Thinking About Sewing Machines

Sewing; Butterick's Delineator magazine, July 1924.

Sewing; Butterick’s Delineator magazine, July 1924.

A recent post from Two Nerdy History Girls reminded me that I have some vintage sewing machine advertisements to share. The Two Nerdy History Girls linked to an article in the July 2015 Smithsonian magazine, “How Singer Won the Sewing Machine Wars.” An interesting read, pointing out the various features — and business practices — that helped Singer to dominate the American market. For an excellent, illustrated overview of sewing machine history by Terry’s Fabrics, click here.

Singer ran a full page ad in October, 1939 to celebrate its fiftieth year of producing electric sewing machines.

From a Singer Sewing Machine ad in Simplicity Prevue, Oct. 1939.

From a Singer Sewing Machine ad in Simplicity Prevue, Oct. 1939. Let’s not take the feed dog, which moves material through the machine at a steady pace, for granted! in 1939, “88 years ago” would be 1851.

From a Singer Sewing Machine ad in Simplicity Prevue, October, 1939.

From a Singer Sewing Machine ad in Simplicity Prevue, October, 1939. In 1939, “50 years ago” would mean 1889.

Electricity in private houses was not usual in the 19th century — gas lighting was then more modern than candles and kerosene lanterns, but all were in use. Most home sewing machines were run by human energy: a hand crank or a treadle.

A Singer Treadle sewing machine. Image from pastiane blogspot.

A Singer Treadle sewing machine. Image from pastiane blogspot.

I learned to sew on an electric machine belonging to my Girl Scout leader, but I made parts of my college wardrobe on a treadle (foot-powered) machine very much like this one. It was down in my parents’ laundry room, and it worked, so I used it.

A woman using a treadle sewing machine in the 1940s. I used one in the 1960s.

A woman using a treadle sewing machine in the 1940s.  I used one in the 1960s.

There have been times since then, when I was sewing velvet or other tricky fabrics, or trying for a very exact needle placement on each stitch, when I wished I still had a treadle machine, because it gave absolute control:  when you push the peddle, the machine makes one stitch. You can go as slowly as you want, and stop exactly where you want — take one more stitch into a corner, for instance. Of course, I usually appreciate my electric sewing machine’s speed and the many other functions that you didn’t get with my treadle machine — like a reverse gear for backstitching, zigzag and hem stitches, easily adjusted stitch length, and a built-in light so you can see what you’re sewing. Many of these improvements came twenty years after this ad:

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, March 1917.

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, March 1917. “You don’t have to pedal it.”

“. . . Every disadvantage of the old-fashioned sewing machine was thrown aside. You don’t have to pedal it — a pressure on the foot control starts that motor, regulates the speed and stops motor instantly. You can sew all day without tiring — and at a cost of about one-half cent an hour for current.” 1917.

Of course, before home electricity, and before the big treadle machines, there were small, hand-cranked ones.

VIntage hand-crank sewing machine.

Vintage hand-crank Singer sewing machine.

In the 1950’s, I had a toy sewing machine. (I wonder what sexist relative assumed that I’d like one of those– presumably to go with my toy stove and my toy iron? Not my idea of fun! Besides, my mother expected me to do real housework with real sweepers and vacuums and irons.)

My toy sewing machine was much like this vintage Singer. Turning the crank produced a chainstitch — no bobbin thread was necessary.

Which makes me wonder:  Why did makers of the first sewing machines expect you to do the easy part — turning a crank — with your right hand while guiding the material with your left hand?  And now that we’re aware that a majority of people are right handed, why do they still make sewing machines that way? And why do they always have the part you really need to focus on (the needle and presser foot) off to the left side instead of in the center? Just asking….

I don’t have any sewing machine ads from earlier than 1917, but the selling points mentioned through the 1930’s certainly make me appreciate my thirty-year-old , all metal, Pfaff.

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, Delineator, April 1917.

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, April 1917. “You can use it on the porch.”

$35 was a lot of money in 1917; one way the Singer company gained dominance over rivals like Western Electric was that Singer offered the first installment plan in the U.S.

Portability was not a new concept; the early hand-cranked machines were portable. But in a world without air-conditioning, many women appreciated a chance to work outside on a breezy porch in the summer. You still needed a source of electricity, however, and most houses did not have base outlets in the walls.

Western Electric Sewing machine ad, March 1917.

Western Electric Sewing machine ad, March 1917.

Western Electric Sewing Machine ad, Mar. 1917. You can use it anywhere there is a light socket."

Western Electric Sewing Machine ad, Mar. 1917. “You can use it wherever there is an electric light socket.”

That’s right; instead of plugging into the nearest wall outlet, you unscrewed the light bulb — most rooms only had one in 1917, since houses like my grandmother’s were built during the gaslight era. Then you screwed the sewing machine’s cord and adapter into the light socket.

