Today in History

Today in History: July 9

Inventor of the Sewing Machine

Sewing Machine
Occupational Portrait of a Woman Working at a Sewing Machine,
circa 1853.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1842-1862

On July 9, 1819, Elias Howe, inventor of the first practical sewing machine, was born in Spencer, Massachusetts. At the age of sixteen, he began an apprenticeship in a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, but lost that job in the Panic of 1837. Howe then moved to Boston, where he found work in a machinist's shop. It was here that he began tinkering with the idea of inventing a mechanical sewing machine.

Eight years later, he demonstrated his machine to the public. At 250 stitches a minute, Howe's lockstitch mechanism outstitched five hand sewers with a reputation for speed. He patented the invention on September 10, 1846.

Howe struggled financially for the next nine years. Unable to enlist interest in his machine in the United States, he went to England in 1847, where he entered the employment of William Thomas, a manufacturer of umbrellas, corsets, and leather goods. Thomas saw the possibilities of a sewing machine as his employees all stitched by hand. Howe agreed to work with Thomas to adapt his machine to Thomas' needs. However, after two disappointing years, Howe returned to the U.S. almost penniless and went back to working as a journeyman machinist. Upon his return, Howe noticed that while he had been in England, the sewing machine had become widely recognized and that the various machines used all or part of his patented invention.

Sewing Room
Richmond & Backus Co. Sewing Room,
Detroit, Michigan,
between 1900 and 1910.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Man working sewing machine in garment factory
Man Working Sewing Machine in Garment Factory,
Jersey Homesteads,
Hightstown, New Jersey,
Russell Lee, photographer,
November 1936.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

In the 1850s, Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle. Howe initially wrote letters to the manufacturers he felt were patent infringers, seeking compensation. He was forced to take them to court to see that his rights in the invention were recognized, finally winning one of many suits in 1854. Howe's actions started a whirlwind of legal battles as sewing machine manufacturers began suing each other over various patents. Finally, the four major sewing machine manufacturers agreed to pool their patent rights in a "Sewing Machine Combination" under which the sewing machine was marketed for many years.

After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of his invention, Howe's annual income rose. Between 1854 and 1867, it is estimated that Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention. During the Civil War, he donated a portion of his wealth to equip an infantry regiment for the Union Army and served in the regiment as a private.

The first mechanical sewing machines were used in garment factory production lines. By necessity they were heavy, not portable, and very expensive. The need for a lighter and more reasonably priced machine was evident. By the late 1850s, several "Family Sewing Machines" began appearing. By the early twentieth century, the electrically powered sewing machine was in wide use.

The mechanical sewing machine was one in a series of technological innovations that transformed the nature of work over the course of the nineteenth century. As the century progressed, a growing number of women and children were part of an urban and industrialized work force. By 1900, most Americans employed in manufacturing no longer worked at home with their hands but in centralized factories with powered machinery.

Girls winding armatures at Westinghouse Works
Girls Winding Armatures,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904.
Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904

In her 1915 book, The Trade Union Woman, Alice Henry argued for both workers' rights and the women's vote in the name of safeguarding future generations:

Women are doing their share of their country's work under entirely novel conditions. What makes the whole matter of overwhelming importance is the wasteful way in which the health, the lives, and the capacity for future motherhood of our young girls are squandered during the few brief years they spend as human machines in our factories and stores. Youth, joy and the possibility of future happiness lost forever, in order that we may have cheap (or dear), waists or shoes or watches.…Give her fairer wages, shorten her hours of toil, let her have the chance of a good time, of a happy girlhood, and an independent, normal woman will be free to make a real choice of the best man. She will not be tempted to passively accept any man who offers himself, just in order to escape from a life of unbearable toil, monotony and deprivation.

