On July 9, 1819, Elias Howe, inventor of the first practical sewing machine, was born in Spencer, Massachusetts. At the age of sixteen, he began an apprenticeship in a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, but lost that job in the Panic of 1837. Howe then moved to Boston, where he found work in a machinist’s shop. It was here that he began tinkering with the idea of inventing a mechanical sewing machine.
Eight years later, he demonstrated his machine to the public. At 250 stitches a minute, Howe’s lockstitch mechanism outstitched five hand sewers with a reputation for speed. He patented the invention on September 10, 1846.
Howe struggled financially for the next nine years. Unable to enlist interest in his machine in the United States, he went to England in 1847, where he entered the employment of William Thomas, a manufacturer of umbrellas, corsets, and leather goods. Thomas saw the possibilities of a sewing machine as his employees all stitched by hand. Howe agreed to work with Thomas to adapt his machine to Thomas’ needs. However, after two disappointing years, Howe returned to the U.S. almost penniless and went back to working as a journeyman machinist. Upon his return, Howe noticed that while he had been in England, the sewing machine had become widely recognized and that the various machines used all or part of his patented invention.
In the 1850s, Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle. Howe initially wrote letters to the manufacturers he felt were patent infringers, seeking compensation. He was forced to take them to court to see that his rights in the invention were recognized, finally winning one of many suits in 1854. Howe’s actions started a whirlwind of legal battles as sewing machine manufacturers began suing each other over various patents. Finally, the four major sewing machine manufacturers agreed to pool their patent rights in a “Sewing Machine Combination” under which the sewing machine was marketed for many years.
After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of his invention, Howe’s annual income rose. Between 1854 and 1867, it is estimated that Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention. During the Civil War, he donated a portion of his wealth to equip an infantry regiment for the Union Army and served in the regiment as a private.
The first mechanical sewing machines were used in garment factory production lines. By necessity they were heavy, not portable, and very expensive. The need for a lighter and more reasonably priced machine was evident. By the late 1850s, several “Family Sewing Machines” began appearing. By the early twentieth century, the electrically powered sewing machine was in wide use.
The mechanical sewing machine was one in a series of technological innovations that transformed the nature of work over the course of the nineteenth century. As the century progressed, a growing number of women and children were part of an urban and industrialized work force. By 1900, most Americans employed in manufacturing no longer worked at home with their hands but in centralized factories with powered machinery.
In her 1915 book, The Trade Union Woman, Alice Henry argued for both workers’ rights and the women’s vote in the name of safeguarding future generations:
Women are doing their share of their country’s work under entirely novel conditions. What makes the whole matter of overwhelming importance is the wasteful way in which the health, the lives, and the capacity for future motherhood of our young girls are squandered during the few brief years they spend as human machines in our factories and stores. Youth, joy and the possibility of future happiness lost forever, in order that we may have cheap (or dear), waists or shoes or watches.…Give her fairer wages, shorten her hours of toil, let her have the chance of a good time, of a happy girlhood, and an independent, normal woman will be free to make a real choice of the best man. She will not be tempted to passively accept any man who offers himself, just in order to escape from a life of unbearable toil, monotony and deprivation.
The Trade Union Woman, by Alice Henry. New York and London: D. Appleton & Co., 1915. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
- The online collection, Daguerreotypes contains a series of photographs of workers such as the woman working at the sewing machine pictured above. Search on occupational portrait to view others.
- The history of the sewing machine during the nineteenth century can be traced through advertisements, brochures, and articles. Search on sewing machine or sewing machines in the following collections to see some of these materials:
- Search the following collections on sewing to find more pictures:
- Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 on the keyword sewing to retrieve the sheet music for the “Battle of the Sewing Machines” and the “Florence Sewing Machine Waltz.”
- Early films of factory workers are available in Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904. Select from over twenty-one films of people at work in Westinghouse factories. Search on women to find the films showing women at work in the factory.