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, Oct. 1917.

Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine Ad, Oct. 1917.

This ad emphasizes the convenience of a portable electric sewing machine, which takes up less room than a treadle machine.

Top of sewing machine ad, Oct. 1917.

Top of sewing machine ad, Oct. 1917.

Bottom of Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine ad, Ladies' Home Journal, Oct. 1917.

Bottom of Western Electric Portable Sewing Machine ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, Oct. 1917. “With a Western Electric 2-way Plug you can operate both the machine and a lamp from a single socket at the same time.”

The 2-way plug was a stroke of genius; you could have a light bulb and a sewing machine going at the same time! (Just in case you wanted to see what you were doing….)

Sewing machine ad, Oct. 1917.

Sewing machine ad, Oct. 1917. “Connect to any light socket.”

A light directly over the needle and work area was a selling point for Singer in this 1937 advertisement:

Singer Sewing Machine ad, Butterick Fashion News, Dec. 1937.

Singer Sewing Machine ad, Butterick Fashion News, Dec. 1937.

Notice the 1937 reference to treadle machines…. Many were still in use.  In fact, we now take for granted the wonderful new things this 1937 sewing machine could do.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, Butterick Fashion News, Dec. 1937. Full page ad.

Singer Sewing Machine Ad, Butterick Fashion News, Dec. 1937. Full page ad.

It could reverse! (On a treadle machine, you have to rotate the entire piece of fabric 180 degrees to backstitch at the end of a seam.)

Singer Ad, Dec. 1937. "Sew backward or forward."

Singer Ad, Dec. 1937. “Sew backward or forward.”

Singer ad, Dec. 1937. You can sew over pins!"

Singer ad, Dec. 1937. You can sew over pins!

Of course, professionals do not sew over pins today, but we did when I learned to use a home sewing machine.

"I was still struggling with my old treadle machine..." Singer sewing machine ad, 1937.

“I was still struggling with my old treadle machine, as out-of date as a 1910 car. Now I’ve traded it in for the grandest Singer made — and am I tickled!” Singer sewing machine ad, 1937.

Singer’s willingness to accept trade-ins was another reason for the company’s success. Of course, the deluxe, non- portable models were still being presented as important pieces of furniture:

Singer ad, 1937.

Singer Anniversary Model ad, 1937. It had “A lovely period cabinet.”

Which period? Don’t get picky!

Singer sewing machine cabinet, closed and posing as a side table. 1937.

Singer sewing machine cabinet, closed and posing as a side table. 1937.

Singer sewing machine cabinets disguised as living room and dining room furniture. Better Homes and Gardens, Feb. 1930.

Singer sewing machine cabinets disguised as living room or dining room “fine furniture.” Better Homes and Gardens, Feb. 1930.

This Singer, disguised as a “library table” when not in use as a sewing machine,  “is most frequently placed . . . in the living room. There it is admired by guests for its simple beauty in design. They would never guess . . . that this attractive table is really a sewing machine. . . . All its lines express simplicity and good taste.”

Singer ad, Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

Singer ad, Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

Of course, my family wasn’t the only one to own a foot-powered treadle machine long after these luxurious Singer models appeared. For one thing, sewing machines were expensive. And those treadle machines just kept working. (A delightful company that makes historic re-enactment clothing is Treadle Treasures; when I corresponded with  Heather a few years ago, she was still using treadle machines for special jobs.)

If you didn’t want to buy a new electric sewing machine, you could purchase a little motor to run your old treadle machine:

Ad for Hamilton Beach Motored Appliances -- a motor for your treadle sewing machine. Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

Ad for Hamilton Beach Motored Appliances — an external motor for your treadle sewing machine. “You just set it under the hand wheel of your sewing machine and sew without pedaling. Both hands are free to guide the material….” Better Homes and Gardens, 1930.

It was also possible to buy attachments for your sewing machine; I’m not sure how this zigzag attachment for a straight stitch machine actually worked, but unless your machine has zigzag capability, you have to make most of your buttonholes by hand. (When using a treadle machine, I bought patterns that called for zippers, not buttonholes.)

Singer zigzag attachment advertised in Butterick Fashion News, May 1938.

Singer zigzag attachment advertised in Butterick Fashion News, May 1938. “Fits on any modern Singer machine.”

I’m just guessing that the needle stitched in a straight line while the attachment pushed the fabric back and forth?

Even stranger was a Singer attachment that enabled you to make rugs on your sewing machine:

Singer sewing machine attachment advertised in 1934.

Singer sewing machine attachment advertised in 1934. “All you need is the Singercraft Guide — a simple attachment that fits any sewing machine.”

“All you need is the Singercraft Guide — a simple attachment that fits any sewing machine. For the materials, use rags, old stockings, or wool yarn. The result is amazing. . . . Get Complete Singercraft Set, including Book, Guide, transfer patterns and instructions — for 50 cents.” (The Depression may have had something to do with this rug maker.)

