1811, Pittstown, NY
1875, Devon, England
To attract attention to his sewing machine, Singer would croon "The Song of the Shirt" at county fairs and circuses, while a pretty woman demonstrated the ease of his new machine.
Photos: (right) Library of Congress
The American Multinational
This founder of the first American multinational company innovated key elements in the design of the sewing machine and marketed it to households, freeing millions of women around the world from hand-sewing.
Flair for the Dramatic
Isaac Singer invented the first practical, commercially-successful sewing machine and the first multinational company. He was born in upstate New York in 1811, and developed interests in machines, the theater, and women -- probably not in that order. He left home at age 12, took odd jobs, and formed a traveling troupe of repertory actors. He also began relationships with a string of women, many of whom would overlap in his life unbeknownst to each other, producing at least 18 illegitimate children.
In Boston in 1850, a machinist asked Singer, by then an outgoing, large man setting himself up as an inventor, to help him improve a sewing machine made by the modestly successful Lerow and Blodgett Company. Instead of repairing the machine, Singer redesigned it by installing a presser-foot for feeding the fabric. Importantly, the new design caused less thread breakage with the innovation of an arm-like apparatus that extended over the worktable, holding the needle at its end. It was the first practical replacement for hand-sewing, and it could sew 900 stitches per minute, a dramatic improvement over an accomplished seamstress's rate of 40 stitches a minute on simple work.
Selling to Housewives
While the first Singer machines were relatively expensive and bulky, the inventor soon adopted a mass-production system of interchangeable parts, and worked to reduce the machines in size and weight. From the start, he looked past the commercial market into households, aiming to sell to housewives. After a series of refinements, Singer was able to sell his machines for $10 each, making them accessible symbols of status and self-reliance for the average American family. His partner, Edward Clark, pioneered installment purchasing plans and accepted trade-ins, causing sales to soar.
Service and Expansion
Singer supported its sales with beautiful showrooms, repair mechanics, sewing instructors, and rapid parts distribution, creating a nationwide service network. And it expanded into foreign manufacturing of its products. By 1863, when a tailor named Ebenezer Butterick began selling dress patterns, the Singer had become America's most popular sewing machine and was on its way to a worldwide monopoly. Singer died a wealthy man in 1875, at the Wigwam, his British estate.