“If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine . . .”: Women and Sewing Machine Technology
The editors of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine wrote in 1855:
A friend of ours from Chester County, lately visited Philadelphia for the purpose of securing a sewing-machine. . . . She herself calculated to do up her year’s sewing in a week, and then have plenty of time for mental culture, for society, and general recreation, privileges from which women are often excluded solely by the neverending labors of the needle.1
Four years later, in 1859, Caroline H. Dall wrote in Boston:
Nor would I have the sewing done with machines, unless those of the highest cost could be procured and ably superintended. The best machine is as yet a poor substitute for the supple, human hand; and many practical inconveniences must result from its use. It requires more skill and intelligence to manage man’s simplest machine, than to control with a thought that complicated network of nerve, bone, and fibre which we have been accustomed to use.2
IN SUCH terms, middle-class women debated the merits of the introduction of the sewing machine.
In spite of these debates, between 1830 and 1880 sewing machine technology was developed, and the machine came into widespread use. In these decades there was, as one historian put it, “a ferment, a stew, of sewing machine ideas.”3 The growth of this technology, however, needs to be understood in the context of changes in clothing manufacture and the working conditions of the sewing women who had to come to grips with these changes.
This article deals with the development and uses of sewing technology as a social phenomenon and not solely as a technical or scientific one. The specific questions addressed here are: What social factors stimulated the development, production, and distribution of sewing technology at a historically specific time, and, what were the consequences of the implementation of this technology for the garment industry and its workers?
THE SEWING WOMEN: DRESSMAKERS AND SEAMSTRESSES, 1800–1860
Professional dressmakers had supplied the clothing needs of well-to-do Americans from colonial times. Very wealthy women had all their clothing custom made, while middle-class women employed dressmakers on special occasions, especially for making trousseaux and mourning clothes. Such dressmakers were highly skilled and were expected to keep abreast of the very latest fashions. Aside from making quality garments, they had to know the stages of mourning attire, the proper clothing for weddings, balls, and other special events, the accepted fashions in gloves, hats, and other accessories. They were consulted not only on questions of fashion, but on etiquette. Dressmakers seem to have come from middle- or even upper-class families, and to have served frequently as companions. The more exclusive dressmakers were often described as “gentlewomen in reduced circumstances.”4
There was little or no subdivision of labor in the dressmaking trade. Dressmakers generally designed, measured, cut, basted, sewed, trimmed, finished, and pressed a garment. Only the larger establishments in the major cities employed apprentices and seamstresses for the simpler tasks such as basting garments. Dressmakers received good wages plus room and board. Some of these women were also shopkeepers and importers. Cloth, buttons, trimmings, feathers, beads, ribbons were sold at a central retail shop and the more exclusive of these establishments imported much of their merchandise from Paris, along with dressed dolls that exhibited the latest fashions. The dressmaking itself, however, was done in the homes of the clients.
The great majority of women who made their living by sewing in the nineteenth century were not dressmakers but seamstresses, who did piecework for clothing manufacturers or labor contractors. These women received bundles of precut garments from their employers and did the basic construction of the garment. They basted, lined, seamed, trimmed, made the buttonholes, and sewed on the buttons. In most cases they also washed, ironed, and folded the clothing before returning it to the shop for payment of work done. This work was considered unskilled because it involved only straight sewing, a skill the women had learned as girls. There was no training or apprenticeship for seamstresses. The skilled labor was generally done in the shop, most often by tailors or journeyman tailors. These men designed the garment, made the pattern, selected the fabrics and trimming, cut the cloth. From the early decades of the nineteenth century, seamstresses had no control over the quality of the goods they produced, or over its pricing.5
Sewing women were very poorly paid. A shirt could require up to 20,000 stitches.6 Women in the 1820s could finish no more than six to nine shirts a week, laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day for six days. For this they were paid, on the average, 12 1/2 cents a shirt. Not only were wages low, but sewing women had to absorb the costs of production overhead. Since they worked at home, the expenses of rent, fuel, candles, needles, and in some cases, thread came out of their meager earnings. In addition, seamstresses could not devote full time to sewing. They had to travel the city looking for work, wait to pick up material, wait to deliver the garments, wait to be paid. The clothing industry was seasonal and few women could work the year round. Matthew Carey estimated that if a woman worked full time in 1833 she might earn $58.50 per annum, but if the periods of unemployment were taken into account, her annual income would be $36.40.7
The low wages of sewing women did not rise substantially over the next few decades. Even in those branches of the clothing industry where increases in weekly productivity were brought about by the further subdivision of labor or by the simplification of garment construction, wages did not rise. Rather, where productivity increased, piece rates fell. In New York City, in 1853, women might make three shirts a day, but the average paid per shirt was only 5 cents; the weekly wage, taking into account unemployment, was 50 cents.8 This was at a time when skilled workmen earned $12 a week, and even women working in the factories might make a weekly wage of $3 or $4.9
To grind wages down even further, employers engaged in such tactics as claiming shoddy workmanship and then paying less than the price agreed upon, paying in kind rather than in cash, paying in depreciated script, or withholding pay for a month or more until a certain amount of work had been done.10
That sewing women’s wages were so low—that these women were more exploited than any other wage laborers in America—was in part the result of clothing manufacturers’ efforts to lower costs. The other important factor in low wages was labor supply. There were thousands of women in the cities desperate for employment. The women who turned to sewing had peculiar demographic characteristics. While most women in the labor force in the nineteenth century were young single women, seamstresses were more likely to be widows, wives abandoned by their husbands, or women with disabled husbands—many with young children at home. They were the breadwinners of their families. With dependents at home who needed their care, they could not search out work as domestics, teachers, or factory workers. These women needed to work at home; they needed flexible work hours so that they could take out time to prepare meals and nurse the sick. Because these women were poor, they could not become board-inghouse keepers or shopkeepers, since both occupations required capital investment in a house or a shop. With the lack of social services—no day care, no free apprenticeships, little welfare, and no workman’s compensation, pension funds, or social security—thousands of women were forced to work at home with their needles. Matthew Carey estimated there were 5,000 or 6,000 seamstresses in Philadelphia in 1830, 3,000 of whom were widows with small children. There were more than 40,000 seamstresses in New York City in 1857.11
Labor supply affected full-time sewing women in still other ways. Women who were attempting to earn a living by sewing were also in competition with prison labor, poorhouse labor, farmers’ wives and daughters who sewed to contribute to the household income, and—especially by the 1850s—with church women’s sewing circles, which used the money earned for charity. None of these groups depended upon sewing income for their entire support, and consequently they could work for very little. Labor contractors used all these groups, sometimes because they needed additional labor in the peak seasons, and sometimes specifically to reduce the wages and stifle the protests of the professional seamstresses.12
The final factor affecting labor supply was the value structure of Victorian America. The cult of true womanhood restricted the opportunities available to women who had to work. Sewing was women’s work and therefore respectable. Many other occupations would not have been deemed proper. The statement of Caroline Dall in 1859 sums up this attitude: “the command of society to the uneducated class is, ‘Marry, stitch, die or do worse.’”13 Marriage was the ideal state for a woman. If you were unmarried, single, widowed, or abandoned by your husband, then sewing would still be respectable. However, if sewing was impossible, then death was preferable to the only other viable option—prostitution. The constraints on sewing women can be seen not only in the literature of the times but also in the general absence of strikes. At various times after 1830 women seamstresses did organize. In general, however, most organizations of seamstresses seem to have been benevolent societies designed to help women while sick rather than to raise wages or improve working conditions.14 The large number of seamstresses and their isolation in their homes made organization virtually impossible. Most seamstresses could ill afford to offend their employers for they had no other legitimate options.
The factors of labor supply, aggravated by the very restricted job market for women, allowed many employers to pay only subsistence wages to women sewers. In some places and especially during depressions and wars, wages fell below subsistence levels. That these women were able to survive at all is amazing. They lived in the cheapest rooms, often sharing their quarters with other sewing women; they had their children help them sew or sent them into the streets to hawk small items, and almost all sewing women were dependent upon public or private charity during portions of the year. Some, of course, did not survive and died of the combined effects of overwork and malnutrition.15
As bad as conditions were for seamstresses in the first half of the nineteenth century, their situation worsened in the 1850s and 1860s. In part, this was caused by dramatic fluctuations in the economy: the depression of 1857, the skyrocketing inflation of the Civil War years, and the postwar recession leading to the depression of 1872. The already overcrowded labor market of the clothing industry was swollen by thousands of war widows, soldiers’ wives, and southern refugees who gravitated to the cities looking for work during and after the war.16 But on top of these serious dislocations came the introduction of the sewing machine. In the late 1850s each machine was estimated to perform the work of six hand sewers.17 Alice Rhine calculated that there were 73,290 women displaced by the machines in New York City alone in 1862. This figure exaggerates unemployment since increased production absorbed much of this displaced labor. The result of these three factors was to reduce sewing women’s wages after 1861 to levels nearly as low as those of the 1830s at a time when the cost of living was twice what it had been thirty years earlier.18
CAPITAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE GARMENT INDUSTRY
Between 1830 and 1880 the making of clothing was “revolutionized.” One aspect of this revolution was the development of the sewing machine. Thousands of patents were granted for sewing machines and sewing machine parts from 1842 to 1895 (see Table 1–1). The invention of the sewing machine followed changes in clothing manufacturing and the textile industry. The acceptance of the machine, and the definition for its use, were shaped not solely by technology, but also by the marketing techniques and selling strategies manufacturers of the sewing machine employed, and by the structure of the clothing industry.
