Isaac Merritt Singer, 1811-1875: A Thing for the Ladies

For trivia buffs, Elias Howe is famously  the inventor of the sewing machine. *

So why do all the machines seem to be named Singer?

Short answer is because it’s not personal, it’s business.  Like fast food, the real money is not in inventing, it’s in marketing, preferable to the great middle.   Isaac Singer, like Ford, figured out how to bring machinery to  the masses and to make it pay.

He worked as a machinist but his first love was the stage, and had his talent been for the latter rather than the former, this story might have turned out rather differently. As it was,  he found himself  by circumstance tinkering on various machines, making small improvements on this and that.  At age twenty seven, he patented a rock-drilling machine, making him $US 2,000 – extremely good money back in the day. So what did he do with it?

He put it all into “The Merritt Players”, a traveling band of actors who trod the boards across the mid-west until the money ran out.

Then, back to the day job, helping out in various machine shops around the country  and finally back in Boston for a where he came up with an idea for cutting printing blocks. A Boston concern was invited him to discuss his idea.   As a sideline, this company also worked on Lerow & Blodgett  sewing machines.

The chief problem was that each machine was bespoke and would cost over three figures. This at a time when a dollar a day was not bad wages at all. After taking it apart and studying it for two days, he came up with an idea for making it work better.  Singer was able to improve on past features, patent them, and start an entirely new business.  He mass produced standard parts a la Samuel Colt and cobbled the whole machine together for a price that a normal household could afford.

Imitators jumped up as will happen, and they could have squabbled it all away and made lawyers rich with patent infringement suits. They put business before pride and worked out what an agreement.

The result of this collusion was freedom to concentrate on the product and marketing.  Singer, returning to his love of the stage,  arranged traveling demonstrations where plausible young women sewed on a Singer Sewing Machine while he sang “The Song of the Shirt” to the lady punters.  He opened respectable store fronts where the product could be displayed and explained, where  repairs and even trade-ins were welcomed. He allowed people to pay over time.  Five dollar down and the machine could be in your house the next day – good news for aspiring seamstresses.

Sales boomed.  The price came down to a reasonable ten dollars. The proceeds made Singer rich.  Mansion on Fifth Avenue rich.

And so it became time to reap his rewards.

As an alpha male (six foot four, not that that matters) with scads of money, no surprise that he went after women.  He married, bigamously, four of them. The first, Catherine, he divorced in 1860,  making way for Mary Ann Sponsler and their children (better late than never – he had been living with them since the 1850s).  Unknown to Ms Sponsler, he had yet another household with Mary Eastwood Walters, and another still with Mary McGonigal and their five children.

It came apart when Mary Sponsler purely by chance ran into her husband in the company of Mary McGonigal.  She was shocked, and perhaps unadvisedly notified the authorities who arrested him for bigamy.   Even for 1862 New York, this sort of behavior was too much and Singer had to leave America for London.  He took Ms. McGonigal (Sponsler remarried that same year). It wasn’t long before Singer, traveling in Paris, met and married Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Summerville.  It was his last wedding.

He build Oldway Mansion in Torbay Devon for the extended family to live in and continued to expand the business, setting up factories world wide.

The one big happy family immediately was at daggers drawn when the old man died and the remaining  skeletons tumbled out of the closet.  All told, there were twenty five offspring, only eight technically legitimate, and only twenty two acknowledged by the father.  The will, once in probate, was the gift that kept on giving for lawyers and newspapers and a bored public. It made a few people quite rich indeed. (The last widow, her tears shed, went to Paris, married a duke, and allegedly became the model for the Statue of Liberty.)

Of the children, two stands out, the first being Paris Singer, named for the city of his birth. A 1906 gossip rag describes him as a chemist,a mechanic, and electrician, and a surgeon, and he is also very artist, and as musical as his wife.”   That is to say, he invested money in these areas.    He was also a man of the arts, most notable for revamping Oldway Mansion in the style of Versailles and installing David’s Coronation of Josephine (sold back to France as recently as 1946).  It is an open  question whether he saw the joke of it.

He was in the process of divorcing his first wife when he attended the  funeral of his  brother-in-law Prince Edmond de Polignac. Also present was Isadora Duncan.  They left the cemetery arm in arm, and she had herself a new patron.  A tempestuous relationship, as hers tended to be, but it did result in a child.**   He was happy to indulge Isadora, funding her various dancing endeavors, but it couldn’t really last. She found Paris a little pathetic, so obsessed by money and control- she describes his throwing  food in the face of his chef when the meal was sub par.

For his part, he could not understand why she could not just settle down to a leisurely domestic life of the filthy rich. He couldn’t keep up with her and after eight years, he went to Florida for his health and for tax reason (he was not initially an American citizen and at that time it was still financially beneficial to become one). Here he fell in with Addison Mizner and the great Florida Land Swindle.  His was smart enough to get out early, but in the event it was back to England for him, where he died, age sixty four, in 1932.

The second was Winnaretta Singer, Duchesse de Polignac (1865-1943), muse and patron of the arts.

The story is that she was alone in London’s Hotel when a fire broke out.  A stranger came in and whisked her to safety in the street – Russian fellow by the name of Turgenev.  She tended to the avant garde from the start. At age seventeen, she bought a Monet from the artist’s widow, and a Manet from the artist himself.

At twenty two, at the behest of her mother, she tried conventional marriage with a Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard.  It was a mistake.  The annulment proceedings (the church wanted to know) allegedly record that on her wedding night, she climbed on top an armoire and threatened to kill her husband with an umbrella if he came near her.

Her second marriage to the gay Duc de Polignac, thirty years her senior, was far happier for all concerned (save, perhaps, the husbands of her various lovers).   Spiritually she and the Duc were in accord; anything else was a matter of mutual indifference.  Among her lovers were Romaine Brookes and the seemingly omnipresent Violet Trefusis. Among the members of her salon were Marcel Proust,  Jean Cocteau, Proust, Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and really, just about every other creative type from that time and place.  She was also socially conscious was instrumental in early attempts at Parisian public housing, encouraging the work of Corbusier. (You can read all about her in Food of Love: Princesse Edmond De Polignac (1865-1943) and Her Salon.)


* For the record, he’s nothing of the kind, he was simply the first American to patent, in 1851, a sensible machine. French and English contraptions were already in use.  Nor did sewing machine innovation stop with Howe, or even with Singer. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1955) is said to have made either a working machine at age ten (1899). Or possible just a matchstick model.  It depends on what the meaning of sewing machine is.

*The boy died in a car accident with an elder step brother.  He was three years old.


Ruth Brandon, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance

Don Bissell, The First Conglomerate 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company


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