Isaac Meritt Singer: Inventions & Biography

Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

Isaac Singer was a resourceful and charismatic man whose innovations made his name synonymous with the practical sewing machine. In this lesson read about how his advances in marketing led his company to success as an international industry.

Flair for Marketing

When you start your search for a new mobile device, you have lots of choices. Companies offer so many designs and options. Famous stars and athletes tell you the benefits of the product they endorse. You can order online, go to a company store or buy one at an electronics outlet or a big box store. When it's out of date, you can upgrade it, and when it wears out, you can change the battery. You can buy accessories to protect it and to repower it. And, after purchase, the company offers lessons on how to use the phone and its applications.

This is exactly what Isaac Singer did when he started selling his sewing machine. Even though he did not invent the sewing machine, he was so successful that Singer became the common term used to refer to it. In the early 1850s, Singer, along with others, was sued by Elias Howe, who was eventually given credit for inventing the sewing machine for home use. Commercial machines to mass produce men's suits had been in use for a while by the time Singer introduced his new and improved sewing machince, and the success of his sales was due to his new marketing efforts.

The Delightful Isaac Singer

The Charismatic Mr. Singer painted by Edward Harrison May in 1869

Originally from New York, Singer was a charismatic man who was successful at drawing the attention of the ladies. Having led a dramatic troupe during his early years, Singer had a flair for the dramatic and sang at fairs while pretty girls demonstrated use of his sewing machines. He charmed potential buyers in front of his stores advertising his product while young women sat in the front window sewing dresses.

Singer's Sewing Innovations

Patent for 1851 Singer sewing machine

Singer's sewing machine differed from others on the market because his made it easier to sew. He invented the presser foot that a woman could manually lock down to hold fabric in place while it and the needle moved in sync. His straight needle made it easier to maneuver the fabric than the longer, ungainly curved needle of earlier models. His sewing machine was offered in its own designer wooden case that acted as a stand while using the machine and as a table when covered. Singer's sewing machines were a piece of furniture that enhanced the furnishing of the model home beginning in the 1850s.

A modern presser foot holds needle and fabric in place
presser foot

Defeating the Competition

An 1856 sewing exhibition in Boston

Despite his improvements, consumers had choices among many sewing machine brands and Singer's real selling point was his focus on the women who would use the machine at home. While men's suits had begun to be mass-produced, women's clothing continued to be custom-made by seamstresses who, if proficient, could sew 40 stitches per minute. When perfected, his machine made it possible to efficiently sew 1,000 stitches per minute and even included embroidery and fancy stitching.

His machines were mass produced, and the interchangeable parts made them easy to repair. He offered lessons so that they would be used once purchased. With the advent of Butterick patterns, housewives could choose their own dress designs and make clothing that suited them. He was able to sell his machines for $10 each, and they became even more affordable with Singer's introduction of the installment plan, paying for the appliance over time.

Butterick pattern instructions for the home seamstress

Gaining Patent Rights

In time, Singer and other manufacturers returned to court to claim credit for their individual improvements to the sewing machine. Four companies, including Elias Howe's, were given a combined patent and shared $15 per sewing machine sold by any American company. This patent pool made money, and Singer became very wealthy with the success of his business and the income from the success of other sewing machine companies.

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