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ELIAS HOWE AND THE INVENTION OF THE SEWING MACHINE
 SEWING is older than spinning or weaving. Savages learned at
an early time how to sew together pieces of fur. They
used a pointed bone or a thorn to make a hole; through
this they pushed a coarse thread or leather thong,
making a knot at each hole.
It took thousands of years for sewing to get beyond the
shoemaker's way of doing it. Women learned, to be sure,
how to make different stitches, such as the plain seam
and the hem. Fine spun thread took the place of coarse
twist and the leather thong. The bone needle with an
eye at one end and a point at the other gave way to
delicate steel needles. Still, sewing continued to be
done by hand, stitch after stitch, first one, then
another, hour after hour. Even up to the days of our
own grandmothers, the family sewing continued to be the
burden of the home.
Men in England, France, and America worked for years to
relieve the home of this drudgery. Machine after
machine was invented, but each of these was a failure.
Not until 1846, did an inventor succeed in doing for
the sewing machine what Watt did for the steam engine,
Stephenson for the locomotive, and Fulton for the
steamboat. The inventor was Elias Howe, who was born at
Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1819.
HIS EARLY TRAINING
 Howe's father was a farmer, who, in addition to his
farm, had a gristmill, a sawmill, and a shingle
machine. To the farm at Spencer, the neighbors brought
their wheat and corn to be ground into flour and meal,
and their logs to be sawed into lumber or split into
shingles. Yet with all his labor, the income of the
father was small, and supplied only a modest living to
a family of eight children.
HOWE HELPING AT THE MILL.
In the pleasant surroundings of this New England farm,
Elias Howe spent his childhood. Many were the rambles
through the near-by woods for squirrels and nuts. The
brook running through the farm afforded good swimming
and fishing in the summer, and good skating in the
winter. When he was old enough, the boy did all sorts
of simple farm work, and helped at odd jobs about the
mills and shingle machine. Each winter found him in the
district school. Elias thus grew up, a happy,
good-natured, play-loving boy. If his chances to obtain
an education at the district school were not very good,
this lack was made
 up, at least in part, by the opportunities he had to
see and know trees, plants, and animals; and by being
able to learn how to do things with his hands, and to
become acquainted with tools.
BECOMES A MECHANIC
The father's first thought was to make Elias a farmer.
At eleven years of age the boy was apprenticed, as was
the custom of the day, to a neighbor, where he was to
live and work until he was twenty-one. Elias was not
strong, having a lame foot. This made farm work hard
for him. After trying it for a year, he decided to give
it up. Returning home he went to work in his father's
mills, where he remained until he was sixteen.
About this time a friend of Elias's came back to
Spencer from Lowell, Massachusetts. He told what a big
and busy place Lowell was, and how Elias could get
employment there and earn more money, and earn it more
easily than at Spencer. Elias's ambition was thus
stirred to go to Lowell and become a mechanic. It was
not his liking for machinery that led him to go; it was
the thought that a mechanic makes his living at easy
work. Elias was not a lazy boy, but hard work so taxed
his strength as to be very distressing to him. It was
thus natural for him to want to avoid physical labor.
His physical weakness led him also to do much thinking
about how to do things with the least possible labor.
At Lowell, Elias was taken on as a learner in a factory
for making cotton machinery. Here he worked for two
years, when the factory shut down. Drifting to
 he found, after a few months, a place much to his
liking, with Ari Davis, who kept a shop for making and
repairing watches, clocks, surveying instruments, and
the like. Besides, his head was full of ideas of great
machines. To hear him talk, it seemed not at all
difficult to make a profitable invention. Naturally
almost every workman in his shop had the inventor's
bee. Still, Ari Davis's shop was not a bad place for a
young country boy to be in, and it was here that Elias
Howe gained the suggestion which led to the invention
of the first successful sewing machine.
One day in the year 1839, a man came to the shop who
was working to perfect a knitting machine. He was at
his wit's ends, and brought the model to Davis to see
if he could help him.
Davis in his extravagant way said, "What are you
bothering yourself with a knitting machine for? Why
don't you make a sewing machine?"
"I wish I could," replied the caller, "but it can't be
"Oh, yes, it can," said Davis. "I can make a sewing
"Well," said the other, "you do it, and you will have a
These remarks were taken by most of the workmen as idle
boasts. Not so with Howe. He kept brooding over the
idea of "inventing a sewing machine and making a
As the boy brooded, this resolution slowly took form in
his mind: "I will invent that sewing machine and win
THE FIRST SEWING MACHINE
 To Howe, a country boy just turning twenty, the idea of
a sewing machine was new, but the idea was not new to
the world. As early as 1790, Thomas Saint, an
Englishman, took out a patent on a machine for
"quilting, stitching, and sewing, and for making shoes,
and other articles. . . ."
