Isaac Singer

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Isaac Singer
Singer in 1869
Born(1811-10-27)October 27, 1811
DiedJuly 23, 1875(1875-07-23) (aged 63)
Known forFounder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company
Catherine Maria Haley
(m. 1830; div. 1860)
(m. 1863)
PartnerMary Ann Sponsler (1836–1861)

Isaac Merritt Singer (October 27, 1811 – July 23, 1875) was an American inventor, actor, and businessman. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine[1] and was the founder of what became one of the first American multi-national businesses, the Singer Sewing Machine Company.[2]

Many others, including Walter Hunt and Elias Howe, had patented sewing machines[3] before Singer, but his success was based on the practicality of his machine, the ease with which it could be adapted to home use and its availability on an installments payment basis.[4]

Singer died in 1875, dividing his $13 million fortune unequally among 20 of his living children by his wives and various mistresses, although one son, who had supported his mother in her divorce case against Singer, received only $500.[2] Altogether he fathered 26 children.

Early life[edit]

Isaac Merritt Singer was born on October 27, 1811, in Pittstown, Schaghticoke, New York.[2] He was the youngest of eight children[5] born to a German father, Adam Singer (né Reisinger)[5] (1772–1855), and his American wife, Ruth (née Benson) Singer.[6][7][8] His siblings were John Valentine Singer, Alexander Singer, Elizabeth (née Singer) Colby, Christiana (née Singer) Cleveland, and Elijah Singer.[citation needed] In 1821, his parents divorced and his mother abandoned Isaac.[2] At twelve, he ran away from home to join a traveling stage act, called the Rochester Players, after finding bits of work as a joiner and lathe operator.[9][2]


In 1839, Singer obtained his first patent, for a machine to drill rock, selling it for $2,000 (or over $50,000 in 2018 dollars) to the I & M Canal Building Company. With this financial success, he opted to return to his career as an actor. He went on tour, forming a troupe known as the "Merritt Players", appearing onstage under the name "Isaac Merritt", with Mary Ann Sponsler (one of his mistresses) also appearing onstage, calling herself "Mrs. Merritt".[citation needed] The tour lasted about five years.

He developed and patented a "machine for carving wood and metal" on April 10, 1849.

At 38, with Mary Ann and eight children, he packed up his family and moved back to New York City, hoping to market his wood-block cutting machine. He obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and constructed one in A. B. Taylor & Co shop, where he met G. B. Zieber, who became Singer's financier and partner. However, not long after the 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 center of the printing trade. The singer went to 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.

Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines were being constructed and repaired in Phelps' shop. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines,[9] 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 was able to obtain US Patent number 8294 for his improvements on August 12, 1851.

I. M. Singer & Co[edit]

In 1856, manufacturers Grover & Baker, Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, all accusing each other of patent infringement, met in Albany, New York to pursue their suits. 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.[10] 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; Howe received a royalty on every sewing machine manufactured.[citation needed]

Sewing machines began to be mass-produced. I. M. Singer & Co manufactured 2,564 machines in 1856, and 13,000 in 1860 at a new plant on Mott Street in New York. Later, a massive plant was built near Elizabeth, New Jersey.[11]

Up to 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. However, at the then enormous price of over $100 ($3,257 in 2022 dollars), few sold.[12] 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%.[12] Singer was the first who put a family machine, "the turtle back", on the market. Eventually, the price came down to $10 ($326 in 2022 dollars). According to PBS, "His partner, Edward Cabot Clark, pioneered installment purchasing plans and accepted trade-ins, causing sales to soar."[9]

Women were able to make items at home for their families or for sale and charitable groups began to support poorer women to find useful skills and respectable employment in sewing, such as The Ladies Work Society (1875), The Association for the Sale of Works of Ladies of Limited Means, The Co-operative Needlewoman's Society and associated magazines, pattern books and group classes began for the better off women who also wanted to have some form of useful, economic activity, which a sewing machine at home now offered.[2]

