"There are at least three Americans in every foreign town in the world," according to an old traveler's saw, "the consul, the Standard Oil man and the Singer [Sewing Machine] man." As the world's biggest and best known maker of sewing machines, the Singer Manufacturing Co. has turned out more than 100 million sewing machines, printed instructions in 54 different languages, and shipped its machines to every corner of the globe.
Last week, at a whirl of parties in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel, Singer celebrated its 100th anniversary. In 1,200 Singer Sewing Centers throughout the U.S. and more than 5,000 spotted around the world from Hyderabad to Heidelberg, 80,000 Singer employees also observed the centennial of a company that has done as much to create an industrial and home revolution as any in the world.
Frills & Airplanes. Founding father of the Singer empire was Isaac Merrit Singer, a full-bearded, Yankee mechanic. On $40 borrowed capital, he developed the first practical sewing machine in Boston in 1850and ran into a three-year court fight. Elias Howe, who several years before had brought out a machine which was similar (but which did not work well), sued for patent infringement.
Howe won in court (and collected royalties on every Singer machine made until his patent expired), but Singer won in the market place. Teamed up with a shrewd New York lawyer named Edward Clark, Singer turned out a home model for $125 (average U.S. family income in the 1850s: $500), began one of the world's first installment plans to buy machines. By the time Singer died in 1875, his company was a $22-million-a-year business. Commented Publisher Louis Antoine Godey of Lady's Book, America's first fashion magazine: "Next to the plough, [the sewing machine] is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument."
Women's fashions took on a new look, were bedecked with ribbons and yards of machine-made frills. The Wright brothers used a Singer to make the covering for their first airplane wing. India's Mahatma Gandhi, who learned to sew in a British jail, thought so well of the sewing machine that he exempted Singer from his ban on Western machinery. Despite the growth of readymade dresses, Singer's home sales kept expanding, largely because of Singer sewing classes which taught women to sew everywhere, even in the jungle.
Sausages & Caskets. In its 15 plants (seven in the U.S., eight in Canada, Scotland, France, Italy, Brazil and Germany), Singer makes 1,500,000 sewing machines a year, also turns out vacuum cleaners, electric fans and irons. Singer makes close to 4,000 different sewers, from a child's model sewing machine (three Ibs.) to a giant industrial machine (2,526 lbs.), designs them to do everything from sewing up sausage casings to finishing casket linings. Latest gadget: a seamer that binds plastics together with an electric current instead of a needle & thread. Most of Singer's output is still in home sewing machines (most popular U.S. model: the "Featherweight Portable," priced at $137.50).