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.
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.
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.
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:
“. . . 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.
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.
$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.
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.
This ad emphasizes the convenience of a portable electric sewing machine, which takes up less room than a treadle machine.
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….)
A light directly over the needle and work area was a selling point for Singer in this 1937 advertisement:
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.
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.)
Of course, professionals do not sew over pins today, but we did when I learned to use a home sewing machine.
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:
Which period? Don’t get picky!
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.”
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:
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.)
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:
“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.
If you sew, take a minute to appreciate how much sewing machines have improved over the years.
“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.