I. M. Singer expanded into the European market, first starting in Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire, next to the iron foundries that supplied the castings for the chassis until expansion was hindered by the expansion of the foundries around them and they then moved to Clydebank, establishing the world's largest sewing machine factory, built between 1882 and 1885, by George McKenzie in Kilbowie, Clydebank, near Glasgow,[1] consisting of two main manufacturing buildings on three levels (one building for making the domestic machines, the other for industrial model production), with a 200 ft (over 60meters) high tower with the 'Singer' name logo and four clock faces which was the largest four-sided clock tower at the time. Singer opened the factory at Clydebank with 3,500 people making 8,000 sewing machines a week on average. The factory was linked directly to railway lines, and via stations in Dumbarton and Helensburgh to assist in distribution. Later improvements included a further two levels for the production blocks and a power station and sawmills. (Note: images of the tower and the factory's transport connections are available on the Scottish National Buildings Record)[1] The factory later supplied military and home sewers, and made munitions during World War II. In 1941, the factory and area was severely damaged (losing 390,000 sq ft 36,000 sq m) in the 'Clydebank Blitz' when at least 35,000 homes were damaged and 500 people, including 39 Singer workers were killed.[1]

Even as early as 1880, Singer machines compared favorably with their nearest competitors: information articles becoming marketing tool.[13] By the 1900s, this factory, controlled by the parent company, made 1.5million machines sold around the world,[1] helping the Singer company in becoming one of the first American-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.[citation needed]

Later as The Singer Manufacturing Company and its competitors expanded, due to its affordability (or purchase plan terms) by the 1940s there were 24,000 sewing classes a year running in the UK alone, and the 1944 Education Act made practical dressmaking a compulsory subject for girls in all state schools.[2] By the 1950s, there were Singer Teen-Age Sewing Classes and advertising campaigns to encourage girls to make their own fashions to attract boys' interest.[2]

Changes to company in Europe[edit]

Singer's grave in Torquay Cemetery

In 1863, I. M. Singer & Co. was dissolved by mutual consent with Edward Cabot Clark seeing Singer's reputation as a risk to growth; but the business continued with Singer owning 40% of shares and still on the Board,[2] as "The Singer Manufacturing Company," in 1887.

In 1871, Singer purchased an estate and settled with Isabella in Paignton, Devon, England.[2] He commissioned the 110-roomed Oldway Mansion as his private residence, with a hall of mirrors, maze and grotto garden;[2] it was rebuilt by Paris Singer, his third son from Isabella, in the style of the Palace of Versailles. And the area became known locally as 'Singerton'.[2] It has been named by the Victorian Society as a heritage building at risk of disrepair.[14]

Consequence on global garment industry[edit]

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.[9] This started the industrialisation of garment and textile manufacturing, as a shirt took an hour to make compared to fifteen hours previously, but these still needed finishing by hand, and the finishers worked alone on piecework terms at home, but mass over-production by factories' machines, led to pressure on wages and to unemployment.

In 1911, most of the mainly female workforce at the Clydebank Singer factory went on strike in support of 12 workers who had objected to increased workload and lower pay conditions imposed (by this time there were 11,500 employees). Although the strike did not succeed, Singer fired 400 workers including the union leaders. The Singer Strike[15] was one of the key actions leading to protests known as Red Clydeside.[16]

In the 1960s, Japanese production efficiency brought aluminium body machines and products at lower pricing which outsold the cast iron Singer machines. The symbolic tower was knocked down as the Singer Clydebank factory was modernised, but it closed in 1980 and was demolished in the late 1990s.[1]

Personal life[edit]

In 1830, at nineteen Isaac Singer married fifteen-year-old Catherine Maria Haley (1815–1884).[2] The couple had two children before he left her to join the Baltimore Strolling Players.[17] In 1860, Singer divorced Catherine on the basis of her adultery with Stephen Kent.[18] Their son William spoke up for his mother in the divorce case and was snubbed by Singer, including in his will where William received just $500 of Singer's $13,000,000 fortune.[2] Their two children were:[19]

In 1836, while still married to Catherine, Singer began a 25-year affair with Mary Ann Sponsler (1817–1896).[2] Together, Mary Ann and Isaac had ten children, two of whom died at birth, including:[18]

  • Isaac Augustus Singer (1837–1902), who married Sarah Jane Clarke.[19]
  • Vouletti Theresa Singer (1840–1913), who married William Fash Proctor.[20]
  • John Albert Singer (1842–1911), who married Jennie C. Belinski.[21]
  • Fanny Elizabeth Singer (1844–1909), who married William S. Archer.[22]
  • Jasper Hamlet Singer (1846–1922), who married Jane Collier Cook.[23]
  • Mary Olivia Singer (1848–1900), who married Sturges Selleck Whitlock, a Connecticut state senator.[24]
  • Julia Ann Singer (1855–1923), who married Martin J. Herz.
  • Caroline Virginia Singer (1857–1896), who married Augustus C. Foster.[19]