Alice Henry, preface to The Trade Union Woman, 1915.
Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921

4-H Sewing Club
4-H Sewing Class,
Paradise Valley, Nevada,
Carl Fleischhauer, photographer,
May 1978.
Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982

A Constitution for Vermont

A farm, Bethel, Vt.
A farm,
Bethel, Vermont,
John Collier, photographer,
June 1943.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

On July 9, 1793, Vermont completed revisions to its constitution and became the first state in the United States to prohibit slavery. Vermont had already been admitted to the union as the fourteenth state on March 4, 1791.

The name Vermont is derived from the French vert mont meaning "green mountains"—that portion of the Appalachian Mountains running through the center of the state. The area was originally settled by the Abenaki Indians. In 1609, the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain explored the region and named a lake, on what is now Vermont's northwest border, after himself. By the end of the French and Indian War (1754-63) the territory was British.

The land was contested by the colonies of New York and New Hampshire. Between 1770 and 1775, many men joined the Green Mountain Boys, a civilian militia led by Ethan Allen and Seth Warner, to repulse Britain's claims.

When the American Revolution began, the Green Mountain Boys fought for independence from England. Their successful assault on Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775 is generally cited as the first offensive action of the Revolution. In 1777, the inhabitants of Vermont created an independent republic—first as New Connecticut, then as Vermont. The 1777 constitution of the Republic of Vermont abolished slavery and gave voting privileges to all freemen.

In 1796, George Washington wrote to the Vermont legislature:

Gentlemen: With particular pleasure I receive the unanimous address of the Council and General Assembly of the State of Vermont. Altho' but lately admitted into the Union, yet the importance of your State, its love of liberty and its energy, were manifested in the earliest period of the revolution which established our independence. Unconnected in name only, but in reality united with the Confederated States, these felt and acknowledged the benefits of your cooperation. Their mutual safety and advantage duly appreciated, will never permit this union to be dissolved.

Letter from George Washington to Vermont Legislature, December 12, 1796.
George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

More than 35,000 Vermont soldiers fought for the Union during the Civil War. Vermont was the site of the only Civil War action north of Pennsylvania when a band of Confederate soldiers raided St. Albans in October 1864.

Son of a woodcutter, Eden Mills, Vermont
Son of a woodcutter,
Eden Mills, Vermont,
Carl Mydans, photographer, August 1936.

Fair scene, Albany, Vermont
The fair's the day to talk,
Albany, Vermont,
Carl Mydans, photographer, September 1936.

Mr. G.W. Clarke coming to town to sell butter
Mr. G. W. Clarke Coming to Town to Sell Butter on Saturday,
Woodstock, Vermont,
Marion Post Wolcott, photographer, March 1940.

Tall man in overalls standing in a field
Vermont farmer, near Lincoln, Vermont
Edwin Rosskam, photographer, August 1940.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

Vermonters are known for their independent spirit and their love of nature. The town meeting is still used in local government. The state also is known for its fine marble and monument granite—quarried in the Green Mountains, for its dairy farming and sheep farming, and, of course, for its maple syrup and ski industry.

The collection of interviews taken for the Work Projects Administration by unemployed writers during the Depression Era, contains many narratives of Vermont farmers and artisans, such as the following:

One mornin' along the last of February or the first of March and Ezra is on his way to the barn for the chores. He stops as he steps out of the shed door, squints at the sky just flushed with faint pink in the east, he licks his finger and holds it up slowly turning it to get the feel of the wind. Then he squints at the galloping gilded horse bravely defying the laws of gravity on top of the barn to verify his findings on the way of the wind. He nods and takes a deep breath of the clear sharp morning air. There's a feelin' to it, a haunting elusive promise of change. Come a week or so thinks Ezra an' it will be time to get started on sugarin'.

He steps back to the kitchen door. Ma is marching her morning paths from stove to sink, sink to pantry. She likes to get a start on the mornin'. An hour in the mornin' is worth two in the afternoon as far as puttin' work off goes. You can get a sight more done and out of the way before breakfast if you fly round.

"Ma, you better plan for sugarin'," Ezra's voice is full of satisfaction.

"The Vermont Farmer,"
circa 1938-1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940