The existence of an abundant supply of cheap cloth, the basic raw material, was the first step in the development of a clothing industry. Thus the transformation of garments into commodity production for profit was related to capital development in the textile industry. Textile production was the first industry to be transformed by both technological and capitalist domination of production. The invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 sped up the weaving process and created more demand for thread to weave. The inventions of the spinning jenny and the water frame in the 1760s and 1770s allowed spinners to produce more thread than hand weavers could turn into cloth. In 1785 the power loom was invented, and soon thereafter, the bleaching and printing of textiles was mechanized. The cotton gin, developed in 1793, solved the problem of getting the cotton seed out of the fibers, and provided textile manufacturers with a bountiful supply of raw cotton.
Source; Frederick G. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” in Chauncey Depew, One Hundred Years of American Commerce, 1795–1895, II (New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895), 533.
By the late 1810s both cotton and woolen mills had been constructed near water power sources in New England, and by the 1820s other eastern states had become involved in the factory production of textiles.19
Textile manufacturers could then produce cheap cloth in large quantities. In the first third of the nineteenth century textile manufacturers sought, and obtained, protective tariffs, which reduced competition with better-quality foreign textiles, and alleviated problems created by an overabundance of goods. This political remedy to the oversupply of textiles was only temporary.20 For profits to increase, new markets for textile products had to be found. These large quantities of cloth had to find a “home,” for although cloth was the final product of the textile industry, it was not in and of itself useful to the consumer. It had to be made into something in order to have exchange value in the marketplace—sacks, sheets, tablecloths, and above all else, clothing.
Each of these final uses of cloth required sewing—everything from simple hemming (straight seams), to the elaborate tailoring, embroidery, and appliqué techniques of high fashion. The inefficient, time-consuming task of hand sewing became a bottleneck in the development of new markets for this abundance of cloth.
Thus the history of the garment industry entailed the development of “ready-made” clothing and the decline both of “customer goods"—garments made to the measure of specific individual customers by skilled tailors and dressmakers, mostly for the upper classes—and of homemade garments.21
The acceptability of ready-made garments for the “respectable” classes was part of the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, with its ideology of equality in all phases of life, including equal clothing for all. Clothing was no longer to serve as a sign of class distinction, for apparel was to be marketed to all at low cost. The definition of “respectable” clothing was revised to include ready-made apparel.22 A 30-percent duty placed on imported ready-made clothing in the tariff of 1816, and the rise in the duty to 50 percent in the tariff of 1828, protected this growing industry.23
The abundant supply of cheap cloth produced by the developing textile industry found a “home” in the ready-made clothing industry, both for the poorer classes and for the new “respectable” classes of urban areas. The new white-collar employees—accountants, bookkeepers, clerks, salesmen—all required inexpensive suits and shirts. Therefore men’s medium-grade clothing (primarily shirts) was the first to be manufactured and sold as “ready-made” rather than as custom-tailored garments.24
By the early 1830s this new industry was thriving. In 1831 Boston had tailoring shops employing 300 men, 100 children, and 1,300 women.25 Ready-made clothing production was further expanded during the Civil War as uniforms were needed for soldiers, but the development of men’s ready-made clothing had begun well before the outbreak of the war. In New York stores were advertising a large selection of ready-made garments by the early 1840s. This clothing was being distributed to other large cities in the West and the South.26
Women’s clothing did not leave the home for commodity production at the same time as men’s. Although there were some early manufacturers of women’s cloaks prior to the Civil War, for the most part, women continued to obtain their garments as they had in the past. Upper-class women either imported fashionable clothes from Europe, or employed dressmakers to copy European fashions. Most women of lesser means, however, continued to make their own less-fashionable clothes in the home.27
By 1860 women’s outer garments (such as cloaks, coats, and mantillas), hoop skirts, and caps were being produced as commodities. Dresses and most underwear still were not a significant part of women’s ready-made clothing. After 1860 production of this clothing began to expand rapidly; the number of wage earners employed in this sector of manufacturing doubled in the 1860s, and more than doubled in the 1870s. From 1860 to 1880 the value of the product in women’s clothing increased from $7,000,000 to over $32,000,000; the number of establishments increased from 118 to 562; and the number of employees from 5,739 to 25,192.28
TRANSFORMATION OF THE TAILORING TRADE: THE INITIAL PROLETARIANIZATION OF SEWING
Preceding the technological changes brought by the sewing machine in the 1850s were changes that contributed to the development of the garment industry as a capital enterprise, changes that increased the labor supply, reduced labor costs, and transformed the craft work by increasing its profitability. Clothing became a commodity that attracted capital investment. Before the sewing machine came into widespread use, both the formal and real subjection of seamstresses to the capital mode of production had begun.29 In selling “customer clothes” to the upper classes, the key concern of the tailor and dressmaker was not price but quality. As master tailors embraced ready-made clothing production, they were forced to become “cost conscious.” By keeping their stores stocked with ready-made clothing year round, master tailors could increase trade and appeal to a new clientele of city workers who desired less-expensive, yet “respectable” clothing.30
Once the master tailors were involved in the production of ready-made garments, they further attempted to lower production costs by changing the work process. In the early development of the clothing industry the tools of production remained essentially the same as they had for the making of custom clothing. The important tools were still scissors, needles, and goose. The only addition made prior to the sewing machine was the inch tape measure, in 1820. The inch tape measure was the first step in the standardization of tailoring methods. Personal idiosyncratic systems of markings were gradually replaced by standardized rules and procedures for measurement and drafting, which could be predictably repeated, and which anyone could read. Standardized measurements allowed for the first detailed division of labor in the clothing industry—the separation of the drafter from the cutter of the pattern. Although the task of cutting itself still remained skilled work, the cutter now simply followed the pattern drafted by another.31
The development of a “proportional measurements” system in the 1830s and 1840s dramatically transformed the ready-made clothing industry. Based on the principle that the human body had set proportions, this system meant that by taking one measurement—the customer’s chest, for example—and then consulting the table of proportional sizes, at least sixteen additional measurements could be eliminated. This reduced a portion of the tailor’s and dressmaker’s skill to some mathematical calculations. Ultimately this system was adopted for the ready-made clothing industry for it eliminated the need for direct measurement of individual customers altogether.32 The development of a proportional system of measurements and then during the Civil War of a system of proportional sizes, shaped the cutting and drafting of garment pieces and hence reduced costs.
Further cost reductions were made by replacing skilled male and female workers with unskilled labor, primarily women who toiled long hours on each garment for a few cents. By 1820 women were already at work in their homes sewing straight seams on shirts, coats, trousers, and waistcoats for stores. The Emigrants Dictionary of 1820 noted that New York tailors had been “much injured by the employment of women and boys who work from twenty-five to fifty percent cheaper than men.” While the 300 men employed by Boston tailor shops earned $2 a day, the 100 boys and 1,300 women earned 50 cents.33
The development of standardized measurements for clothing not only eliminated the need for skilled custom tailors to take measurements of each individual customer, but also allowed for mass production of clothing for unknown consumers, as well as mass distribution for sale in the retailing “innovations"—the mid-nineteenth-century department store and the late nineteenth-century mail-order houses. The custom dressmaker or tailor who catered to individual customers became a less significant source of clothing. Although these skilled craftspeople were not altogether eliminated, their role in the production of clothing was transformed. The standardization of measurements contributed to the development of the ready-made clothing industry, which allowed for greater use of sewing machines in factories; it also contributed to the development of the pattern industry, and therefore to the greater use of the sewing machine in the home.34
THE SEWING MACHINE: TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS
Although the first recorded patent for any component of a sewing machine was granted in London in 1755, it took approximately a century for a practical, workable sewing machine to be developed. The slow development of the mechanization of sewing was in part due to the unavailability of cheap cloth before the early nineteenth century. Large numbers of unskilled workers were available in the growing cities. The master tailors had little motivation to mechanize when the labor of sewing women was so plentiful and so cheap.
Technological problems also delayed the development of the sewing machine. To mechanize the textile industry the relatively simple application of mechanical power to the actions of the hand was needed. In sewing, however, a machine could not duplicate the motions made by the human hand and work efficiently. Instead of replicating hand sewing, an entirely new process involving two threads, new stitches, needles with the eye at the head, feeding devices, and thread tension controls was developed. So complicated was the process that no one inventor made all the important innovations.
