An Orphaned Sewing Machine

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in Harvard Magazine:

Singer_4Every object tells a story, and most objects tell many stories. Some can help us transcend boundaries between people, cultures, and academic disciplines to discover crosscurrents in history. Allow me to make that argument by examining a common object, an “orphaned” sewing machine. Several years ago, my colleague Ivan Gaskell and I decided it would be interesting to have students look at one of the landmark inventions of the nineteenth century—a sewing machine. The first sewing machines were patented about 1845. By 1900 they were as common as a cell phone might be today—and just as much a model of innovation and social transformation. When we couldn’t find a sewing machine in any of Harvard’s museums, I called a curator who had been cataloguing Harvard’s so-called “ephemeral collections,” things kept in offices, dormitories, or classroom buildings. She said Harvard did not have a sewing machine, but she did and she would be happy to let me use it.

…According to one scholar, the Singer sewing machine emerged from a collaboration “between a mechanical genius, Isaac Merrit Singer (Image 4), and a lawyer, Edward Clark.” Singer may or may not have been a mechanical genius, but he was a genius at keeping his own name in view: it appears at least five times on our sewing machine (Image 5). It is an appealing name: a sewing machine may not sing, but it certainly hums. Lawyer Edward Clark (Image 6) played another role. As historian Nira Wickramasinghe explains, “The early history of the company…can be read as a maze of patent grabbing by a number of inventors….and subsequent litigation. No owner of a single patent could make a sewing maching without infringing on patents of others. Clark was instrumental in the creation of the Albany patent pool, where the holders of these key patents agreed to forgo litigation and to license their technology to one another.” Some sense of the importance of patents is seen on our sewing machine, which lists those from the 1880s to 1892.

More here.