The Story of the sewing machine is the story of Elias Howe, a man who took his invention to England because he was discouraged by
the resistance to it in North-America. It is also the story of how, while he was in financial trouble in England, another man, in America
adapted the principle of his invencion and made his own name a household word throughout the world. The textile factories of
New England were among the first to be started in this country. Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union,
had become an important seaport in the early days of shipping and commerce. Large fortunes had been made in that city as well as in
Boston and Salem, Massachussets.
Those who had made forturnes looked around for safe investments in industry. Moses Brown decided that the swift-moving Blackston
river in Rhode Island would furnish the power needed for a textile mill. Moses had grown up in the days when colonial housewives
spun the flax raised in New Hampshire. From the thread they wove fine linens on hardlooms in the home. A Homespun mixture of
wool and linen furnished the linsey-woolsey from which clothes for the entire family were made. With the tremendous increase in
cotton-raising after the cotton gin, cotton became available in large quantities. England used a great deal of cotton in her new textile mills.
She jealously guarded the secrets of her machinery to keep out competition. To make sure that the secrets did not leave, she forbade her
textile workers from emigrating.
In need of English machinery, Americans advertised that a cash prize would be given to the one who would set up comparable spinning
machinery in the United States. Samuel Slater, a worker in England's mills, is said to have memorized the construction of all the
machinery. Then, disguised as farm-laborer, he made his way to America to sell his information. He reached Providence, where Moses
Brown welcomed him with open arms. The Brown mills were soon operating along the British pattern. Then Slater set up a spinning mill
of his own at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where it may still be seen. Slater's wife invented sewing cotton in 1793. Other families of
New England, particularly the Lowell and Lawrence families of Boston, learned the secrets of the English machines for weaving.
It was not long before mills for the weaving of cloth sprang up along the Merrimac River. These early factories attracted many women
workers as well as children. Although cloth was being woven in sufficient quantities, clothing prices were high because hand-sewing
was so costly. Elias Howe was born in Spencer, Massachusetts in 1819. A frail, slight boy with one leg shorter than the other, he was
of little use on his father's farm. It has been said that he always had a fear of poverty and took to inventing as a means of making a fortune.
At the age of sixteen he was an apprentice to a manufacturer of mill machinery in Lowell. The experience he gained on the loom gave
Howe the basis for his invention of the sewing machine.
From this job at the factory Howe went on to work for an instrument-maker in Cambridge. It was there he heard a chance remark that
started him on the path that led to his invention of the sewing machine." There's a fortune to be made by the man who invents a sewing
machine", was the remark Howe heard. This was just what Howe was thinking. But he had not a clear idea of how to go about inventing
such a machine. Besides, he had wages of only nine dollars a week, an ailing wife, and three children. He had no money and he had nothing
to guide him on such a project, since even the first principle of such a machine was not known to him. At first, Howe tried to copy the way
his wife sewed. He gave that up when he realized that it would not be practical. Then he hit upon the idea of putting the eye of the needle at
the point end. If the cloth lay on a surface, the machine will force the needle through the cloth, forming a loop of thread as it was pulled
Remembering the loom, he reasoned that with a shuttle on the underside a second thread could be passed through the loop of the first
thread. Tension would be use to tighten the stitch, thus locking it. This type of stitch would not unraves a seam if a thread broke. After
working out the stitch he had to build a machine around it. With the financial help of a friend, George Fisher, Howe was able to build
his first machine. The machine that Howe made is now on display at the National museum in Washington. It is a strange-looking
apparatus. The needle moved horizontally instead of vertically and it was operated by a hadcrank. In return for his help, Howe
gave Fisher a half-interest in the machine. He immediately sewed two suits: one for his friend and the other for himself.
The seams held firmly. Then came the heart-breaking job of trying to sell the machine to the garment industry. No one would buy it.
They were not yet convinced that sewing by machine would take the place of hand-sewing. Howe then decided that the machine
might sell in England. Securing his American patent, he sent his brother Amasa to England with the machine. An astute corset-maker
saw the great possibilities of the machine in his business and purchased the sample for $1,250.00. He also reserved the right of
ownership in Great Britain and the right to purchase additional machines from the invertor. He invited Elias to come to England,
and his employer, adapted the machine to corset-making.
Howe's stay in England did not do him much good. When William Thomas, the corset-manufacturer, had the machine adapted to his
business, he had no further use for Howe and fired him. Howe had taken his family to England. Without work, he was forced to send
his family back to North-America to live with his father. He himself set to work on another machine in order to make enough money
to pay his passage home. While Howe was borrowing just enough money to buy beans to keep from starving, Isaac Singer in
America, had taken the Howe machine and had adapted it for home sewing. Singer worked out three improvements on Howe's
machine. First made the needle work up and down, rather than horizontally, which made it easier to feed the cloth. His second
improvment was the wheel for automatic feeding of the cloth as it stitched. Finally, Singer's machine was powered by a foot treadle,
leaving the operator's hand free.
By the time Howe returned to the United States and took a mechanic's job for fifteen dollars a week, Singer's agents were selling
sewing machines all over the country on the term payment plan. Only a few people remembered that Howe was the original inventor.
But among these few was George Fisher, the man who had bought a half-interest in Howe's invention. Through the efforts of this
man, the Howe infringement suit against Singer was carried to court. Howe won the case with a cash settlement and royalties on
future sales of the Singer machine. Howe's sewing mchines for factories came to be in great demand for everything from hats to
shoes. Within a few years, the inventor was earning as much as $4000.00 a week.
Broken in health and old before his time. Howe died at the age of forty-six. Although he did not live long enough to enjoy his money,
his family profited by it. Issac Singer also made a fortune with the sewing machine. He spent the latter years of his life in England.
The buyer of the Singer Company, Edward Clark, built it into one of the great industrial organizations of the world.