Early machines did attempt to replicate the hand motion. Such backstitch machines, as they were called, did not work effectively. By the mid-nineteenth century two other types of machines were developed: a chain-stitch machine and a lock-stitch machine, which was to become the most popular type.
The chain-stitch machine used one thread, catching each loop in the one following it, forming the stitch as in knitting. The major problem with this principle was that if one stitch tore, the entire seam would unravel.35
The lock-stitch machine used two spools of thread, one above the fabric and one below, forming a stitch by a shuttle that pushed the lower thread through a loop made by the upper one as the thread was pushed through the cloth by an eye-pointed needle. The first lock-stitch sewing machine using an eye-pointed needle was built by Walter Hunt in New York City around 1832–1834, but was never patented. Elias Howe, Jr., was granted the first United States patent for a lock-stitch sewing machine in 1846.36
Howe’s machine also had functional problems. The “baster plate” used to hold the material in place limited the length of the seam which could be sewed at one operation. After a certain length was sewn, the fabric had to be unpinned from the baster plate and rehung and repinned.37 Nor could the machine complete an entire garment, inasmuch as it could sew only straight seams. In spite of these drawbacks, in 1845 Howe demonstrated that the machine could complete five seams faster than a hand sewer could complete one seam.38
Refinements by other inventors in the next two decades solved most of the technical problems. The Singer machine, patented in 1851, replaced the handwheel with a foot treadle, thus freeing both hands for working with the fabric while sewing.39 Eventually Singer acquired a patent for a machine that allowed the sewing of curved as well as straight seams and the sewing of any length seam without requiring readjustments,40 and which did not lead to seam breakage or puckering.41 Wheeler and Wilson soon added a small lightweight machine suited for lightweight fabrics, especially for household use.42 It was cheaper, faster, easier to operate, and had fewer service problems than other machines on the market.43
In spite of all these advances in the development of the sewing machine in the 1850s, manufacture was not extensive in this decade. The I. M. Singer Company, the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in 1853, produced only 810 machines. Wheeler and Wilson, the second largest manufacturer, produced 799 machines. Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company, the third largest, made 657 machines, while Blodgett and Lerow produced only 135.44 Within two decades, however, sewing machine production increased enormously. In 1867 Wheeler and Wilson was producing 38,000 and Singer 43,000 a year.45 By 1871, 700,000 machines were being produced.46 Table 1–2 provides data on the growth of sewing machine production from 1853 to 1875.
*The records of the “Sewing Machine Combination” were partially destroyed by fire. Only the records of Wheeler and Wilson and Singer were available for the entire period. However, two years appear complete. In 1859 these two firms sold 70 percent of all sewing machines, while in 1871 they accounted for 44 percent of all sales. This data therefore underestimates the total volume of sales.
Source: Calculated from data in Frederick G. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” in Chauncey Depew, One Hundred Years of American Commerce, 1795–1895, II (New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895), 530.
The first significant expansion of sewing machine manufacture occurred between 1858 and 1859 (see Figure 1). In part, this expansion of sewing machine production was an outgrowth of the further development of the ready-made clothing industry and the standardization of sizes. Primarily, however, sewing machine production expanded because of changes in the sewing machine industry itself, changes that transferred control from the inventors to capitalists who tried to make sewing machines a profitable enterprise. Thus capital expansion required transforming the system of production to reduce costs and finding new markets to increase sales.
Coinciding with the expansion of sewing machine manufacture, three developments in the industry allowed capital expansion: the production of machines in factories; the formation of the Sewing Machine “Combination,” and the use of new sales and marketing approaches.
Until the late 1850s sewing machines were made by skilled machinists who handcrafted each machine. As a result each machine was different, and the component parts of each machine could fit only the machine for which they had been made, since none of the parts were exactly the same. With this method, each machine took a long time to make, labor costs were high because of the dependence on skilled craftsmen, and repairs were difficult. The system of interchangeable parts made it possible for manufacturers to considerably reduce the price of the sewing machines from about $300 to $125 by the late 1850s, and to $64 by 1870. However, the system of interchangeable parts required capital-intensive, specifically equipped factories. The Singer Company built the first such factory in 1857; other sewing machine manufacturers quickly followed suit in an effort to remain competitive with the Singer machines. These factories required the investments of huge sums of money.47
Source: Calculated from data in Frederick G. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” in Chauncey Depew, One Hundred Years of American Commerce, 1795–1895, II (New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895), 530.
The formation of the Sewing Machine Combination in 1856 further advanced capitalization of sewing machine manufacture. Until that year most major manufacturers of sewing machines had been involved in law suits over patent infringements. As one writer stated: “Each company was suing all the others for one reason or another. The position was decidedly complicated and the lawyers were benefiting far more than the sewing machine manufacturers.”48 The Sewing Machine Combination pooled patents owned by Elias Howe, Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and the I. M. Singer Company. The pool included such major patents as the eye-pointed needle, used with a shuttle to form a lockstitch (the Howe patent); the four-motion feed mechanism (Wilson patent); the vertical needle with a horizontal work plate, the continuous feed device, a yielding presser foot (Bachelder patent, bought by Singer); and the curved arm to hold cloth by yielding pressure, and the heart cam for moving the needle bar (Singer patent). Until 1877, when the extension for the Bachelder patent expired, sewing machine manufacturers bought a license from the Combination, and paid a fee for each machine produced.49
Because of the capital-intensive factories required for the manufacture of sewing machines and the legal battles over patent rights, three manufacturers of sewing machines came to dominate the market in this period—Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and I. M. Singer.50 Although the machines produced by each of these companies were orginally “invented” by mechanics and/or tailors, the business of making sewing machines now came into the hands of lawyers and businessmen.
Allen B. Wilson had originated the ideas that were patented and became part of the patent pool, but his business partner Nathaniel Wheeler obtained financing for the factories from large capitalists in Connecticut.51 W. D. Grover and W. E. Baker, two tailors, developed the machine technology, but Orlando Potter, a lawyer, became president of the company and handled its financial and business affairs. He had taken shares in the company as compensation for handling patent litigation. It was Edward Clark, the lawyer for the 1. M. Singer Company during the patent infringement suits, who accepted shares in the company as payment for his legal fees. Clark first became partner and later president of the Singer Company. He aggressively expanded the company into new markets in the United States and abroad, and was the first to introduce factory production of sewing machines on the basis of interchangeable parts.52
It was these lawyers/businessmen, rather than the “inventors” of the machines, who dramatically transformed the business of manufacturing sewing machines and defined new uses for the machines. Together they were responsible for developing conditions under which sewing machine production could become enormously profitable. The Sewing Machine Combination ended the costly legal battles; this allowed sewing machine manufacturers to use financial resources for the construction of factories and machinery; it became easier to obtain financial backing from investors who previously were reluctant to place their money in such unstable production environments. The Combination also created monopoly conditions for the members, allowing them to keep prices relatively high. The production of sewing machines using interchangeable parts reduced the manufacturing cost far below the market price. Although machines sold for approximately $64 by 1870, they cost only $12 to produce.53
While seamstresses working at home were a potential market for the sewing machines, very few could afford machines in the 1850s and 1860s. Most of the earliest sewing machine models were heavy and expensive, suitable only for larger garment manufacturers and tailors’ shops. Even when the price of machines dropped under $100, it was still too costly for most families since the average income was $500 per annum. Clark was the first to introduce an early version of installment buying, called the “hire-purchase” plan. The company rented or leased out machines on a monthly basis on “easy” payment terms. A customer thus could put $5 down, and pay between $3 and $5 per month with no obligation to buy the machine until the payments were complete. If the leasee did continue payments, which included interest charges, at the end of a certain period she would own the machine.54
The growth of the pattern industry in the 1860s significantly boosted the expansion of the home sewing machine market. The inexpensive, size-graded paper patterns along with changes in dress styles made it easier for women to produce fashionable clothes for themselves at home.55
By the late 1850s, the Singer Company and other sewing machine manufacturers began to pursue this potential market in earnest. Singer introduced its first “home” model, the “Turtle Back,” in 1856, and a few years later the more successful home model, the “Transverse Shuttle” machine priced at $75.56 Grover and Baker received the first patent for a sewing machine portable case in 1856.57
