In 1851, Isaac Singer borrowed $40.00 to make a working sewing machine that would become the leader in the sewing machine industry and famous around the world.
Isaac Merritt Singer was born on October 27, 1811 in Troy, New York to a large family of German immigrants.
When he was twelve he left home and went to Rochester and worked all kinds of unskilled labor jobs until he was 19 years old. He found a job as an apprentice machinist in a machine shop. He didn’t like this job, so after four months he left and for the next nine years moved from state to state and made a good living because of his natural mechanical ability. He got a lot of experience from doing this because he worked on anything that he could get paid for.
In 1830 he quit working as a machinist and became an actor because he had a loud voice and thought he would be good at it. He really enjoyed doing this, but could not make enough money to keep him in the lifestyle that he enjoyed. He wasn’t happy about giving up acting, but had to go back to the boring life of a machinist. Singer spent the rest of his life claiming great success as a stage actor.
In 1931 he married Catharine Maria Haley. He was almost twenty years old and she was only fifteen. They lived with her family in New York. He wasn’t happy with his home life and went around the countryside, working as a stage hand, advance man and as an actor. In 1836, he suddenly signed on as an advance man with another travelling group and left New York and went to Baltimore.
While in Baltimore, he met eighteen year old Mary Ann Sponsler and fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him and they returned to New York in September of 1836. He knew he really couldn’t marry her because he already had a wife, so he convinced her to wait to get married and to just live with him as Mrs. Isaac Singer.
By the summer of 1837, Isaac Singer had a wife, a common-law wife, a son by Mary Ann and a son and daughter by Catharine. For almost two years Singer worked as a part-time actor and handyman, finally ending up as an unskilled laborer working on the Erie Canal. Singer wasn’t like the other workers and because of his mechanical ability he thought that there had to be a better way to dig the rock and dirt than by hand. He designed a machine to drill into solid rock, which he patented in 1839. He sold the patent for $2,000.
Since he had plenty money and he couldn’t get any more work as an actor, he formed his own acting troupe, the Merritt Players. This didn’t turn out to be a good investment. Singer toured for almost five years, always struggling because his expenses were usually more than his box office receipts. Finally he was dead broke, and had to stop in 1844. Singer and Mary Ann settled in Fredericksberg. He went to work full-time in a successful print shop.
Now that he was working in a print shop, Singer almost immediately saw a need for a machine that would automatically shape and produce the large wood letters that were used to set newspaper and advertising headlines. He borrowed money from a Philadelphia businessman,
George Zieber, and went about inventing a device to do this. His first efforts ended suddenly when an explosion in the building where he rented space destroyed his prototype. In the months it took to find another backer, rent a second manufacturing facility, make another machine, and promote a sales location, new technologies in printing almost caused his invention to be obsolete before it was even built.
While he was waiting to get the printing invention started again, he spent a lot of time downstairs with his landlord. Orson Phelps was building sewing machines for two American inventors. The machines were so badly designed that, at the end of the tooling process, the majority of them didn’t work. The other problem Phelps had was that the handful that did work proved unreliable and required regular repair. Phelps decided the best way out of this money losing venture was to produce a sewing machine that worked. Because he had been talking with Singer, he already knew that Singer knew what was wrong with the sewing machines of the other two inventors. Singer agreed and went back again to George Zieber for more money. Mr. Zieber gave him the money and along with Orson Phelps, who agreed to provide plant space and tools, joined them and formed a partnership. Singer would not give anyone any written agreements, the partnership was verbally agreed on.
In early November 1850, Singer worked day and night and in 11 days invented the first sewing machine that really worked. He developed the idea of a shuttle that moves in a straight line while moving up and down. The previous designs had the shuttle going around in a circle that took the twist out of the thread and made it break easily.
On September 7, 1850, he offered it for sale in the newspaper. Its price was over $100 and the machine was too expensive for the average American household. There wasn’t a market for the machine in the garment industry either where workers worked really long hours for little pay and under primitive working conditions. Isaac Singer and his two partners struggled with an occasional sale of a machine to keep their partnership from going broke.