THOMAS SAINT'S MACHINE OF 1790.
Saint's machine had some of the features of good sewing
machines to-day. Notice the overhanging arm and the
block-like plate on which to place the material to be
sewed. The machine had an awl, to punch a hole in the
goods. A needle, blunt and notched at the end, pushed a
thread through the hole to form a loop on the under
side of the material. Through this loop the needle, on
next descending, passed a second loop to form a chain
or crochet stitch. There was also a feed to move the
goods along under the needle, a continuous thread, and
It is probable that by the time Saint finished his
machine and secured his patent, he was too much
discouraged to go on with it. It may be, too, that to
make a living he had to take up other work, and before
he got back to his
 invention, he became sick and died. Whatever the
reason, for almost sixty years his machine lay unknown
in the English patent office. The result was that
scores of would-be inventors worked on sewing machines,
only to miss the good points in his invention. When it
was finally brought to light, people looked at Saint's
machine with amazement, and wondered how so great an
invention could have been so completely forgotten.
The chain stitch made by Saint's machine has one
drawback. When a break in the thread is followed by a
slight pull, the chain stitch unravels. This does not
occur with the lock stitch. The lock stitch is made by
two threads. These are interlaced in the middle of the
fabric sewn, so as to form a neat stitch on both sides
of the fabric.
The first sewing machine to make a lock stitch was
invented by Walter Hunt of New York, about 1832. His
machine had a curved needle with an eye at the point.
The needle pierced the goods, and at the moment when it
started out, a loop was formed in the thread; at that
 very same instant, a shuttle carrying a second thread
passed through the loop, making the lock stitch.
Hunt was a gifted inventor. But either he thought
little of his sewing machine, or he had other
inventions which he thought promised greater and
quicker profits. At any rate, he did not take the
trouble to patent his machine, and proceeded to sell
the model to a blacksmith for one hundred dollars. Even
the blacksmith, after he had bought and paid for the
model, made no use of it. Some twenty years afterwards,
when Howe's lock stitch machine became famous, this old
discarded model was dug out of a rubbish heap, and
application was entered for a patent. The patent was
denied. Hunt, like Trevithick before him, just failed
to win one of the big industrial prizes of the century.
MAKING HIS FIRST SEWING MACHINE
It is often said that great inventions are a growth.
This is true only when the would-be inventor makes use
of what others before him have done. The idea of a
sewing machine was not only new to Howe, but he did not
know until many years afterwards that Saint, or Hunt,
or any one of a score of others in England, France, and
America had ever made a sewing machine. So far as Howe
knew, he was the first one in all the world who set out
to make such a machine. So instead of trying to improve
on what others before him had done, he went to work and
created a new kind of machine altogether. For this
reason, Howe's first sewing machine cannot be called a
 When Howe first got the idea of inventing a sewing
machine, he probably did a lot of thinking, during his
leisure hours, about how such a machine could be made.
But to take his regular turn at Ari Davis's shop called
for all the strength he had. It was not long before he
gave up active work on his invention, saying to
himself, "Some day, I will invent a sewing machine."
This became Howe's daydream.
But it was not to remain a daydream. In 1840 Howe
married, and in time three children were born. His
wages were only nine dollars a week. Nine dollars a
week was all too little to house, feed, and clothe a
family of five. Besides, Howe's work was so hard that
he often came home too tired to eat. He would go to
bed, longing to lie there "forever and forever." Moved
to act by the pinch of poverty and by the desire to
escape the distressing fatigue of labor, he began to
think once more about the machine which he had heard
four years before would bring to its inventor a
fortune. Then it was, about 1843, that the inventor's
mania seized him, and gave him neither rest nor peace
until he had made a sewing machine.
For almost a year, Howe, working evenings, tried to
make a machine which would imitate the motions of his
wife's hands, when sewing, and make a stitch such as
she made. Every attempt to do this failed. One evening
in the autumn of 1844, Howe sat brooding over his last
attempt when there flashed into his mind this question:
"Could there be another stitch which would do just as
well as the stitch made by hand?" This question set
Howe on a new track. He was familiar with the chain or
crochet stitch, from long watching his wife sew. From
 working in machine shops, he also knew about shuttles
HOWE WATCHING HIS WIFE SEW.