Such home and individual consumer markets required different sales and marketing strategies than those used with industries. Hire-purchase plans, then trade-in allowances for older models, were only part of selling American women on sewing machine ownership. Potential customers had to be convinced that the sewing machine was a “necessity” as a “labor saving device.” According to one historian of the sewing machine, by the 1860s the Singer Company was spending $1 million a year on advertising.58 The “poor sewing women” were a “natural” market for devices that increased production, but the major problem with this group was that they could not afford to buy the machines. On the other hand, the middle classes, who could afford to buy, had to be convinced that “domestic labor saving devices” were a necessity for the homemaker. There was considerable resistance to this idea.59
At first, the large sewing machine manufacturers—Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and Singer—used independent agents who primarily worked on commission. As soon as large sewing machine manufacturers realized that this system was ineffective in capturing new home markets, they began to displace the independents, and established company owned and operated stores. These stores combined aggressive sales techniques with demonstrations on the use of the machine and repair service by trained personnel.60 Grover and Baker was the first firm to establish such company “branch” stores in 1856, followed quickly by Singer and Wheeler and Wilson.61 By 1860s the period of the franchised, independent agent had come to an end.62
To attract the middle-class homemaker, the larger sewing machine companies opened some of these branch offices, called “salons,” in the business districts of major cities such as New York. These were fancy stores, with marble fronts, carpeting, and machines with silver plating in ornate rosewood cabinets displayed in a plate-glass window, surrounded by the latest women’s fashions. Attractive young women were hired to demonstrate the machines; then saleswomen would escort the customer into a private “closing room” to “clinch the sale.”63
Markets for the sewing machine continued to grow with continued improvements of the technology. By the late 1860s, basic refinements in the machine along with the development of various attachments and accessories simplified bobbin making, buttonholing, tucking, pleating, hemming, and numerous other processes. These devices were designed for both home and industrial sewing machines.64
THE HOME MARKET AND THE SEWING MACHINE
By the 1870s sewing machine manufacturers had developed a wide variety of marketing techniques including advertising, installment purchase plans, door-to-door canvasing, free lessons, discounts, and trade-in policies to vigorously exploit the home sewing machine market. The sewing machine became one of the first mass-marketed consumer durables, and a symbol of a family’s middle-class respectability. The major selling point was that the sewing machine was a labor-saving device that would free women from the drudgery of hand sewing and allow them to devote more time to their families and to themselves. The sewing machine was widely touted as an agent of civilization, and Godey’s Lady’s Book was only one of many transmitters of this argument. In reality the sewing machine did not save time. Rather, as with other so-called labor-saving devices for the home, it increased expectations.65 Women with sewing machines could produce more elaborate clothing with more seams, drapes, tucks, trimming, and ruffles than could women without a machine.66 The lavishly illustrated women’s fashion magazines of the period set the standards, while the development of the paper pattern industry in the 1860s provided the needed practical assistance to women who wished to become more fashionable.67
If the sewing machine did not save time, neither did it alter buying habits. Instead, an 1874 survey of the incomes and expenditures of 205 families of skilled workmen in Massachusetts showed that families with sewing machines spent a slightly greater proportion of their annual incomes on ready-made clothing and shoes than families without machines (12 percent against 11 percent). Both groups spent an additional 3 percent of their incomes on cloth, thread, and other trimmings for clothing to be made at home. The sewing machine was a symbol of middle-class respectability rather than either a practical investment or a function of wealth or income. While 50 percent of the families with annual incomes under $800 and 61 percent earning over $800 owned machines, there were higher correlations with, surprisingly enough, church attendance. Fifty-nine percent of the families who attended church owned machines, while only 24 percent of the families who did not attend church owned a sewing machine. The sewing machine represented the civilizing influence of women’s values which helped make a home a haven. These families exhibited a hierarchy of values in which carpeting the floors held the highest place, followed by attending church, then keeping the children at home and out of the factory, purchasing a sewing machine, and, finally, buying a piano. Comfort, piety, and child-centered families were less related to income (especially since keeping the children at home involved a substantial loss of income) than to the influence of women over the home.68 Some men saw the sewing machine as completely useless. As one wrote in the Chicago Workingman’s Advocate in 1873, the sewing machine was “one of those stupid affairs / That stands in the corner with what-nots and chairs.”69 It was not the ownership of a machine but rather the growth of the ready-made clothing industry that finally reduced the amount of time housewives spent sewing.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GARMENT INDUSTRY: “INSIDE” AND “OUTSIDE” PROCESSES
The history of the garment industry stands in stark contrast to the typical “textile paradigm” of industrialization. Unlike the textile industry which centralized production, the garment industry, even to date, has remained largely decentralized.70 The history of the garment industry did not follow a simple, unilinear path of development, however. The diversity of the product, the differences between the needs and desires of consumers of men’s and women’s garments, and the contrast between work traditions of skilled craft tailorers and unskilled seamstresses combined to produce multilinear paths of development resulting in different uses and consequences of the sewing machine. Two major tendencies existed in the nineteenth-century garment industry: centralized factory production (“inside” shops) on the one hand, and on the other hand, decentralized production, with an emphasis on “outside” shops (the “putting out system"), either in relatively small workshops operated by contractors or subcontractors or in the homes of individual seamstresses or tailors. The history of garment production and its various branches are best discussed in terms of the working out of these tendencies through combined uses of “inside” and “outside” processes, rather than in terms of the development of factories and “inside shops” per se. Both tendencies (centralization and decentralization) existed in greater or lesser degrees in the various branches of the industry, and as we shall see both became combined in a fashion peculiar to the garment industry.
Women’s and men’s garment production followed different paths of development. The men’s clothing industry, especially the production of coats, began earlier than women’s, and was chiefly influenced by skilled English male tailors who worked in their own shops or homes. Unskilled journeymen were paid by the piece to do the simpler tasks. Therefore production of men’s clothing tended to remain decentralized. In contrast, the women’s garment industry, which did not become important until after 1870, had its roots in the earlier manufacture of cloaks, and was influenced primarily by French (women) tailoresses.71 This work tradition included hiring young, unskilled women who did not have their own workplaces. Therefore, production of women’s clothing was more likely to involve primarily inside processes. As one historian wrote of the production of women’s outer garments in the period 1860–1880: “The tendency was to bring together in one factory a considerable number of women. The employer furnished not only the workshop, but also the machines.” In New York before the Civil War, there were several large cloak shops: one employed 100 workers, another 70, and a third 40. Boston, similarly, had a number of such large cloak shops: one shop with 100 workers, two others with 75 workers each.72 Hoopskirts, one of the most important branches of the early women’s ready-made garments, were made in large factories also, such as Wests, Bradley, and Carey’s Hoop Skirt Works.73
In general, production in the decades 1860–1880 tended toward centralization and growth in firm size, although only in certain branches of the industry did centralization include all aspects of production. Large firms centralized only certain production processes, and let others be conducted “outside” the shop.74 Just as before the invention of the sewing machine, the cutter would wrap the cut cloth into bundles, each containing the material for one garment. These bundles would then be sent to workers outside the shop to be completed, and then returned to the firm for sale.
One early form of this “putting out” or “contract system” was based on family production. Skilled journeymen tailors worked along with other family members on the bundles. A common practice in the eighteenth century, it continued throughout the nineteenth. According to a study by Christine Stansell, in one poor working-class New York City neighborhood in 1855, 16 percent of seamstresses were working for their husbands, brothers, or fathers.75 A variation of family production in the “putting out” system developed in the 1850s. In this adapted form, unmarried journeymen hired women to work for them in their homes in place of wives and daughters. Still a third form of this “putting out” system was individual women seamstresses working in their homes. It was these women to whom Matthew Carey referred in his appeals to wealthy philanthropists in the 1830s and whose low wages have already been documented.
These different forms of the “putting out” system were the progenitors of the more exploitative system notorious in the industry in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although all forms of the putting out system allowed the supplier of raw materials to make his profits from the sweat of the workers, be they relatives of journeymen or individual seamstresses, the “sweating system” based on contractors and later subcontractors was even more exploitative because each contractor had to make a profit as well.
Initially, the contractor acted as a middleman between the supplier of raw materials and the sewers who completed the garments. Gradually the contractor turned over the bundles to a subcontractor, who in turn distributed them among those who worked under his immediate supervision, in small workshops, usually “sweatshops.”
