October 27, 2012
On Oct. 27, 1811, Isaac Merritt Singer was born in upstate New York. Though his name became synonymous with the sewing machine, he did not invent it; however his innovations in ease of use, manufacturing, and marketing allowed his company to market the first home sewing machine, and become America’s first multi-national business.
Singer’s father, a German immigrant millwright, and mother, divorced when he was 10. Singer was unhappy living with his father’s new wife, and ran away when he was 12. He ended up living with his brother, and who apprenticed him in the machine shop he had established in Rochester, N.Y.
Singer worked a mechanic and machinist in several New York towns; married his first wife in 1830, and eventually made his way to New York City in 1835 with his wife and first child.
Singer had bigger dreams; he saw himself as a great actor, became the agent for an acting company, touring the eastern seaboard. In Baltimore, he met Mary Ann Sponsler, and brought her back to New York. He had a son with her, but neglected to inform either his wife (with whom he had another daughter) or mistress that he had two families. When he was discovered, he fled to Chicago and worked on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
While working on the canal, Singer invented a rock-drilling machine, and sold his patent to company building the canal for $2,000; it was enough money to finance a return to acting.
He formed an acting company, brought Mary Ann into the troupe, and they performed as Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Merritt (though he was still married to his first wife). The acting company toured for five years before failing. He moved back to New York with Mary Ann and their eight children.
After being asked to fix some sewing machines, Singer patented his improved version in 1851. It was faster, easier, and less expensive to operate, but the sewing machine market was littered with failed and failing companies with overlapping and competing patents.
And the market was resistant. Very resistant, the first working sewing machine was built by French tailor Barthelemy Thimmonier in 1830; enraged tailors burned his shop and almost killed him for threatening their profession.
But the patent war initiated by Elias Howe, who received the first U.S. patent for a sewing machine in 1846, prevented any of five major companies from successfully growing. Howe and Singer resolved their dispute in 1854; and in 1856, the companies all decided to pool their patents and allow licensing.
With patents were resolved, Singer, and his partner, Edward Clark, rethought the sewing market. They adopted the mass production techniques of Samuel Colt; made smaller machines that could be used at home, priced at $10; and finally introduced installment sales plans.
The I.M. Singer and Company opened a plant in Scotland, and began selling machines around the world. By 1860, he was financially secure. He divorced his first wife on the grounds of her adultery, and moved into a Fifth Avenue mansion with Mary Ann. He was the father of 18 children by four different women. But in 1862, when Mary Ann discovered the extent of his philandering, she had him arrested for bigamy. He fled to London. He died in England in 1875.
The I.M. Singer & Co. was reorganized and renamed the Singer Sewing Machine Company in 1865. The company continues to make sewing machines, and other consumer products, and is now based in La Vergne, Tennessee. It is a subsidiary of SVP Worldwide and owned by the private equity group Kohlberg & company.