Soon he had an idea. It was short work to snap the
point off of one of his wife's sewing needles and
sharpen the head, thus making a needle with an eye at
the point. With this he thrust the thread through two
pieces of cloth to make a loop. With another needle he
passed a second thread through the loop, and gently
pulled the two threads to tighten the stitch. A half
dozen lock stitches were thus quickly made. But would
such stitches hold? Howe was so anxious he scarcely had
courage to find out. On trying to pull the pieces of
cloth apart, to his great relief
 he found that this new kind of stitch held even tighter
than the common hand stitch.
It was easy enough to see how to make a machine to sew
such stitches. But Howe had no money to buy the
materials, and no money to support his family while
making the model, which, if it was to be successful,
must be made with as much care as a clock.
There lived at this time at Cambridge, an old friend
and schoolmate of Howe's by the name of George Fisher,
who had shortly before this time inherited a little
money. Howe interested him in the invention. Fisher
promised, for a half interest, to board Howe's family
while he was making the machine, and to advance five
hundred dollars for tools and materials. Fisher said
afterwards: "I was the only one of his neighbors and
friends . . . who had any confidence in the
success of the invention. Howe was looked upon as very
visionary in undertaking anything of the kind, and I
was thought very foolish in assisting him."
All through the winter of 1845, Howe toiled. He had the
machine he wanted to make so vividly in mind that he
worked almost as if he had a model before him. By May
the first machine was complete, and in July he did with
it all the sewing on two suits of woolen clothes, one
suit for himself and one for Mr. Fisher.
THE FIRST HOWE SEWING MACHINE.
Howe's model was a strange-looking sewing machine.
Every part has been improved, and many new ones have
been added, but every one of the millions of sewing
machines made since, owes at least one essential part
to this machine, built in 1845. The way it sews is
simple enough. The curved needle, with an eye at the
point, carries the thread through the cloth, and the
loop of the needle thread
 is locked by a thread passed through this loop by the
shuttle. The materials are hung on the pins of the
baster plate, which carries the goods along in front of
the needle. The baster plate was the weakest part of
the machine. The seam that could be made without
stopping was short, and only straight seams could be
EXHIBITING THE MACHINE
The model was no sooner complete than off Howe carried
it to one of the clothing shops of Cambridge. He
offered to sew any kind of garment brought to him. The
 incredulous tailors and seamstresses brought shirts,
waists, skirts, and trousers, and were amazed to see
the seams sewed perfectly, at the rate of two hundred
and fifty stitches a minute, which is about seven times
as fast as handwork. For two whole weeks, he sewed
seams for all comers.
Finally he challenged five of the fastest seamstresses
in the shop to a sewing contest. Ten seams of equal
length were laid out. One seam was given to each of the
five seamstresses and five seams to Howe. Howe was
through first, and besides, the umpire of the contest,
a tailor, said that the work done on the machine was
the neatest and the strongest.
One might suppose that Howe would at once have been
flooded with requests for machines. But not one tailor,
nor a single individual customer came forward with an
Nor did Fisher and Howe have any better success at
Washington, in the summer of 1846, where they went to
take a model and secure a patent. While there, they
exhibited the machine at a fair. They had an enjoyable
time and heard "Ah's!" and "Oh's!" on all sides, but
not one voice was heard by their anxious ears, asking
to buy or even to rent a machine.
Fisher was now discouraged. The machine had been known
to the public for more than a year, and not a single
one had been sold. He had boarded Howe and his family
for almost two years, besides advancing in all about
two thousand dollars.
"I lost confidence," said Fisher, "in the machine's
ever paying anything."
OFFERING THE MACHINE TO ENGLAND
 Howe was not to give up so easily. Borrowing money from
his father, he sent his brother Amasa to England, to
see what could be done there. The first man to buy one
of Howe's machines was William Thomas, of London.
Thomas had a large factory in which he made corsets,
carpetbags, and shoes. Seeing the value of the machine
for his business, he bought the one Amasa had with him,
for twelve hundred and fifty dollars. This was a poor
bargain, because it also included the right to use as
many other machines as Thomas might need. Thomas was to
get also an English patent on the invention, promising
to pay the inventor a royalty of fifteen dollars on
each machine sold in England. Thomas patented the
invention, but later refused to pay the promised
royalty. By his foresight, along with his dishonesty,
Thomas probably made on his investment of twelve
hundred and fifty dollars, a net profit of a million
Howe still saw no prospect of making anything in
America, so when Thomas offered him fifteen dollars a
week, if he would go to England and adapt his machine
to corset making and the like, he accepted. He set sail
early in 1847, going in the steerage and cooking his
own food. A little later he sent for his wife and
children. For some eight months Howe worked to adjust
his machine to the needs of Thomas's business. During
all this time, Thomas treated him with respect. But
when the work was done, Thomas made it so unpleasant
that Howe had to give up his position. This left him a
stranger in London, without work, and with a sick wife
and three children to care for.
