The Impact of the Invention of the Sewing Machine on America

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Tracie Jackson
Chamberlain College of Nursing HUMN303 Introduction to Humanities Professor Catherine Coan June 12, 2011

The Impact of the Invention of the Sewing Machine on America

The large number of practical and useful inventions brought forward during the time leading up to and including the period known as the Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on both American society and the world. The transition that took place resulted in reliance on mechanical sources of power/energy rather than the traditional human or animal sources to produce the products needed (Hackett, 1992). One of those inventions, the sewing machine, dramatically changed the lives of women across the world during the mid to late 1800’s (Kramarae, 2005). Prior to the invention of the sewing machine, women homemakers were responsible for making almost all of the family’s clothing. Even with help, creating and repairing family garments by hand usually consumed a large part of a women’s daily routine. As the sewing machine evolved and became more suited to home use, women had more options available to them with regard to management of household duties as well as adding to the household income by working as a seamstress either inside our outside of the home (Kramarae, 2005). Even so, there were both benefits and burdens that resulted from this all-important invention. Evidence of the basic sewing function goes back as far as the Ice Age where needles were made of bone and animal sinew was used for thread (Bellis, 2011). During the 18th and 19th centuries, several attempts were made by inventors to mechanically reproduce the hand sewing performed by small tailor shops and women in the home. In 1755, Karl Weisenthal, a German inventor, came up with the first sewing machine needle, but did not produce the actual machine. Most of the early prototypes either did not work at all or were only partially functional. In 1790, Thomas Saint, a British cabinetmaker, patented the first functional sewing machine. It was primarily designed to sew leather and canvass for boots and used a single needle to produce a simple chain stitch (Museum of American Heritage, 2010). In 1830, Barthelemy Thimmonier, a French tailor, patented the first functional sewing machine that used a hooked embroidery-type needle to produce a chain stitch. However, in 1841, after successfully using his machines to mass produce army clothing, his production facility was destroyed and he was almost killed by other tailors in the town who were angry and threatened by the machine’s efficiency and utility. In America during the early 1830’s, a New York inventor, Walter Hunt, produced the first sewing machine that created a lockstitch. As a result, thinking changed and duplication of the human hand stitch was no longer the standard that inventors were measured by. Hunt at that time did not see the promise of his invention and did not file for a patent to protect it. He sold his interest for a small fee. (Museum of American Heritage, 2010). In 1846, Elias Howe filed a patent for a sewing machine that used two needles and generated thread from two different sources, resulting in a lock-stitched seam. However, Howe spent several years trying to defend his patent in America and market his machine abroad. In 1856, Howe successfully sued several of the patent infringers and received substantial income from the settlement, which paid him a fixed dollar amount for each machine sold using his technology. (Bellis, 2011). One of the companies involved in the patent lawsuit was the Singer Company, owned by Isaac Singer. Singer, a trained mechanic, duplicated Howe’s patented lockstitch seam, but modified the machine itself to operate with a vertical needle mechanism and a foot treadle as opposed to a hand crank. His machine also included a table to...
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