Even as large firms developed in the garment industry after the 1840s, they continued to rely on the contractor and on outside work. Small firms generally had all work done on the outside, while large firms utilized a dual system of inside and outside processes. Utilizing outside work offered a number of advantages. It allowed the firm to keep overhead costs down, especially important since rents in the business districts of cities were high. Further, outside work did not require a large inside labor force, and therefore was more adaptable to the fluctuations in labor force needs arising from the seasonal nature of the garment industry. Even large firms tried to keep as much work as was practical an outside process. For example, Brooks Brothers, one of the large garment firms in New York City in 1860, employed 70 inside workers, and between 2,000 and 3,000 outside workers. Another large firm in New York employed 500 outside workers and 800 inside workers.76
The division of labor for inside work largely broke down to cutters and their overseers, inspectors, clerks, and sales personnel. For example, at Wanamaker and Brown’s Department Store in Philadelphia in 1867, there were 600 employees: ten clerks and bookkeepers who purchased raw materials, inspected finished goods, and paid the workers; forty-one sales personnel and their assistants who handled the retail end of the business; and twenty-one cutters. The balance of the employees were outside workers, mostly “sewing hands” who picked up cut material at the store’s cutting room, and finished the work at home.77
The proliferation of the contracting system and manufacturing under “sweating” conditions at the end of the nineteenth century did not mean the end of the large firm in the garment industry. Rather, large firms dominated the industry because they used contracting to their optimal economic advantage by combining it with the centralization of a few selected production processes.78
SEWING MACHINES AND THE FURTHER PROLETARIANIZATION OF SEWING
The contracting system, despite its advantages, presented problems for manufacturers. One major drawback was that outside work was not done in a uniform, standardized way, creating problems for standardized, unit pricing of garments.79 To some extent the sewing machine helped to resolve this problem. Contractors, therefore, began to require sewers, both seamstresses and tailors—whether working in contractors’ shops or in their own homes or shops—to use sewing machines. As one tailor who worked at home with the assistance of his wife and children recalled:
In 1854 or 1855, and later, the sewing machine was invented and introduced, and it stitched very nicely—nicer than the tailor could do; and the bosses said, “We want you to use a sewing machine; you have to buy one.” Many of the tailors had a few dollars in the bank, and they took the money and bought machines. Many others had no money, but must help themselves; so they brought their stitching, the coat or vest, to the other tailors who had sewing machines, and paid them a few cents for the stitching.80
Requiring workers to use sewing machines was only one method devised by manufacturers to eliminate inconsistencies in production. Another technique was to centralize all phases of garment construction in factories where close supervision of workers was possible. Finally, manufacturers made the division of labor more detailed. These methods of standardization were not mutually exclusive and in some cases were used in conjunction.
The extent to which manufacturers could achieve standardization depended to a great degree upon work traditions in different branches of the garment industry. Men’s coat production, based on the work tradition of skilled English tailors, remained outside work. Contractors involved in coat manufacture were under less pressure to supply either workplaces or machines because the skilled tailors they employed were relatively prosperous and could afford to purchase machines. In the making of women’s cloaks, large inside shops had been established prior to the invention of the sewing machine, and continued after the machine was introduced. Undergarments, women’s skirts, and to some extent men’s shirts, which were made by hand by women in their homes, were, after invention of the machine, made in large inside shops. Since young women worked largely on cloaks, undergarments, women’s skirts, and men’s shirts, employers were under more pressure to supply sewers with machines since they were less likely to be able to purchase their own. Women home workers, especially shirtmakers, who had previously worked by hand, could continue in the trade only if they bought or rented machines.81 In some cases home sewers subcontracted the machine work to others and a few specialized establishments arose in the late 1850s to assist these poorer workers. The W. H. Taylor Company in Philadelphia, for example, had sewing machines on the premises and did the machine work for those unable to purchase their own.82
The development of the sewing machine thus intensified the sweating system. Few tailors and fewer seamstresses could afford their own machines; but they could not afford to continue working in the garment trades without machines—hand labor could not compete effectively with machine labor because employers and contractors gave preference to sewing machine operators. With the switch to machines more seamstresses had to work for someone else in the sweating system rather than working for themselves and dealing directly with the supplier of the raw material.83
By the late 1870s sewing machine prices dropped dramatically following the development of interchangeable parts, the end of the patent Combination, and an increased use of the installment plan and monthly rental systems. Sewing machines became more easily accessible to contractors, and to workers. Some contractors rented machines to workers to use in their own homes;84 others supplied sewers with machines to use in sweatshops but charged for their use. Contract shops in Boston in 1869 charged women $1 per week for the use of machines furnished by the employer.85 After the price of machines dropped the number of subcontractors increased while the size of outside shops decreased.86
Just as the use of inside and outside processes varied in different branches of the industry, so too did the implementation of the sewing machine. The men’s shirt and collar producers were the first to invest in machinery, but the ratio of workers to machines was still high in the 1850s. At the Edwin A. Kelley Company in Philadelphia in 1857, there were 600 hands but only 40 machines.87 Machine work was confined to the sewing of collars and bosoms; the rest of the shirt was sewn by hand. By 1870, the ratio of hands to machines was much lower, yet there were still substantial differences among the branches of the garment industry (see Table 1–3). Only five firms, all in the shirt industry, utilized steam-powered machines. Since the shirt manufacturers had been the first to deskill labor through piecework and proportional sizing systems, these firms were in the best position to mechanize production. Also since the shirt industry, like the corset industry, manufactured a standardized product, capital investment for manufacturers was more feasible.
Source: Calculated from data in Philadephia Councils, Manufactures of the City of Philadelphia: Census of 1870 (Philadelphia, 1872).
Because the major advantage of the contracting system was its ability to deal with seasonal fluctuations by keeping capital costs and overhead low, most contractors remained organizers of labor rather than suppliers of capital. Workers who owned machines found they had an advantage in the labor market since they were given hiring preference.88 This relieved the contractor from the burden of supplying the machine and having it lie dormant during off-seasons.
Generally contractors preferred to keep capital costs low. The operators usually had to supply their own machines, as well as thread and needles. They also had to supply their own power, for most machines continued to be operated by a foot treadle.89 This tendency to keep overhead costs low and to require workers to absorb as much overhead as possible was not eliminated by inside shops. A large firm in Kentucky, for example, required their workers to “furnish their own stoves, fires, lights, and tools, the aggregate cost of which would diminish wages about 8 percent.”90
Greater standardization of the product was also facilitated through the use of a detailed division of labor. To obtain greater product standardization from outwork, parts of garments, such as sleeves and collars, or distinct tasks, such as buttonhole making, were “put out.” The finished pieces were then brought into the factory to be put together. Prior to the development of the machine some tasks had already been divided. Cutting and drafting the pattern first had become distinct operations, then with the cutting centralized in large inside shops and the development of standardized patterns, different classes of cutters emerged to perform different types of work.91
The use of the sewing machine made the division of labor in the garment industry more detailed, and work became increasingly routinized and repetitious. Sewing on buttons, buttonhole making, basting, felling, finishing, and pressing, were hand tasks done by other workers, sometimes in factories and sometimes as outwork. With the 1890s came an even more detailed division—each task mentioned above was further subdivided and skill levels were polarized. There were then different classes based on the skill required for each process—"second operators,” “second basters,” and “second finishers,” for example, who did less difficult work.92
EFFECTS OF THE SEWING MACHINE: OCCUPATIONAL STRUCTURE AND WAGES
The greatest change in the occupational structure of the garment industry after the development of the sewing machine was the creation of another unskilled category—the sewing machine operative.
The seamstresses who worked by hand and the custom dressmakers continued to work in the garment industry, but these occupations changed after the introduction of the sewing machine and the subsequent detailed division of labor in the industry. Because of the limitations of the early machines, only straight seams could be done by sewing machine operatives. And because these first machines were also expensive, most machine work took place in factories. The sewing machine operative usually was not a former seamstress. Just as the familial responsibilities of sewing women had kept them out of the better-paying jobs in the mills, so too did their need to be at home keep them out of the garment factories. Sewing machine operatives were young, unmarried women. In other words, they came from the same labor pool as other factory workers.
This factor largely explains the much higher wages received by the sewing machine operators—wages four to five times those paid to hand sewers.93 While contemporary opinion held that the greater productivity of sewing machine operators accounted for their higher wages, it was labor supply, rather than productivity, which produced the differential in average daily wages.94 Women able to enter the clothing shops and factories were also able to enter the shoe factories, paper box factories, and mills. They had options that the home sewer never had and therefore, at least in comparison to the seamstress, their labor had a certain scarcity value. Employers had to compete with other factories for their labor force.
