Before the sewing machine
The main character in my new time travel historical, A Suffragette in Time, is a twenty-first century woman who must adapt to life in the mid-1800s. One of the many things she learns is to sew by hand. Imagine sewing an entire dress – full length, billowing skirt and intricate bodice – by hand! That’s what Sarah does. She even sews her underwear.
But sewing machines were just around the corner. In 1814 a Viennese tailor produced several early sewing machines but never put his idea into production. The first sewing machine manufactured for sale was patented by Frenchman Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1830. His factory was attacked by angry tailors who feared the machine would be the end of their livelihoods. American Walter Hunt created a sewing machine in the 1830s, but worried about putting seamstresses and tailors out of work, so he never filed for a patent. An American tailor’s apprentice named Elias Howe patented a hand-cranked sewing machine in 1846, staging a man vs. machine challenge, beating five seamstresses to prove his machine was superior.
Then Isaac Singer came along, creating a different sewing machine but using Howe’s needle design. He paid Howe thousands in royalties to use the eye-pointed needle. His sewing machines were first mass-produced in 1856 and became a huge sensation. By the way, Singer has been described as “one of the most forceful, flamboyant and unscrupulous tycoons in American business history.”
My grandmothers used those old treadle sewing machines, pumping a broad pedal with both feet to make the machine pull cloth under the needle. Homemakers loved them. A man’s shirt could be made in an hour or two compared with 14 hours or more of hand stitching. Sewing machines did have a downside, however. Soon, poor women were employed in garment factories working very long hours for a pittance, often in dangerous conditions.
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