Singer Tailor Machine

July 27, 2019
Singer 160 Limited Edition

Image 1
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 2
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 3
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

It was quite a challenge to get it from her apartment to my classroom, but it was worth it. It was a beautiful thing (Images 1-3). But when I called to arrange for its return, the curator did not want it back; she was retiring and trying to downsize.

I could easily have sold that sewing machine on eBay or given it away. Instead I decided to find it a good home at Harvard. I consulted several museums and at least two libraries. Everybody thought it was a terrific object, but nobody really thought Harvard needed it. One museum thanked me for my generosity but said a sewing machine really didn’t fit their collections policy. Another said it was a marvelous example of technology, but that wasn’t the focus of their collection. The libraries said it was a lovely object and certainly related to many things in their collections…but no, they couldn’t take it. It was too big. Where would they put it? “We are a library, not a museum, ” one astonished staff member said.

I understand all that. Not even an institution with as many tangible things as Harvard can accept everything anybody might offer. I nevertheless decided Harvard really did need a sewing machine. I just had to persuade someone to take it. Without question it relates to many of Harvard’s landmark museum and library collections. More important than that—it connects them. Sometimes a common object—an object so common that it ends up in flea markets—can actually connect aspects of history that far too often get separated in the way we think about and teach about the past. So I set about to expore possible connections between my object and Harvard’s many collections.


Image 4: Isaac Merrit Singer
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

I started with Harvard Business School. An entry on their own website told me that they needed a sewing machine. It told me that what is now Singer Corporation was one of the world’s first multinationals and that the company also helped bring the installment plan into marketing.

According to one scholar, the Singer sewing machine emerged from a collaboration “between a mechanical genius, Isaac Merrit Singer (Image 4), and a lawyer, Edward Clark.” Singer may or may not have been a mechanical genius, but he was a genius at keeping his own name in view: it appears at least five times on our sewing machine (Image 5). It is an appealing name: a sewing machine may not sing, but it certainly hums.


Image 5
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments
Image 6 Edward Clark
Courtesy of Harvard Business School

Lawyer Edward Clark (Image 6) played another role. As historian Nira Wickramasinghe explains, “The early history of the company…can be read as a maze of patent grabbing by a number of inventors….and subsequent litigation. No owner of a single patent could make a sewing maching without infringing on patents of others. Clark was instrumental in the creation of the Albany patent pool, where the holders of these key patents agreed to forgo litigation and to license their technology to one another.” Some sense of the importance of patents is seen on our sewing machine, which lists those from the 1880s to 1892 (Image 7).


Image 7
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

The results were astounding. Singer opened its first foreign factory in Scotland in 1867. By 1914, it produced 90 percent of all sewing machine sales outside the United States and was the seventh largest firm in the world.

To understand the mechanical genius behind the sewing machine, let’s turn to the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments and consider the work of Elias Howe (Image 8).


Image 8: Elias Howe
Courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Howe contributed many things to Singer’s product (Images 9-12), including the use of a vertical needle threaded at the tip and the development of the shuttle that created the stitch.

Howe’s patent drawing is accompanied here by a drawing by Sara Schechner, Wheatland curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, that explains how it worked. The shuttle is a miniature version of a weaver’s shuttle.

(Click arrow at upper right to see images 9-12) Image 9
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 9
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 10
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 11
Courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 12
Courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

But perhaps our little machine could have a place in the Harvard Art Museums instead. Without question it belongs not only to commerce but to the decorative arts (Images 13-16).

(Click arrow at right to see images 13-15) Image 13
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 13
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 14
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 15
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Notice the elaborate designs on the end plates. The most dazzling element, however, are the two gilded sphinxes. The Harvard Art Museum has some prototypes of its own (Image 16).


Image 16
(Left top and bottom) Courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (Right top and bottom) Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, bequest of David M. Robins

But in truth, our sewing machine is itself a sphinx. According to Greek mythology, a sphinx is a composite creature with the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the head of a human. Our machine has a body of iron, wings of wood, and a head that without question moves. It could be a post-modern sculpture.

A sphinx also produces riddles. Consider the little surprises and mysteries in the drawers (Images 17-19). On the left are spools of old thread and a much-used glob of beeswax In the right drawer, an intriguing box, when opened, reveals all the attachments for the machine.

(Click arrow at right to see images 17-22) Image 17
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 17
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 18
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 19
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Image 20
Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Barbara and Peter Moore Fluxus Collection, Margaret Fisher Fund and gift of Barbara Moore/Bound & Unbound

Image 21
Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Barbara and Peter Moore Fluxus Collection, Margaret Fisher Fund and gift of Barbara Moore/Bound & Unbound

Image 22
Courtesy of of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Barbara and Peter Moore Fluxus Collection, Margaret Fisher Fund and gift of Barbara Moore/Bound & Unbound

Source: harvardmagazine.com
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