This hemming attachment — with free embroidering attachment — cost a dollar in 1929.

Hemstitcher attachment ad, Delineator, Feb. 1929.

Hemstitcher attachment ad, Delineator, Feb. 1929.

If you sew, take a minute to appreciate how much sewing machines have improved over the years.

Western Electric Sewing Machine ad, Ladies Home Journal, Nov. 1917.

Western Electric Sewing Machine ad, Ladies Home Journal, Nov. 1917.

“It is the modern way. . . .” It’s so modern, that the model has bobbed hair, which was just becoming acceptable in the U.S.A.

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12 Comments

Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1930s, 1950s-1960s, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture

12 responses to “Thinking About Sewing Machines

  1. I learned to sew in school on a hand machine. they were great, as I was terrified of the electric, so the hand machine was a great introduction! (I get impatient if I have to use one now tho!)

  2. I’ve seen photos with the sewing machine in the living room, and marveled at them. But now I see it was a recommended practice.

    • The idea of having a special room just for sewing was a dream for the women I knew. It was sometimes achieved after the children left home. Those who had a “table machine” instead of a portable had to put it in the dining room, bedroom, or living room.

  3. I learned to sew on my grandmother’s treadle in the mid 1960s. It was the only sewing machine she ever had or wanted. The stitch was always perfect, and the machine never, ever malfunctioned. I cried when my cousin somehow claimed ownership of that wonderful object.

  4. Stephani

    What a great question: why are machines made so that the easy functions are performed with the right hand and the difficult ones like guiding the fabric are done with the left?! I’ve never thought of that before, but it’s true, of course. Maybe the sewing machine’s first developers were left-handed and they instinctively designed for their own handed-ness, not considering–like many righties do–how difficult it is to work ‘backwards’ and that most people are right-handed. Hm. Wow, that could make an excellent thesis project for someone. And the day someone designs a right-handed machine, I want to try it out and see if it’s actually easier, or if my habitual use of my left-dominant sewing machine has trained me too well. Gosh, just thinking about sewing from the opposite side of a machine confuses my brain and goes against the muscle memory and hand-eye coordination already built up!

    • I have experimented with simply moving my sewing chair a few inches to the left. As long as the control is a foot pedal, you can do this to ease the neck strain of looking to the left all day long. But it feels very counter-intuitive not to “center” yourself on the machine instead of on the needle. I don’t have a computerized machine, so there are no controls or screens in the center of my machine — just a blank space. I put both feet on the pedal of an industrial, but there’s room to sit a little to the left.

  5. I agree – a really interesting question about left and right. My new machine is operated by a button rather than a foot controlled switch – it takes some getting used to but effectively it is the easier I think. I learned to sew on my Grandma’s Singer treadle too. It sort of folded away into a wooden table and was very much part of the “breakfast room” furniture.

  6. Christina in Western Pennsylvania

    So fun to see these old ads and hear your machine stories!
    When I was 3 or 4 years old, I learned to sew on a “toy” Singer chain-stitch machine with a hand crank. By the time I was 5, I had graduated to using my mom’s Singer Featherweight. I loved both of those machines and still have them.
    To me, modern machines *are* right-handed. All my left hand does is guide fabric while my right hand operates all the controls on the machine and removes pins.
    And, come to think of it, I do sit down centered on the needle. My machine sits on a table, so I can adjust how much room I have on either side.
    I also want a treadle machine, though I’m not sure why. I think I want to experience machine sewing without having to use electricity. I’m okay with slow sometimes. I love hand sewing and sometimes make things entirely by hand, especially if they are historical items.
    Very fun post today! Thank you! I also enjoyed the links to the Smithsonian and History Girls.

    • You’re right about guiding and pulling pins with the right hand. I just used to wonder why my back hurt after a day at the sewing machine, spent twisted slightly to the left. Actually, unless you work in a factory, machine sewing is probably the smallest part of any project. Cutting, marking, pinning, and pressing are about 80% of the job!

  7. Nancy N

    Yes, I think the zig zagger was like the buttonhole attachment in those early machines, in that it shifted the fabric back and forth whole the needle stayed straight.
    What a great post! Keep em coming!
    Nancy N

  8. I think the design of the sewing machine was made with a factory setting in mind. You can’t set up a workroom as easily if you have some machines going one way and others going another way – just like you can’t have violinists using different hands for bowing in an orchestra without problems of bumping into each other.

    As for a machine being “right-handed” I think they are. I’m much more comfortable reaching without looking using my dominate right hand for things like reverse and the hand wheel. I need to be able to make smaller movements and keep an eye on my less coordinated left hand, especially when dealing with moving parts on dangerous machinery.

    And I do center myself more in front of the needle when sitting at a machine too. =)

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