A brief and roughly stitched together history of the people who invented the sewing machine
Isaac Merritt Singer – Flamboyant, unconventional and promiscuous
Isaac Singer’s name has become the one most associated with the sewing machine, mainly because his model was more
practical and accessible than others and, most significantly, could easily be adapted for domestic use. Until Singer’s model, sewing machines had primarily been manufactured for industrial use only.
However, Singer was still forced to pay royalties to inventor Elias Howe (see last week’s issue), as the lockstitch his model created was a clear infringement of Howe’s earlier patent. Nevertheless, Singer’s invention had some original features of its own; its needle went up and down instead of side to side and it was operated by a foot treadle instead of a hand crank. These features helped the Singer sewing machine go into mass production in the 1850s, making it the world’s first home appliance and establishing I.M. Singer and Co. as one of the first American-based multinational corporations.
However, it was Singer’s personal life that really raised eyebrows. He had always been a flamboyant and magnetic personality, originally pursuing a career as an actor, and had no trouble attracting women. In 1930 he married Catharine Haley and had two children with her. While still married to Catharine, he proposed marriage to another woman, Mary Ann Sponsler, with whom he ended up having 10 children.
Singer and Mary Ann lived as a married couple under Common Law, but the arrangement turned sour when Mary Ann discovered Singer was involved with one of his employees, a young woman named Mary McGonigal, with whom he had already fathered five more children. Mary Ann took her husband to court on charges of bigamy, and Singer and Mary fled America for Europe to escape the scandal. In the aftermath, it was discovered he had a fourth “wife”; Mary Eastwood Walters, with whom he’d fathered a daughter.
In 1863 he married yet again, a Frenchwoman named Isabella Boyer, who was already pregnant to him. That same year his company I.M. Singer and Co. was dissolved but continued operations as The Singer Manufacturing Company.
By the time Isaac Singer died at age 63 he had fathered 19 children by five different women. He left an estate worth $14 million, two different wills and bitter legal battles between his
various “wives” each claiming to be the real Mrs Singer.
Part 5 – The Sewing Machine War.