Elias Howe: Inventions & Quotes

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
The invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe had great repercussions for the garment industry. This lesson looks at Howe's life, his inventions, and a famous quote.

The State of Clothes-Making in the 1800s

In the early part of the nineteenth century, people rarely went to the store and bought clothes. Even those who lived in the city learned early how to make their own clothes and sewed them by hand. Sewing, quilting and other handcrafts that are considered quaint by many in modern times were essential to survival. Store-bought clothes were a luxury that many could not afford.

The problem was that piecing together a garment and sewing by hand it was a time-consuming task, and no one had more than a few articles of clothing (unless they were wealthy). All of this changed when a young man named Elias Howe started a revolution in the clothes-making industry.

Early Years

Elias Howe was born in 1819 on a farm near Spencer, Massachusetts. He was inquisitive and mechanically gifted, so when he turned sixteen he left the farm to apprentice to a machine maker. Because of the financial panic that happened that year, however, he lost his job and was forced to go to Boston to seek work. He again apprenticed as a toolmaker and machinist to a marine toolmaker. Howe was a brilliant machinist, but he had a disability which had caused permanent lameness. He knew he would eventually be unable to work as a machinist, so he began thinking about how he could make a sewing machine.

The Sewing Machine

Elias Howe Sewing Machine
Sewing Machine

Several patents had already been awarded to people for a machine that could sew (four patents, to be exact), but none of those machines made any money because of their design. Howe undertook the job and sought to perfect the mechanism so that anybody could easily use the machine.

He had several problems to work through before he could put a product on the market. The eye of a traditional needle was in the heel (opposite the sharp end), but he could not get this configuration to work. He also had to make an effective stitch that could effectively bind the cloth together.

Howe claims he saw the answer to the needle problem in a dream, in which he saw spear tips with holes in the points. He quickly revamped his design to include a needle in which the thread entered in the tip. He also developed the lockstitch by having two strand of thread come coming from two different directions and lock in the middle.

Unfortunately, however, Howe was unable to interest the public in the machine despite the fact that it could sew up to 250 stitches per minute. After several failures and a trip to England that resulted in very few sales, he traveled back to the United States to find that people were now interested in his machine. Others had begun manufacturing using his patent, so he took them to court to recoup his losses. He won several cases, but realized that all of the sewing machines coming to market, with slightly different modifications (such as Isaac Singer's invention of the up and down sewing motion), were pretty much the same. So, he formed an agreement with four manufacturers in which he would receive licensing fees based on his original patent. In the next 12 years, from 1856 to 1857, he would receive more than $2 million for his leases.

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