Financial success allowed Singer to buy a mansion on Fifth Avenue, into which he moved his second family.[18] He and Mary Ann had abandoned their joint acting company, the Merritt Players, as his inventions were more successful.[2] He continued to live with Mary Ann, until she spotted him driving down Fifth Avenue seated beside Mary McGonigal, an employee, about whom Mary Ann already had suspicions.[18] Reportedly, Singer also had an affair with McGonigal's sister, Kate McGonigal.[2] Together, Mary McGonigal and Isaac were the parents of seven children (who used the surname Matthews), two of whom died at birth, including:

  • Ruth Mary Matthews (b. 1852)
  • Clara Matthews (1854–1933), who married Col. Hugh Stafford in 1880.[25][26]
  • Margaret Matthews (1858–1939), who married Granville Henry Jackson Alexander, Esq., the High Sheriff of Armagh.[27]
  • Charles Alexander Matthews (1859–1883), who married Minnie Mathews.[28][29]
  • Florence Adelaide Matthews (c. 1859–1932), who married Harry Ruthven Pratt.[30]

And Mary Ann, still calling herself Mrs. I. M. Singer, had her husband 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 Isaac's families was discovered: he had a "wife", Mary Eastwood Walters, a machine demonstrator, and had had a daughter in Lower Manhattan:[2]

  • Alice Eastwood (née Walters) Merritt (1852–1890), who adopted the surname Merritt and married twice, including to W. A. P. LaGrove at age eighteen in a marriage arranged by Singer.

By 1860, Isaac had fathered and acknowledged twenty children, sixteen of them still then living, by four women.[26] In 1861, his longstanding mistress Mary Ann took him to court for abusing her and daughter Vouletti.[2] With Isaac in London, Mary Ann began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, and claiming that, though she had never been formally married to Isaac, they were wed under common law by living together for seven months after Isaac had been divorced from his first wife, Catherine. Eventually, a settlement was made, but no divorce was granted. However, she asserted that she was free to marry, and indeed she married John E. Foster.[18]

Singer's second wife, Isabella Eugenie Boyer

Isaac, meanwhile, had renewed acquaintance with Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a nineteen year old Frenchwoman, whom he had lived with in Paris when he was staying there in 1860.[2] She left her husband and married Isaac, who was by now fifty, under the name of Isabella Eugenie Sommerville on June 13, 1863, while she was pregnant.[2] Together, they had six children:[2]

The Singer Family Tomb in Torquay Cemetery

Isaac Singer died in 1875, shortly after the wedding of his daughter by Mary Eastwood Walters, Alice, whose dress had cost as much as a London apartment.[2] His funeral was an elaborate affair with eighty horse-drawn carriages, and around 2,000 mourners, to see him buried locally in Torquay Cemetery, at his request in three layers of coffin (cedar lined with satin, lead, English oak with silver decoration) and a marble tomb.[2] He decided not to have a will.