The condition of factory workers was not good, nevertheless. Women factory operatives were paid one-third to one-quarter the wages of men. And many abuses of the putting-out system were carried over into the garment factory. Sewing machine operatives often had to absorb some costs of production overhead by purchasing their own thread, paying “rent” for the use of the machine, or supplying their own heat and light. Wages still were based on piecework or a task system. In the majority of factories the tasks could not be accomplished in the state-mandated ten-hour workday, so that sewing machine operatives were forced to take bundles of clothing home and sew for an additional two to four hours in the evening. Fines for “shoddy” workmanship and payment in scrip or on account served to reduce wages, and seasonal unemployment continued to plague the garment industry. A new technique of exploitation even appeared with the sewing machine, the so-called apprenticeship system. Manufacturers would take on young, inexperienced women for two months without pay, promising to teach them to operate the machine and to employ them at the end of their “apprenticeship.” These women would then be fired at the end of the two months.95 The practice occurred at the same time sewing machine companies claimed that any woman could learn to operate a sewing machine in half an hour.96
Yet factory work remained better paid only so long as machine work was centralized. The cheap sewing machine allowed seamstresses to produce clothing at home on almost the same level as the factory worker, so that it both revitalized the putting-out system and encouraged the growth of subcontracted work. The cheap sewing machine decentralized many branches of the garment industry, expanded the labor pool, and as a result reduced piece rates and average daily wages in the late 1880s.97
Although the seamstresses who worked at home suffered from the introduction of the sewing machine, facing reduced piece rates, greater competition for work, and unemployment, they did not rise up against the machine. Perhaps this was a result of their traditional lack of control over their work, or because this was not a case of the deskilling of a craft. The transformation of the garment industry occurred with little protest.98
The introduction of the sewing machine did not immediately displace all hand sewing. Some of the very cheapest grades of clothing continued to be made by hand as long as labor costs were low and the cost of capital investment in sewing machines high. Small items—men’s underwear, ties, belts, infants’ wear, handkerchiefs, artificial flowers and other trimmings—continued to be made by hand, perhaps because the sewing of many very short seams was not efficient on the machine. Tasks that could not be performed on the earliest machines, buttonholes and buttons, for example, were hand tasks until the 1870s. Much of the sewing of heavy materials was done by hand until the invention of the steam-powered machine in 1870. Other operations in garment construction were done by hand well into the twentieth century. The most important of these, basting and finishing, required too much manipulation of the material to be done efficiently on the machine.99
Over the course of the 1870s and 1880s, most remaining hand sewing was displaced by the use of the sewing machine. The putting-out system of garment construction was revitalized by the cheap sewing machine. Large and small manufacturers, labor contractors and subcontractors turned substantial portions of their work over to home workshops, where thousands of women toiled under miserable conditions for very low piece rates. In the 1890s this would be known as sweated labor, but naming the system did not mean it was new. The conditions of labor, the low piece rates, the methods of exploitation by employers had changed very little since they were first described by Matthew Carey in 1828. There were still thousands of women who worked at home. By the end of the nineteenth century, the needle trades were still the only occupations open to impoverished women heads of household (see Table 1–4).
For several decades after mass production techniques had been introduced into other branches of the garment industry, women’s dresses were still made at home or by skilled dressmakers working for individual customers. As late as 1870, custom dressmaking existed and continued along traditional lines. Mother Jones described her experience in her autobiography:
I returned to Chicago [after the deaths of her husband and children] and went again into the dressmaking business with a partner. We were located on Washington Street near the lake [the central retail district]. We worked for the aristocrats of Chicago, and I had ample opportunity to observe the luxury and extravagance of their lives. Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care.100
A survey of thirty-six businesses mass producing dresses in Boston in 1869 showed that they were in operation only sixteen weeks out of the year. The yearly demand for ready-made women’s dresses in Boston could be met by 281 women working 10 or 12 hours a day for four months. In these circumstances there would be little motivation for the merchants who ran these establishments to increase productivity.101
Source: Twelfth Census, 1900, in Helen L. Sumner, History of Women in Industry in the United States, vol. 9 of the Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, 61st Congress, 2d Session, Senate Document #645 (Washington, 1910), 248. (Some sewing women enumerated in this census worked in factories as sewing machine operatives, while others worked at home. Nineteenth-century census data almost never included information on place of work.)
In Philadelphia in 1860, for example, there were 308 dressmaking and millinery establishments employing over 1,138 workers. There was no production of women’s clothing by machine. In the next decade nearly 80 percent of these businesses disappeared and over 80 percent of the workers were unemployed. By 1880 dressmaking and millinery trades had become so insignificant that they were no longer returned as separate categories in the manufacturing census. In the same twenty-year period the number of factories producing ladies’ garments increased from 30 to 276 and the number of employees from 538 to 3,132 (see Table 1–5).
Not only were dressmakers thrown out of work by the growth of the ready-made ladies’ garment trade, but those who remained in the business saw their daily wages considerably reduced. Dressmakers in the early 1850s could expect to earn $1.33 a day. By the 1860s the average daily wage had fallen to 93 cents, even though this was a period of rapid inflation caused by the Civil War. In the 1870s and through 1885, skilled dressmakers could expect only 87 cents a day.102 This fifteen-year period was the low point of the dressmaking trade as the rapid expansion of the factory production of women’s clothing forced the remaining dressmakers to compete for work.
*The Philadelphia Board of Trade used police files to correct the returns of the federal census of 1860 and uncovered 75 dressmakers and milliners missed in the census. The Board of Trade did not, however, include employment figures for these establishments. The low figure for value of product would indicate that these establishments did not employ help.
Sources: Philadelphia Board of Trade, Manufactures of Philadelphia: Census of 1860 (Philadelphia, 1861); Philadelphia Councils, Manufactures of the City of Philadelphia: Census of 1870 (Philadelphia, 1872): Lorin Blodgett, Census of Manufactures of Philadelphia . . . for the Year 1882 (Philadelphia, 1883), 115.
There was still some demand for custom-made women’s clothing; wealthy women who wanted to be fashion trend setters had to have their clothing custom made, and other women continued to buy custom-made clothing for special events. Christening garments for infants, wedding dresses, ball gowns—all these required highly-skilled dressmakers. After 1885, the dressmaking trade stabilized. Wages for dressmakers began to rise, averaging $1.04 in the late 1880s and $1.10 in the 1890s.103
In the women’s garment industry, skilled, highly paid women artisans were largely replaced by unskilled, poorly paid sewing machine operatives. This branch of the industry was transformed by not only the sewing machine but also the paper pattern industry and the standardization of sizes. Both of the latter developments eliminated the need for skilled sewers and allowed the mass production of dresses by machine.
Evidence has been provided to challenge some assumptions about technology and capital development. First, sewing technology was not the “cause” of a revolution in the garment industry. Rather, the development of the sewing machine was an outgrowth of the commodification of garment production. Economic and cultural changes that had occurred by the early decades of the nineteenth century—including the abundance of cheap cloth and the “democratization” of clothing—were preconditions for the development of the ready-made garment industry and for manufacturers’ growing interest in a practical sewing machine. Thus while ideas for sewing machines had existed prior to the 1850s, clothing manufacturers’ pursuit of such technology had not. The large pool of unskilled women laborers who were desperate for work in the cities allowed manufacturers to increase production without mechanization. In addition, developments within the sewing machine manufacturing industry, which made sewing machine manufacturing profitable, made the widespread use of sewing machines possible. Thus technology followed the path of capital development in textiles, garment production, and sewing machine manufacturing and was shaped by the characteristics of the labor market.
Further, it was not the sewing machine that created the detailed division of labor and deskilling of the tailoring trade. The trend toward the proletarianization of skilled sewing (both tailoring and dressmaking) preceded the implementation of sewing technology. The initial steps in this process included the standardization of measurements which replaced the need for tailor’s skilled markings. The development of a system of proportional sizes and ultimately of standard-sized garments further reduced this need and contributed to the detailed division of labor. The standardization of measurements allowed for more effective use of sewing machines in factories; it also contributed to the development of the paper pattern industry, and therefore use of the sewing machine in the home. The invention of the sewing machine continued an established trend towards deskilling of garment production and helped to shape the structure of the garment industry, but it was not the cause of the process.
The study of the garment industry further documents that economies of scale are not always operative;104 nor does technology necessarily lead toward increased firm size. Diseconomies of scale were especially pronounced in the garment industry. Although firm size appeared to increase in some branches after introduction of the machine, many aspects of production remained “outside” processes; and most workers were not strictly speaking employees but were piece workers who were managed by contractors or subcontractors. The major factors that had tended to centralize production—the cost of the early machines and the desire of manufacturers for greater product uniformity—were countered by the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced, more versatile sewing machines after 1870. These factors contributed to the decentralization of the garment industry by the late nineteenth century.
Last, the sewing machine cannot be blamed for the low wages and poor working conditions of needle-women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although wages and employment opportunities for skilled dressmakers in the women’s garment industry were much reduced following the introduction of sewing machines, this was not the case for the majority of needle workers. Low piece rates, fines, and the assumption of some overhead production costs were the norm for both hand and machine workers.
The garment industry did not follow the textile paradigm of industrial development. The large factories with banks of machinery run by a few unskilled workers, common in the textile industry, were not characteristic of the clothing industry. In part this was a consequence of differences in technology, for while the sewing machine is a complex instrument it performs a very simple task—sewing a single operation on one garment at a time. Each machine requires its own operator. Production need not be centralized; it can take place in homes, sweatshops, large and small factories. The limitations of technological development in the industry combined with the seasonality of demand and the variety of the product to make most large-scale operations noncompetitive. Profit came not by reducing labor requirements but by seeking out cheap labor—the poor uneducated women of the American cities of the nineteenth century, the poor women of Latin America and Asia in the twentieth.
1. “Grover, Baker, and Company’s Sewing Machines,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, 50 (Aug. 1855), 185.
2. Caroline H. Dall, The Right to Labor; or, Low Wages and Hard Work: In Three Lectures (Boston: Walker, Wise, 1860), 156–157.
