Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Singer Story

The Singer 'rags to riches' story has drama and passion to match any modern day soap opera!  Isaac Merritt Singer born in 1811 in New York is where it all begins and this portrait says much about the 6ft 4" tall man who changed the lives of sewers around the world and fathered at least 24 children!  Leaving home at the age of 12 with little education, Isaac's started his working life in his brother's machine shop.  Shortly after his early first marriage, he used $2000 from patenting a 'rock drilling machine' to set up a travelling theatre troupe with a new common-law wife.  Numerous children came along and when spent out from his acting endeavours, Isaac returned to the more lucrative business of designing machines.

Isaac's first prototype sewing machine model was destroyed in an explosion in a machine shop in New York.  After successfully rebuilding, some years were then spent in a lengthy legal battle with fellow sewing machine inventor Elias Howe.  Whilst Howe eventually won, Isaac's design was sufficiently different to continue production and the I.M. Singer & Company came to existence.  The Turtleback/Grasshopper was the first domestic sewing machine produced in 1856.  It was not particularly efficient and initially priced at $100, £2000 in today's money, was aimed at the wealthy.  However, a price reduction and the introduction of a purchase instalment plan kick started mass purchasing.

The 'Letter A', that followed in 1859 with it's foot treadle looked much more like machines recognised today.  Whilst still expensive at $75 it was an efficient and popular machine that gave many years service to those who purchased to escape hand stitching garments.

The continued introduction of new models established Singer as the most successful manufacturer in the world.  The sales in England were sufficiently high to open a factory in Glasgow in 1867.  Meanwhile back in New York, Isaac was enjoying his new found wealth and status and set himself up three 'wives' and households!  It was his complicated domestic arrangements that were ultimately to ruin his New York reputation and resulted in him moving to Europe and finally England.  After his 3rd and final official marriage, Isaac purchased and built Oldway Mansion in Paignton where he lived until he died in 1875.  A multi-millionaire, he named 22 of his children in his will and made each of them very wealthy in their own right.

During the late 19th century business in the Glasgow factories expanded rapidly and demand quickly outgrew production.  A few years after Isaac's death, building started on a new mammoth factory at Kilbowie on the banks of the Clyde. On a 46 acre site with 25 miles of its own railway line and sprinkler system in the event of fire, it was the most modern factory in Europe of its time.  On its completion in 1885 there was 7000 employees and the factory produced on average 13,000 machines a week.

The Singer clock tower at the centre of the Kilbowie plant was 200ft high could be seen for miles around and dominated Glasgow life with its hoots to sound the beginning and end of shifts.  As an employer who went on to employ around 16,000 at its peak, it touched most families. 

Life working at the Kilbowie factory was undoubtedly a tough one.  An old employee I chatted to said that this picture reminded her that the factory looked like a workhouse.  She recalled vividly the noise of factory life and the oil smell that permutated everything.  Workers who lived close to the plant were lucky in that they could escape home for their lunch.  Those who lived too far away, made use of hotplates throughout the factory to keep their pies hot - and workers were glad to find that their pie had not been stolen come lunch time!

Each sewing machine produced was given a serial number on a metal plate and it is now possible to find out where and when a machine was manufactured on the Singer Sewing Machine Serial Number Database.  This machine I own was made in Kilbowie in 1917 in a batch of 75,000 machines!

Singer dealt firmly with its employees to ensure uninterrupted production.  In the early 20th century the whole 11,000 workforce came out on strike in support of 11 women cabinet makes who had their work increased and pay reduced.  The climb down and return of the workforce some days later resulted in around 400 employees losing their jobs and minimising future work prospects.  On the upside, Singer supported a huge range of leisure activities for its employees including weekly dances, many sports activities and an annual Singer Gala Queen parade.
New models of commercial and domestic machines were designed and manufactured in Glasgow well into the 20th century.  This 6548K model was the machine I sewed my own clothes with for many a year.  I recall working a whole summer school holiday to save enough money for a second hand purchase and I was delighted to have my first electric machine.
As the demand for sewing machines declined as the 20th century progressed, so did the workforce at the Clydebank factory.  Workers were ever aware of competitors introducing new and more efficient machines.  After nearly 100 years the massive plant had become outdated and the biggest sewing machine factory in the world eventually closed in 1980.  The Singer Corporation diversified into other machinery, none of which have ever come close to the heady days of sewing machines.  
In a world of fast moving technology, it is easy to resign the Singer story to dusty archives.  Yet the humble sewing machine has a continued huge impact on modern life, in that they are still used to make the clothes that we all wear!  The Clydebank Museum in Glasgow has the largest collection of Singer sewing machines in the world and has some of the rarer models on display.  It is great to remember and celebrate that Great Britain played a major role in establishing a piece of equipment that we still can't live without - of course I'm just a little biased! 


  1. Wonder what happened to the children he didn't name in the Will & whether they sued for their share of the inheritance - or whether very few of them even knew he was their father!! Busy man ...

  2. A story in its own right I reckon - his legacies to the world were certainly far reaching!

  3. Super to read this.