Legacy and honors[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "The Story of Singer Sewing Machines in Scotland". Historic Environment Scotland Blog. 12 June 2020. Retrieved 6 January 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Hunter, Clare (2019). Threads of life : a history of the world through the eye of a needle. London: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton). pp. 256–266, 269–271. ISBN 978-1473687912. OCLC 1079199690.
  3. ^ Forsdyke, Graham. "History of the Sewing Machine". International Sewing Machine Collectors Society. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  4. ^ История создания корпорации "Зингер". Биография Исаака Меррита Зингера. [All About Sewing Machines – The History of Singer Corporation] (in Russian). Archived from the original on 12 June 2008.
  5. ^ a b "Isaac Merritt Singer".
  6. ^ "The Singer Sewing Machine is Patented | History Today". Retrieved 22 November 2020.
  7. ^ r2WPadmin. "Isaac Merritt Singer". Immigrant Entrepreneurship. Retrieved 22 November 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Hughes, Sharon (27 August 2014). "Isaac Merritt Singer: a womanizer who liberated women". University of Texas at Tyler. Retrieved 13 November 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d "Isaac Merritt Singer". PBS. Retrieved 10 March 2011.
  10. ^ Hounshell, David (1985). From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0801831584. litigation threatened the very existence of the [sewing machine] industry. The Great Sewing Machine Combination, the first important patent pooling arrangement in American history, changed all this.
  11. ^ "Sewing Machines: Historical Trade Literature in Smithsonian Institution Collections". Smithsonian Institution.
  12. ^ a b "Inventor of the Week / Isaac Merrit Singer (1811–1875)". Lemelson-MIT Program. Archived from the original on 2 March 2003. Retrieved 10 March 2011.
  13. ^ Genius rewarded; or, The story of the sewing machine. Gerstein – University of Toronto. New York J.J. Caulon printer. 1880.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  14. ^ "Victorian Society reveals top 10 buildings 'crying out' to be saved". BBC News. 12 September 2018.
  15. ^ "Red Clydeside: The Singer strike 1911". Retrieved 6 January 2021.
  16. ^ The biographical dictionary of Scottish women : from the earliest times to 2004. Ewan, Elizabeth., Innes, Sue., Reynolds, Sian., Pipes, Rose. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2007. pp. 295–296. ISBN 978-0-7486-3293-0. OCLC 185096266.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  17. ^ Gale, Robert L. (1993). A cultural encyclopedia of the 1850s in America. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-28524-0. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  18. ^ a b c d e Klooster, John W. (2009). Icons of Invention: The Makers of the Modern World from Gutenberg to Gates. ABC-CLIO. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-313-34743-6. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  19. ^ a b c d e "Singer Family Tree". Town & Country. Hearst Corporation: 60. 1942. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  20. ^ Reynolds, Cuyler (1914). Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of a Commonwealth and the Building of a Nation. Lewis Historical Publishing Company. p. 1040. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  21. ^ Press, Brookhaven (1877). The Past and Present of Lake County, Illinois: Containing a History of the County – its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Its Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, General and Local Statistics, Map of Lake County, History of Illinois, Illustrated, History of the Northwest, Illustrated, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, Etc., Etc. Brookhaven Press. p. 410. ISBN 978-1-58103-880-4. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  22. ^ "Fanny Elizabeth Singer Archer awarded $10,000". Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express. 27 October 1876. p. 2. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  23. ^ "Jasper H. Singer". New York Herald. 9 December 1922. p. 13. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  24. ^ Taylor, William Harrison (1901). Taylor's Legislative History and Souvenir of Connecticut. p. 43. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  25. ^ "Wedding dress | Worth, Charles Frederick | V&A Search the Collections". Victoria and Albert Museum. 2 April 2020. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  26. ^ a b "Unveiled: Wedding Dress of the Week | Te Papa's Blog". 13 February 2021. Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  27. ^ Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1910). Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-armour. T.C. & E.C. Jack. p. 19. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  28. ^ "Suicide of a Rich Young Man.; a New-Yorker Shoots Himself in a Philadelphia Hotel". The New York Times. 4 November 1883. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  29. ^ "Charles Matthews's Suicide". The New York Times. 5 November 1883. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  30. ^ "William H. Pratt". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  31. ^ "Berkshire". The London Gazette: 1994. 11 March 1921. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  32. ^ "Princess de Polignac: Heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine Fortune Was 78". The New York Times. 27 November 1943. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  33. ^ "Prince de Polignac Dead; Was Brigadier General in Confederate Army in Civil War". The New York Times. 16 November 1913. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  34. ^ "Washington Singer Freed; Not Guilty of Conspiring with Princess de Polignac to Escape Tax". The New York Times. 25 July 1917. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  35. ^ "W. M. G.Singer Dies; Race-horse Owner; Son of the Sewing-Machine Manufacturer Succumbs in Sleep at 68". The New York Times. 12 February 1934. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  36. ^ "Paris Singer Dead; Son of Inventor; Youngest of 24 Children of the Sewing Machine Company Head Succumbs in London. Active in Florida Boom Was Unsuccessful In Huge Project on Munyon Island. Most of Life Spent In Europe". The New York Times. 25 June 1932. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  37. ^ "Take Paris E. Singer; Allege Huge Fraud; Florida Authorities Accuse Heir to Sewing Machine Fortune of $1,500,000 Realty Swindle. He is Bailed After Arrest Sales Director of Palm Beach Tract Is Also Charged With Defrauding Investors". The New York Times. 10 April 1927. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  38. ^ "Duc Decazes is Dead; Third Holder of Title Married Miss Isabelle B. Singer, American". The New York Times. 1 September 1912. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  39. ^ a b "Franklin M. Singer Succumbs in Paris; His Family Founded the Sewing Machine Company – Was 68". The New York Times. 12 August 1939. Retrieved 2 April 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brandon, Ruth, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, Kodansha International, New York, 1977.[ISBN missing]
  • Glander, Angelika, Singer – Der König der Nähmaschinen, Die Biographie, Norderstedt, 2009 (in German) ISBN 978-3-8370-3952-8
  • Hawthorne, Paul Oldway Mansion, historic home of the Singer family Torbay Books, Paignton, 2009 ISBN 978-0-9551857-6-2

External links[edit]