3. Jessica Daves, Ready-Made Miracle: The Story of Fashion for the Millions (New York: Putnam’s, 1967), 21.
4. The terms in this chapter present ideal types. We have used the word “dressmaker” to describe skilled sewing women and the more generic term “seamstresses” to describe less-skilled sewing women. In the nineteenth century a number of different terms were applied: dressmakers, mantua makers, and tailoresses were generally skilled workers; seamstresses or sempstresses, needlewomen, shirtmakers were often less skilled. However, these terms were always loosely applied. Any sewing woman’s work could include both skilled and unskilled labor processes, and many women did custom work or piecework depending upon the work available at a given time. While this chapter concentrates on sewing women in the garment industry, sewing women also worked in the manufacture of other products: hats and caps; leather and fur goods (and especially boots and shoes); gloves; trimmings; bags and sacks; sheets, towels, and other linens; lace; and pocketbooks. We are concerned here with the experiences of urban women in the eastern United States. Seamstresses in rural areas and in the newly settled western states apparently were much less exploited largely because of their scarcity.
Louisa Frances Raymond gives a contemporary sketch of the dressmaker in “The Gilt Buttons; or, The Two Mantuamakers,” The Lady’s Amaranth, 4, no. 8 (1842), 192–193.
5. A good account of the working conditions of the seamstress can be found in Timothy Shay Arthur, The Seamstress (Philadelphia: Barrett and Jones, 1843). This short novel was republished many times—under different titles and with slight changes—over the following twenty years. While most fiction about sewing women reflected middle-class values and concerns, Arthur’s treatment is more realistic in its descriptions even though the plot is melodramatic and the happy ending is contrived. Arthur had been a tailor’s apprentice in his youth and knew the conditions of the trade from first-hand experience. See also his collection of short stories: Woman’s Trials; or, Tales and Sketches from the Life around Us (Philadelphia: Collins, 1853).
6. “The Value of the Sewing Machine,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, 74 (Feb. 1867), 192.
7. Matthew Carey’s many publications on sewing women are summarized in Helen L. Sumner, History of Women in Industry in the United States, vol. 9 of the Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, 61st Congress, 2d Session, Senate Document #645 (Washington, 1910), 123–133 (henceforth Report; Senate Document #645).
8. Sumner, History, 137–138.
9. George Rodgers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 297.
10. See Arthur, The Seamstress, 18–19; Sumner, History, 150–151.
11. “Women with half a dozen mouths around them, don’t stand long to higgle about a few cents in a garment, when there are so many willing to step in and take their places” (a master tailor about to reduce piece rates by 4¢ in Arthur, The Seamstress, 27); see also Sumner, History, 130; and Ruth Brandon, A Capitalist Romance: Singer and the Sewing Machine (New York: Lippincott, 1977), 68–70. On the marital status of most women workers in the nineteenth century, see Carl Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 375–394.
12. Sumner, History, 139–141. On prison labor see Mrs. M. Clarke, ed., The Memoirs of the Celebrated and Beautiful Mrs. Ann Carson . . . Whose life Terminated in the Philadelphia Prison (Philadelphia, 1838), II, 66. On poorhouse labor, George Ellington (pseud.), The Women of New York, or The Under-World of the Great City (New York: New York Book Company, 1869), 616–635. For farmwork see Charles P. Neill, Men’s Ready-Made Clothing, vol. 2, Report, Senate Document #645, 492–493; and Sumner, History, 140–141. On charity work, Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (New York: Random House, 1949, repr. of 1832 ed.), 281–282.
13. Dall, Right to Labor, 104. There is also evidence that sewing, especially work on men’s clothing, was not quite respectable. Frances Trollope reports that while women made shirts, it would have been “a symptom of absolute depravity” to admit that fact to a man; Domestic Manners, 159. Mrs. Clarke attempted to convince Ann Carson to sew men’s clothing and Carson replied that that was “employment only fit for the meanest and lowest females of the city.” Clarke replied: “You, your mother, and all your sisters were glad to make soldiers’ shirts, and give security for the fulfillment of the contract, here no security is required—Sam [Carson’s son] can carry the work backward and forward, that we may not be exposed” (Clarke, Memoirs, II, 113–114).
14. Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement, from Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I (New York: Free Press, 1979), 40–45, 113–121. Barbara Mayer Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 96–102; John B. Andrews and W. D. P. Bliss, History of Women in Trade Unions, vol. 10, Report, Senate Document #645 (Washington, 1911), 36–40, 58–60, 94–100.
15. There is little data on occupational mortality in the United States for the first half of the nineteenth century. However, data from England and later investigations by government and social work agencies in the United States point to high mortality among seamstresses.
16. Wertheimer, We Were There, 151–155.
17. Ibid., 102.
18. Alice Hyneman Rhine, “Woman in Industry,” in Annie Nathan Meyer, ed., Woman’s Work in America (New York: Holt, 1891), 285.
19. Claudia B. Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1974), 37. Another of the many discussions of technology development in the textile industry is: Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (New York: Norton, 1978), esp. 124–242.
20. Yet textile manufacturers did not venture risk capital in an attempt to mechanize garment construction. They preferred the safer method of political solutions to the oversupply of textiles. Tailors and machinists were the major underwriters of the development of workable sewing machines. On tariffs and exports see United States Census Office, Manufactures of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865), lxiii–lxiv.
21. Joel Seidman, The Needle Trades (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1942), 13.
22. Kidwell and Christman, Suiting Everyone, 39.
23. Seidman, Needle Trades, 14.
24. Ibid.; Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973), 91–100.
25. Seidman, Needle Trades, 14; Sumner, History, 151–155.
26. Jesse E. Pope, The Clothing Industry in New York, University of Missouri, Social Science Studies, 1 (1905), 12; Kidwell and Christman, Suiting Everyone, 53–63.
27. Seidman, Needle Trades, 20; U.S. Census, Manufactures in 1860, lxxxii–lxxxv.
28. Seidman, Needle Trades, 20–21; U. S. Census, Manufactures in 1860, lxxxv; Louis Levine, The Women’s Garment Workers (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1924), 8. These figures undoubtedly underestimate production, expecially for the manufacturing censuses prior to 1870.
29. The concept of proletarianization as used here refers to dual processes: the formal and real subjection of labor to the capitalist mode of production. In formal subjection labor power has been transformed into a commodity; in real subjection labor power is transformed into a technical means of production in the labor process. Ava Baron has argued elsewhere that these two aspects of proletarianization need not take place sequentially, and that both are ongoing processes shaped by workers’ resistance to them and capitalists’ responses to such resistance; see Ava Baron, “Women and the Making of the American Working Class: A Study of the Proletarianization of Printers,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 14, no. 3 (Fall 1982), 23–42; and “Woman’s ‘Place’ in Capitalist Production: A Study of Class Relations in the Nineteenth Century Newspaper Printing Industry,” PhD diss., New York University, 1981.
30. Pope, Clothing Industry, 12; Kidwell and Christman, Suiting Everyone, 39.
31. Kidwell and Christman, Suiting Everyone, 42.
32. Ibid., 42–43; Boorstin, The Americans, 188–189.
33. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928, revision of Bulletin No. 499 with Supplement, 1929–1933 (Washington, 1934), 114–115. Kidwell and Christman, Suiting Everyone, 45.
34. Boorstin, The Americans, 89–156, 188–189; Margaret Walsh, “The Democratization of Fashion: The Emergence of the Women’s Dress Pattern Industry,” Journal of American History, 66 (Sept. 1979), 299–313.
35. Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 58.
36. Edward W. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Munn, 1900), 185. The story of the invention of Hunt’s sewing machine is odd. Hunt supposedly invented a workable machine, but suppressed the knowledge of it when his daughter pointed out that many poor seamstresses would be unemployed as a result of this invention. This tale is often recounted as an example of workers’ fear of labor-saving machinery. Yet the story did not surface until the 1850s, when Hunt was employed by I. M. Singer’s lawyers in an attempt to break Elias Howe’s patent, and it seems merely a fabrication designed to explain why Hunt never applied for a patent. While employed by Singer’s lawyers, Hunt attempted to reconstruct his machine, but even with time, funds, and the many examples of working machines before him, he was unable to get his device to work (Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 93).
37. Frederick G. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” in Chauncey Depew, One Hundred Years of American Commerce, 1795–1895, II (New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895), 526.
38. Frederick L. Lewton, “The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine,” Annual Report, The Smithsonian Institution, 1929 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1930), 566.
39. George Iles, Leading American Inventors (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968; repr. of 1912 ed.), 358.
40. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” 526.
41. Andrew B. Jack, “The Channels of Distribution for an Innovation: The Sewing Machine Industry in America, 1860–1865,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, 9 (1957), 136.