Singer knew that if he could figure out how to make the sewing machine cheaper, he would be able to sell it. He saw how he could change Samuel Colt’s hand gun manufacturing techniques to the production of Singer sewing machines. He risked everything, investing heavily in machinery designed solely to mass-produce sewing machines with interchangeable parts. In late 1857 in New York City Singer opened the world’s first truly mass production facility built to turn out something other than firearms. Singer contacted the city press and received wide news coverage, which spread quickly to nearby states.
In 1851 Orson Phelps wasn’t able to take Singer’s violent temper tantrums and steady stream of verbal abuse so he gave up his partnership for a cash settlement and Singer’s verbal promise that, as business increased, sewing machine production would be assigned to Phelps. Singer then brought in Barzillan Ransom, who paid a lot more for his partnership than the amount Singer gave to Phelps. Singer didn’t like Ransom and set about bullying him from the very beginning. Singer flew into temper tantrums, issued streams of physical threats, and subjected Ransom to never ending verbal attacks. It worked and Ransom got seriously ill. Singer used his partner’s bad health as another issue to belittle and berate him. Ransom immediately quit the firm, receiving a small shipment of new sewing machines as payment for his large investment. Ransom died within a few weeks.
This left Isaac Singer and George Zieber as sole partners without any written agreements. Singer felt he needed someone to handle the company’s legal and financial matters and brought in another third partner, New York attorney Edward Clark. Mr. Zieber, who had borrowed in order to support Singer’s work and family, now needed to repay his debts so he decided to resolve the contract issue with Singer. The company was making a profit and Zieber’s creditors were asking to be paid what they had loaned to finance the Singer Company’s startup costs. Zieber brought up the subject with Singer and he flew into a rage, refusing to discuss his request or the unpaid loans. George Zieber went to Edward Clark for legal advice, but he didn’t know that he was a partner. Clark told him point blank that no binding agreement existed with Singer and that he might be better off taking a small cash settlement and getting rid of the partnership. A short time later in 1851, the final patent rights for Singer’s machines were issued, they all were assigned solely and equally to Singer and Clark. George Zieber, the man who financed the beginning of the Singer Company and who personally maintained Isaac Singer and his family through all of the bad years, was excluded and left with nothing to do but to sign an agreement now forced on him by Clark. Singer and Clark owned the patent rights they believed would earn them millions, and Zieber was to receive a third of the company’s profits, excluding any revenue generated by the patents.
Zieber became very ill and Singer convinced him that he was going to die. Singer knew Zieber owed money that he felt obligated to repay, so he told Zieber to sell his partnership and use the cash to settle his affairs. The Singer Company was no where near the financial status it would climb to in later years, so Zieber agreed. Clark drew up the papers and George Zieber signed away his interest in the company. Zieber was not terminally ill and quickly recovered. Singer had made it up about him dying just to have him sign away his interest.
Singer took in Elias Howe as a business partner for a while to end his litigation over patent infringement, as Howe owned the patents and Singer did not. As soon as Singer could he got rid of Howe also.
Within 10 years, I.M. Singer & Company led the world in sewing machine sales and had cut production costs to a little over $10 per machine. He sold his new Singers for 50% less than his very first machine and had increased his profit margin to 530% per machine.
In 1863 Singer and his families moved to Paris, France where one of his son’s Paris was born. Then in 1870 they moved to Paignton, Devon, England where he bought “Oldway Mansion”, he then started to build a huge new mansion. Isaac Singer died on July 23, 1875 at the age of 63. His funeral was one of the largest at the time in the Torbay area. When he died he had 22 living children, various wives, both legal and common-law, which left his estate involved in years of expensive litigation.
Singer was, and still is, the most known name in sewing machines. He came up with a number of important merchandising practices, such as installment buying, advertising campaigns, and service along with sales. The development of his working sewing machine contributed to the growth of the ready made clothing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Walliser, Walter. “Interview with Isaac Merritt Singer”. Time Magazine March 3, 1986
Brandon, Ruth Singer and the Sewing Machine : A Capitalist Romance New York: St. Martin’s
History of the Singers of the Sewing Machine
Internet address: http://www.geocities.com/RodeoDrive/6561/Singer/Singer.html
History of Newark by Bob Hoeltzel, Arcadia Town Historian
Internet address: http://www.cgazette.com/towns/Newark/history/933787798328.htm
Microsoft System. Encarta Encyclopedia. “Isaac Merritt Singer” 1998 Edition
“The Singer Story” provided as a public service by the Educational Department of the Singer