Little Bits of History

No More Thimbles

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 10, 2013
Elias Howe's sewing machine

Elias Howe’s sewing machine

September 10, 1846: US Patent #4750 is issued to Elias Howe. Howe was born to a poor farming family in Massachusetts. At age 16, he left farming and headed for Boston where he became a machinist in a textile factory. Years later, he quit work due to failing health. His wife took in sewing to support the family. All sewing was done by hand. Howe watched his wife’s laborious and repetitive movements and tried to devise a way for a machine to replicate the actions. His first machine, built in 1845, was used in a contest against several seamstresses and was able to complete five seams before even one was completed by hand. However, no one purchased his machine.

Howe’s was the first US patent for a sewing machine, but others predated it using a dissimilar type of mechanical helper and were issued as early as 1755 in England. Building on these previous ideas as well as innovations of his own, Howe’s invention was a breakthrough but remained commercially unproductive. He took his machine to Europe and success continued to elude him. On his return to the States, he found several other manufacturers had used his idea, in part or in total, to create a product selling, if not like hotcakes, at least making money.

Isaac Singer’s machine was scaled for home use (patent #10,975) and based on Howe’s design. Howe began the arduous task of defending his patent and his first suit forced payment to Howe of $25 (≈ $1,050 in 2009 UDS) for each machine sold. Eventually the two men, Singer and Howe collaborated with others working on sewing machines. The “Combination” included both men and Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker. The companies had to pay Howe $5 per machine sold in the US and $1 for each one exported. Howe earned $2 million prior to his patent running out in 1867.

Early machines cost about $125 (≈ $5,260 in 2009 USD). The average yearly income at the time was $500 (≈ $21K today). Communities pooled their funds and purchased a machine for the women to share. Singer devised a time-payment plan that increased sales tremendously. As with time payments today, the system could be abused. Women were said to be exploited and sewed for credit rather than actual payment for their services. Foreclosures and financial ruin were a risk inherent in the process. But the time consuming task was made less strenuous with the wonderful and useful invention – the sewing machine.

“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention – invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.” – Agatha Christie

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Inventions reached their limit long ago, and I see no hope for further development.” – Julius Frontinus, 1st century A.D.

“What some people invent the rest enlarge.” – Jonathan Swift

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Elias Howe, Jr. was born on July 9, 1819 in Spencer, Massachusetts. He and his wife and three children. At the time, clothing was usually produced at home and the sewing was arduous. A machine designed to do this task would need to have three essential parts as conceived by Howe. These same three parts are still included in sewing machines today. They are a needle with the eye at the point, a shuttle operating beneath the cloth which forms a lock stitch, and an automatic feed. One of the trickiest parts of this setup is placing the eye of the needle near the point. In freehand sewing needles, the eye is toward the back and keeping it there meant that the needle would have to penetrate the cloth to a greater distance without jamming in the shuttle beneath. By moving the eye toward the point, the needle had to penetrate to a much shallower depth and made the machine functional.

Also on this day: Close Your Eyes; Touch Your Nose – In 1897, the first citation for drunk driving is issued.
Italian Grad Prix – In 1961, a racing disaster occurred.
Nyon Conference – In 1937, the conference began.

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