 He had little money, but he undertook to make a fourth
machine, hoping against hope that he could sell it at a
good price. From Charles Inglis, a coachmaker, Howe
rented a small shop, and with such tools as he could
borrow went to work. Long before the machine was
finished, his money ran low. To reduce expenses, he
moved his family from a three-room apartment to one
room, and this in the poorest section of London.
Fearful that he might not be able to get his family
back to America, he decided to send them while he still
had the money, trusting that he could follow when the
machine was finished and sold.
"Before his wife left London," said Inglis, who proved
a friend in time of need, "Howe had frequently borrowed
money from me in sums of twenty-five dollars, and
requested me to get him credit for provisions. On the
evening of Mrs. Howe's departure, the night was very
wet and stormy, and her health being delicate she was
unable to walk to the ship. He had no money to pay cab
hire, and he borrowed it from me. He repaid it by
pawning some of his clothing." Alone and without money,
Howe had scarcely enough to eat to keep him alive. "He
has borrowed a quarter from me," says Inglis, "for the
purpose of buying beans, which I saw him cook and eat
in his own room."
The finished machine was worth at the very least two
hundred and fifty dollars. But the only customer Howe
could find was a workman, who offered him twenty-five
dollars, providing he could have time in which to pay
it. No one else wanting the machine at any price, Howe
was obliged to accept this offer. The purchaser gave
 for twenty-five dollars, and Inglis succeeded in
selling the note to another workman for twenty dollars.
The small sum of twenty dollars was thus Howe's return
for some four or five months of toil and humiliation.
To pay his debts and secure passage home, he was
compelled to pawn his precious first machine and his
letters of patent. Even then he had so little money
that, to save cartage, he borrowed a handcart and
hauled his own baggage to the ship.
Howe landed at New York in April, 1849. Four years had
come and gone since the completion of the first
machine. The one lone fifty-cent piece in his pocket
was the only visible reward for these years of anxiety
and toil. Yet Howe was happy. He heard that there was
plenty of work in New York, and within a few hours he
had a position as a mechanic in a machine shop.
A few days after this, news came that his wife was
dying of consumption. He had no money to make the trip
to Cambridge, and could not go, until his
father—ever loyal—sent him the needed ten
dollars. Howe arrived at his wife's bedside just in
time to see her alive. The only clothes he had were the
working clothes he wore, and to appear at her funeral
he borrowed a suit of his brother-in-law.
Under such trials and humiliations Howe aged rapidly,
and he looked like a man who had been through a severe
illness. But he was once more among friends. They did
not think much of his invention, but they loved the
man. His children were being cared for, and soon he was
hard at work again, not on his machine, but as a
mechanic at a regular wage.
FIGHTING FOR HIS RIGHTS
 If money was not to be made out of the sewing machine
as a useful invention, there were persons who thought
that money could be made out of it as a curiosity. On
the streets of Ithaca, New York, in May, 1849, you
might have seen this show bill:
YANKEE SEWING MACHINE
AT THIS PLACE
8 A. M. TO 5 P. M.
People came in numbers to see the new wonder, and women
carried home samples of sewing as souvenirs.
This advertising led a few persons to want machines.
Mechanics, especially in Boston, began to make and sell
them. But this was not all. Other inventors entered the
field. Among these was Isaac M. Singer, who added a
number of practical parts and who did most to bring the
sewing machine before the public.
Singer's interest in the sewing machine was aroused in
the summer of 1850, while on a business trip to Boston.
In the shop of a Mr. Phelps he saw a crude machine
patterned after Howe's model at Washington. Noting
Singer's interest, Phelps remarked: "If the sewing
 could be made to do a greater variety of work, it would
be a good thing." Howe's machine, you know, sewed only
a straight seam.
LADIES OF ITHACA IN 1849, WATCHING THE SEWING MACHINE AT WORK.
During the evening, at his hotel, Singer worked out the
drawings for a number of changes. The next morning he
showed a rough sketch of the proposed machine to Phelps
and to a Mr. Zieber. They were satisfied that it would
work. But Singer had no money to make a machine. Zieber
proposed to advance forty dollars for the purpose, and
Phelps offered to make the model in his shop. Work on
the model started that very day.
"I worked at it day and night," said Singer long
afterwards, "sleeping but three or four hours out of
the twenty-four, and eating generally but once a day,
as I knew I must make it for the forty dollars, or not
get it at all.
