Isaac Singer was granted a patent for his new sewing machine design today in 1851, started I.M. Singer & Company, and began to mass-produce sewing machines for the first time in history. Now WE know em


Isaac Merritt Singer was born October 27, 1811 in Pittstown, New York.

He grew up watching plays, and soon had the desire to become an actor himself.

The reality of life, however, did not allow for such wishful thinking.

A 19 year old Singer married 15 year old Catharine Maria Haley and had 2 children.

Throughout history water had been the best way to transport people and goods. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened as a link between the Great Lakes and the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Soon after, an Illinois canal was proposed near Chicago to provide water passage linking Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, thus providing a water passage all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

After years of planning, the I&M Canal Building Company began building the I&M Canal. This brought people and opportunity to Chicago, however they soon ran into many major problems including a shortage of workers, as well as a national financial panic.

Singer, as well as German, Irish, Swedish and other immigrants, attracted by the promise of abundant jobs, flocked to Illinois to begin digging the canal by hand.

Singer realized the need for a more efficient way to drill into rock beds. Thus, he obtained his first patent at the age of 28 in 1839 for his invention of a machine to drill rock. He sold the patent for $2,000 to the I&M Canal Building Company.

With this financial success, Singer opted to return to his passion of becoming an actor.

He went on tour, forming a troupe known as the “Merritt Players”, appearing onstage under the name “Isaac Merritt”, with his longtime mistress Mary Ann Sponsler appearing onstage as “Mrs. Merritt”. The tour lasted about five years.

With most of his money now devoured by his dream, a wife, and another son with Mary Ann, Singer turned again to inventing.

Singer developed a “machine for carving wood and metal” that he received a patent for on April 10, 1849.

With patent in hand, he packed up his family and moved back to New York City, hoping to market his wood-block cutting machine.

Singer obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and built one in the shop of A.B. Taylor & Company.

There, he met G. B. Zieber, who became Singer’s financier and partner.

However, not long after the wood carving machine was built, the steam boiler blew up at the shop, destroying the prototype.

Zieber persuaded Singer to make a new start in Boston, a new center for the printing trade. Singer packed up his family once more and left for Boston in 1850 to display his invention at the machine shop of Orson C. Phelps.

Orders for Singer’s wood cutting machine were not, however, forthcoming.

Ironically, Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines were being constructed and repaired in Phelps’ shop. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines, which were difficult to use and produce.

Singer concluded that the sewing machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle.

Singer ran with this idea and obtained US Patent number 8294 for these sewing machine improvements on August 12, 1851.


Singer’s prototype sewing machine became the first to work in a practical way.

It could sew 900 stitches per minute, far better than the 40 of an accomplished seamstress on simple work.

I. M. Singer & Company

In 1856, manufacturers Grover & Baker, Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, all accusing each other of patent infringement, met in Albany, New York to pursue their lawsuits.

Orlando B. Potter, a lawyer and president of the Grover and Baker Company, proposed that, rather than squander their profits on litigation, they pool their patents.

This was the first patent pool, a process which enables the production of complicated machines without legal battles over patent rights. They agreed to form the Sewing Machine Combination, but for this to be of any use, they had to secure the cooperation of Elias Howe, who still held certain vital uncontested patents. Terms were arranged; and Howe would receive a royalty on every sewing machine manufactured.

Singer opened I.M. Singer & Company and began to mass-produce sewing machines.


Up until then, sewing machines had been industrial machines, made for garments, shoes, bridles and for tailors, but in 1856, smaller machines began to be marketed for home use at the enormous price of over $100.

His I. M. Singer & Co. manufactured 2,564 sewing machines in 1856, and grew to manufacturing 13,000 by 1860. Singer then built a new sewing machine plant on Mott Street in New York.

Singer’s financial success allowed him to divorce Catharine on the basis of her adultery with another man.

Singer continued to live with Mary Ann and their son, that is until she spotted Singer driving down Fifth Avenue seated beside Mary McGonigal, an employee of whom Mary Ann had well founded suspicions.

By this time, Singer had bought a second mansion and started another family with Mary McGonigal with whom he had had five more children. Singer used the surname Matthews for this family.

Mary Ann (whom had by now been using the name Mrs. I.M. Singer) had him arrested for bigamy.

Singer was let out on bond and, disgraced, fled to London in 1862, taking Mary McGonigal with him.

In the aftermath, another of Singer’s so called families were discovered: he had a “wife” Mary Eastwood Walters and daughter Alice Eastwood in Lower Manhattan, who had adopted the surname “Merritt”.

Isaac singer had fathered and recognized eighteen children by four different women.

Singer went on to have another Lady Friend in Paris, France, one Isabella Eugenie Sommerville whom he married on June 13, 1863.

Later, in 1863, Singer built a more massive sewing machine plant near Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Singer invested heavily in mass production utilizing the concept of interchangeable parts developed by Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney for their firearms.

He was able to cut the price in half, while at the same time increasing his profit margin by 530%.

Singer was the first who put a family home use sewing machine, “the turtle back”, on the market.

Eventually, he was able to bring the retail price down to $10.

According to PBS, “His partner, Edward Clark, pioneered installment purchasing plans and accepted trade-ins, causing sales to soar.”

I. M. Singer & Co. expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow, controlled by the parent company, becoming one of the first American-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.

Then, with Singer in Europe, Mary Ann began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, claiming that though she had never been formally married to Isaac Singer, that they were in fact wed under Common Law.

Eventually a settlement was made, and Mary Ann married a John E. Foster.

Singer, meanwhile, had become less involved in his company and only served as a member on the Board of Trustees as a major stockholder.

He built a large mansion called the “Oldway Mansion” on the Devon Coast of England in 1871.


Singer died there on July 23, 1875 from an infection of the heart and inflammation of the windpipe.

He left behind an estate worth an estimated 13-14 million at the time of his death, along with two wills where he divided everything up between his twenty some children.

Now WE know em



2 responses to “Isaac Singer was granted a patent for his new sewing machine design today in 1851, started I.M. Singer & Company, and began to mass-produce sewing machines for the first time in history. Now WE know em

  1. Pingback: The first patent for the sewing machine was granted today in 1842 to John Greenough. Now WE know em | carl-leonard·

  2. Pingback: The first patent for the sewing machine was granted today in 1842 to John Greenough. Now WE know em |·

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