Thomas Hood's ballad The Song of the Shirt, published in 1843, depicts the hardships of the English seamstress: With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread.
Elias HoweIn Cambridge, Massachusetts, one inventor was struggling to put into metal an idea to lighten the toil of those who lived by the needle.
Elias Howe was born in Massachusett in 1819. His father was an unsuccessful farmer, who also had some small mills, but seems to have succeeded in nothing he undertook. Howe led the typical life of a New England country boy, going to school in winter and working about the farm until the age of sixteen, handling tools every day.
Hearing of the high wages and interesting work in Lowell, that growing town on the Merrimac River, he went there in 1835 and found employment; but two years later, he left Lowell and went to work in a machine shop in Cambridge.
Elias Howe then moved to Boston, and worked in the machine shop of Ari Davis, an eccentric maker and repairer of fine machinery. This is where Elias Howe, as a young mechanic first heard of sewing machines and began to puzzle over the problem.
First Sewing MachinesBefore Elias Howe's time, many inventors had attempted to make sewing machines and some had just fallen short of success. Thomas Saint, an Englishman, had patented one fifty years earlier; and about this very time a Frenchman named Thimmonier was working eighty sewing machines making army uniforms, when the tailors of Paris, fearing that the bread was to be taken from them, broke into his workroom and destroyed the machines. Thimmonier tried again, but his machine never came into general use.
Several patents had been issued on sewing machines in the United States, but without any practical result. An inventor named Walter Hunt had discovered the principle of the lock-stitch and had built a machine but lost interest and abandoned his invention, just as success was in sight. Elias Howe probaly knew nothing of any of these inventors. There is no evidence that he had ever seen the work of another.
Elias Howe Begins InventingThe idea of a mechanical sewing machine obsessed Elias Howe. However, Howe was married and had children, and his wages were only nine dollars a week. Howe found support from an old schoolmate, George Fisher, agreed to support Howe's family and furnish him with five hundred dollars for materials and tools. The attic in Fisher's house in Cambridge was converted into a workroom for Howe.
Howe's first efforts were failures, until the idea of the lock-stitch came to him. Previously all sewing machines (except William Hunt's had used the chainstitch, which wasted thread and easily unraveled. The two threads of the lockstitch cross in the materials joined together, and the lines of stitches show the same on both sides.
The chainstitch is a crochet or knitting stitch, while the lockstitch is a weaving stitch. Elias Howe had been working at night and was on his way home, gloomy and despondent, when this idea dawned on his mind, probably rising out of his experience in the cotton mill. The shuttle would be driven back and forth as in a loom, as he had seen it thousands of times, and passed through a loop of thread which the curved needle would throw out on the other side of the cloth; and the cloth would be fastened to the machine vertically by pins. A curved arm would ply the needle with the motion of a pick-axe. A handle attached to the fly-wheel would furnish the power.
Commercial FailureElias Howe made a machine which, crude as it was, sewed more rapidly than five of the swiftest needle workers. But apparently, his machine was too expensive, it could sew only a straight seam, and it easily get out of order. The needle workers were opposed, as they have generally been, to any sort of labor-saving machinery that might cause them their jobs, and there was no clothing manufacturer willing to buy even one machine at the price Howe asked, three hundred dollars.
Elias Howe's 1846 PatentElias Howe's second sewing machine design was an improvement on his first. It was more compact and ran more smoothly. George Fisher took Elias Howe and his prototype to the patent office in Washington, paying all the expenses, and a patent was issued to the inventor on September, 1846.
The second machine also failed to find buyers, George Fisher had invested about two thousand dollars which seemed gone forever, and he could not, or would not, invest more. Elias Howe returned temporarily to his father's farm to wait for better times.
Meanwhile, Elias Howe sent one of his brothers to London with a sewing machine to see if any sales could be found there, and in due time an encouraging report came to the destitute inventor. A corsetmaker named Thomas had paid two hundred and fifty pounds for the English rights and had promised to pay a royalty of three pounds on each machine sold. Moreover, Thomas invited the inventor to London to construct a machine especially for making corsets. Elias Howe went to London and later sent for his family. But after working eight months on small wages, he was as badly off as ever, for, though he had produced the desired machine, he quarrelled with Thomas and their relations came to an end.
An acquaintance, Charles Inglis, advanced Elias Howe a little money while he worked on another model. This enabled Elias Howe to send his family home to America, and then, by selling his last model and pawning his patent rights, he raised enough money to take passage himself in the steerage in 1848, accompanied by Inglis, who came to try his fortune in the United States.
Elias Howe landed in New York with a few cents in his pocket and immediately found work. But his wife was dying from the hardships she had suffered, due to stark poverty. At her funeral, Elias Howe wore borrowed clothes, for his only suit was the one he wore in the shop.