 "The machine was completed in eleven days. At about
nine o'clock in the evening we got the parts together,
and tried it. It did not sew. The workmen, exhausted
with almost unremitting work, pronounced it a failure,
and left me, one by one.
SINGER WORKING AT HIS FIRST MACHINE.
"Zieber held the lamp, and I continued to try the
machine, but anxiety and incessant work had made me
nervous, and I could not get tight stitches. Sick at
heart, at about midnight we started for our hotel. On
the way, we sat down on a pile of boards, and Zieber
mentioned that the loose loops of thread were on the
upper side of the cloth. It flashed upon me that we had
forgotten to adjust the tension on the needle thread.
We went back, adjusted the tension, tried the machine,
sewed five stitches perfectly, and the thread snapped.
But that was enough."
Thus in the course of eleven days, Singer, working at
white heat, made over Howe's machine and added new
features. Among these are the overhanging arms, the
 spring foot near the needle, and the double-acting
treadle. By 1851, he had his machine ready for the
If Mr. Singer was not a great inventor, he was skillful
in making practical the ideas of others, and he was a
great business man. He, more than anyone else, aroused
the world to the value of the sewing machine. He did
this through advertising. He used posters, pamphlets,
almanacs, and newspapers, to tell of the worth of the
new invention. Sewing machine shows were held in towns
and cities; there were bands to attract the people, and
skillful young ladies to exhibit the wonderful work of
the new marvel. Sewing contests were arranged, and
prizes were given to the speediest and best sewers.
Local agents were employed, and these agents, with
their wagons loaded with machines, went everywhere. No
wonder that a man as modern in his methods as Singer
made a fortune, and that he was the founder of the
greatest sewing-machine company in the world to-day.
To return to Howe. As Howe worked away at a mechanic's
wage, he learned that sewing machines were being
exhibited in different parts of the country as
curiosities, and that persons were making and selling
them. He examined some of these, and found that they
were either made after his model at Washington, or
embodied the essential parts of his machine. But never
a word was said about his being the inventor. To secure
his rights, as well as the reward for his labor,
nothing remained but to take the matter to the courts.
Howe had no means, but he succeeded in interesting a
man of wealth, who bought Mr. Fisher's half interest in
the patent, and also advanced money to prosecute the
 infringers. The new partner, however, did not want to
lose any money on the venture. To protect himself
against loss, he demanded a mortgage on the farm of
Howe's father. The father, faithful to the end,
consented. Suits in court, then as now, went forward
slowly, and Howe had time for other things. We find him
in New York in 1850, making and selling fourteen of his
machines. A few of those who had also been making and
selling machines, fearful of the consequences, secured
licenses from Howe, and this added a little to his
But Howe was busy chiefly, during the years 1850-1854,
with his different cases in the courts. Singer, the
chief infringer, contested Howe's rights the hardest.
To show that Howe was not the inventor of the sewing
machine, the inventions of Saint, Hunt, and many others
were brought into court. Finally, in 1854, a verdict
was rendered which gave Howe the victory. The judge
found Howe's patent valid, and declared: "There is no
evidence . . . that leaves the shadow of a
doubt, that, for all the benefits conferred on the
public by the invention of the sewing machine, the
public is indebted to Mr. Howe."
REAPING THE REWARD
In the meantime, the new partner had died. His heirs
having no faith in the future of the sewing machine,
sold their share to Howe at a low price. For the first
time he was the sole owner of his invention. Fortune
was at last on his side. The public began to appreciate
the sewing machine and suddenly a great demand arose
for them. Howe received a royalty on all of whatever
 in the United States, no matter where they were sold. A
perfect flood of gold soon poured in upon him. In a
very few years his income leaped from three hundred
dollars to two hundred thousand dollars a year. In all
he received about two million dollars in royalties, or
approximately a hundred thousand a year, for the twenty
years of his life devoted to his invention.
In return for this he gave an invention, which, as it
has improved, has lessened the work and added to the
comfort of almost every home in the civilized world;
for sewing machines are to-day found alike in the
jungles of the Amazon, and on the heights of the
Himalayas. His invention has given birth also to new
industries, such as the making of ready-made clothing.
So enormous has this business become that single
factories using hundreds of power machines, and
employing thousands of women, turn out but one kind of
article, such as frocks for girls or suits for boys.
And it has given new life to more than half a hundred
old trades, such as the making of straw hats, shoes,
and harness. Even the manufacture and sale of sewing
machines has in itself become a giant industry. If
Howe's reward for his toil and anxiety was great, great
also was his gift to the world.