this cut down drastically on any competition.
In the 1860’s the first sewing machine customers were in fact clothing manufacturers, not homemakers, which really surprised me. The clothing manufacturers used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing. Tailors and seamstresses had previously made clothing for individuals, and if you could not afford one, you had to sew your own.
Women had to spend over ten hours to make a dress or a man’s shirt because hand sewing is slow work. Getting the stitches small and close together was important to the life of the garment. Most people had two sets of clothing: a set of work clothes and a nicer set for Sundays and more formal occasions.
Everything a family needed for use in the home such as washcloths, dishcloths, dishtowels, bath towels, bed sheets, and curtains had to be hand hemmed along the edges to prevent raveling and fraying of the edges. Today, we all take it for granted to buy these items in the store.
In the 1860’s individuals began purchasing sewing machines and they became very common in middle-class homes. Ladies were likely to spend free time making clothing for their families. Men’s shirts and women’s dresses could be made in one or two hours. These sewing machines were not electric but manually operated as the seamstress worked the foot treadle back and forth. An arm from the treadle turned the wheel and a belt that powered the machine.
According to the Museum of American History, the Singer Sewing Machine Company was showing sewing machines in opulent show rooms and charging $75 per machine. Because this was a huge amount at the time, Mr. Singer created the payment plan allowing thousands of homemakers to purchase their own machine. At that time the average yearly income for a family was about $500. Women fortunate enough to have their own machine often worked as community seamstresses to supplement their family income, working for about $1 a day. At the time it was considered good money. Some general stores in pioneer towns would buy a machine and allow women buying material at their store to use the machine. I can see there might be problems if one lady spent more than her share of time at the machine. Today, in the library a time limit is put on the computer so sharing runs smoothly.
By 1897 the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog listed their lowest price machine for $8.50 and the “New Queen Sewing Machine” for $22.50 and both included a wooden cabinet, drawers and treadle. Mass production brought down the prices in the 1800’s.
My grandmother’s treadle sewing machine was given to me in the 1970 and a few years later my husband put my new electric Sears Kenmore in the cabinet. I have now had my “new” machine for 44 years. It has run smoothly over the years and my sewing has included baby clothes, baby gifts, quilts, lots of dresses for my daughters, potholders, dozens of curtains, seat covers for a 1969 Datsun (that is a story all by itself), and a few years ago, Indian costumes for three of my favorite girls complete with feathers and headbands, and baby quilts for four grandsons. I can only imagine how excited a woman in the 1860’s was to have the new technology of a sewing machine in her home.
Come to Coryell Museum and see our treadle sewing machine located upstairs near the quilting display and loom.