42. Ibid., 115.
43. The Job A. Davis machine was a vertical feed machine which was particularly popular in the “farm belt” because it could easily sew canvas, ducking, feed sacks, and any light leather goods. This company eventually supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co. with millions of machines. The Wilcox and Gibbs machines were sold for about $50, while most competitors sold for over $100. Although this machine never became popular with housewives because the seam formed by the chainstitch had a tendency to unravel, it did become popular for industrial use, especially for sewing seams on sugar, flour, or feed sacks. William Ewers and H. W. Baylor, Sincere’s History of the Sewing Machine (Phoenix: Sincere Press, 1970), 77.
44. Brian Jewell, Veteran Sewing Machines: A Collector’s Guide (New York: Barnes, 1975), 38.
45. Byrn, Progress of Invention, 188. These are conservative figures. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., presents higher figures for sewing machine production in the 1860s in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), 303.
46. Jewell, Veteran Sewing Machines, 46.
47. Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 101–102.
48. Jewell, Veteran Sewing Machines, 41.
49. Ewers and Baylor, Sincere’s History, 123.
50. Chandler, Visible Hand, 303.
51. Bourne, “American Sewing Machines,” 528.
52. Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 100–110.
53. Ibid., 101.
54. Ibid., 117.
55. Daves, Ready-Made Miracle, 26–27; Walsh, “Democratization,” 299–313.
56. Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 116, 126.
57. Ewers and Baylor, Sincere’s History, 65.
58. Ibid., 91.
59. Brandon, Capitalist Romance, 120–125.
60. See Jack, “Channels of Distribution,” for a discussion of Singer stores.
61. Chandler, Visible Hand, 303.
62. Jack, “Channels of Distribution.”
63. Ewers and Baylor, Sincere’s History, 89.
64. Elizabeth Mickle Bacon, “The Growth of Household Conveniences in the United States from 1865 to 1900,” PhD diss., Radcliffe College, 1942, 140–142, 244–247.
65. See Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “A Case Study of Technological and Social Change: The Washing Machine and the Working Wife,” in Mary Hartman and Lois W. Banner, Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 245–253; Bacon, “Household Conveniences,” 137.
66. “Where is the woman who can say that her sewing is less a tax upon her time and strength than it was before the sewing machine came in? . . . As soon as lovely woman discovers that she can set ten stitches in the time that one used to require, a fury seizes her to put ten times as many stitches in every garment as she formerly did” (James Parton in 1867, quoted in Boorstin, The Americans, 96).
67. Walsh, “Democratization,” 301 ff.
68. Calculated from data in Edward Young, Labor in Europe and America; A Special Report (Philadelphia: George, 1875), 822–826.
69. Quoted in Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815–1919 (New York: Random House, 1976), 7.
70. See Louise Lamphere, “Fighting the Piece-Rate System: New Dimensions of an Old Struggle in the Apparel Industry,” in Andrew Zimbalist, ed., Case Studies on the Labor Process (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979) 251–276.
71. Pope, Clothing Industry, 17–18. A description of these pieceworkers from London in 1747 sounds very like Carey’s portrayal of women seamstresses in the 1830s in Philadelphia: “Not one in ten of them know how to cut out a pair of Breeches; They are employed only to sew the Seam, to cast the Button Holes, and prepare Work for the finisher. . . . They are as numerous as locusts, are out of business about three or four months in the year; and generally as poor as rats.” These male tailors did however have a strong trade union whose origins dated back to the very early eighteenth century in England and the early nineteenth century in America. For this reason American manufacturers preferred to hire women workers: They did not have a craft tradition and did not strike. See C. R. Dobson, Masters and Journeymen: A Prehistory of Industrial Relations, 1717–1800 (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), esp. 60–73, quote on p. 39. Sumner documents this process of replacing male journeymen tailors with women workers in History, 120–121.
72. Levine, Garment Workers, 9–10.
73. Ibid., 6.
74. Ibid., 10.
75. Christine Stansell, “The Origins of the Sweatshop: Women and Early Industrialization in New York City,” in Michael H. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz, eds., Working-Class America: Essays in Labor, Community, and American Society (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 92.
76. Ibid., 84.
77. Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and Its Manufactures: A Handbook of the Great Manufactories and Representative Mercantile Houses of Philadelphia in 1867 (Philadelphia: Edward Young, 1867), 616–620.
78. Levine, Garment Workers, 17.
79. Stansell, “Origins of the Sweatshop,” 89.
80. Quoted in Edith Abbott, Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History (New York: Arno, 1969; repr. of 1910 ed.), 222–223 (emphasis added).
81. See Pope, Clothing Industry, 15–21.
82. Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and Its Manufactures: A Handbook Exhibiting the Development, Variety, and Statistics of the Manufacturing Industry of Philadelphia in 1857 (Philadelphia, 1858), 225.
83. Stansell, “Origins of the Sweatshop,” 94.
84. Pope, Clothing Industry, 30.
85. Massachusetts Senate, Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, II (Boston, 1871), 221. The report states, “A good machine can be bought for $65, so that $1 per week, or $52 a year, would be 80 per cent per annum. And for the thirty weeks would be 46 per cent.!!” (emphasis in the original).
86. Levine, Garment Workers Industry, 14.
87. Freedley, Philadelphia in 1857, 224.
88. Pope, Clothing Industry, 30; Mass. Senate, Report, 221.
89. Levine, Garment Workers, 16. In Massachusetts, firms forced women to buy their thread from the company at a profit to the company of 67 percent (Mass. Senate, Report, 221). On the medical effects of treadle operation, see Azel Ames, Jr., Sex in Industry: A Plea for the Working-Girl (Boston: Osgood, 1875), 114–124.
90. United States Census Office, Report on the Statistics of Wages in Manufacturing Industries, by Jos, D. Weeks (Washington, 1886), 51. Wage data covers the period 1851–1880.
91. Pope, Clothing Industry, 23.
92. Ibid., 24, 66–67; United States Commissioner of Labor, Thirteenth Annual Report: Hand and Machine Labor, vol. 2, General Tables (Washington, 1899), 906–927.
93. U. S. Census, Statistics of Wages, 51–53; U. S. Dept. of Labor, History of Wages, 221–224.
94. For one expression of the contemporary view, see “The Results of the Invention of the Sewing-Machine,” Littell’s Living Age, 19, no. 1727 (July 21, 1877), 187–190.
95. Mass. Senate, Report, 210, 220–221.
96. Brandon, Capitalist Romance.
97. A final point on wages should be made. Data on hand sewers in the first half of the nineteenth century comes largely from charitable groups who saw only the most impoverished working women. Data on sewing machine operatives in the second half of the century comes from the government. Neither the Census Office nor the Commissioner of Labor had the authority to coerce employers to give wage information. Only the most reputable firms volunteered wage data. As Jos. D. Weeks of the Census Office remarked in 1886, “A few returns relating to the manufacture of clothing were received, but a disinclination to give facts was manifested” (U.S. Census, Statistics of Wages, 51). There are biases in the available data which exaggerate the differences between hand and machine labor. In spite of this, it is certain that factory work was better paid.
98. The futile and impractical wish of one seamstress, underemployed by the introduction of the sewing machine, suggests that viable avenues of protest were not available. This women said “that if she could, without destroying property, and thereby wronging others, she would burn every sewing machine in New York.” This statement also reflects the desperate attempt by sewing women to cling to middle-class norms of respectability (quoted in Virginia Penny, Think and Act: A Series of Articles Pertaining to Men and Women, Work and Wages (New York: Arno, 1971; repr. of 1869 ed.), 33. Some portion of the seamstresses were certainly thrown out of work by the invention of the sewing machine; the numbers involved and the fate of these women is not clear. The census of 1860 noted a loss of 7,303 women workers in the garment industry between 1850 and 1860 which was ascribed to the introduction of the sewing machine. These early manufacturing censuses were incomplete and undoubtedly underestimated job losses (U.S. Census, Manufactures in 1860, lxii). Many charitable organizations investigating the plight of sewing women had dissolved for lack of funds in the depression of 1857. The Civil War and Reconstruction absorbed the attention of the press during the 1860s and the first state bureaus of labor would not be established until the late 1860s. While there is data on sewing women prior to 1857 and after 1968, there is precious little for the crucial decade when the sewing machine came into widespread use. Still, one fact caught the attention of contemporaries—the dramatic rise in the number of prostitutes in the major cities. When William Sanger interviewed 2,000 of the estimated 6,000 prostitutes in New York City in 1858, one-quarter were sewing women. The anonymous author of the Women of New York (1869), who spent much of a 700-page book describing the varieties of commercial vice in the city, found low wages and scarcity of jobs in the sewing industry a factor in the recruitment of prostitutes. An estimated 10,000 streetwalkers in the city in 1870 grew to 40,000 in 1890. The introduction of the sewing machine increased unemployment in the sewing trades and seems to have forced some women into prostitution—one of the few options society offered to poor and unskilled women. Ellington, Women of New York, see as only one example, 311; Werthheimer, We Were There, 102–103.
99. Sumner, History, 144–151; U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Hand and Machine Labor, 906–927; Ellington, Women of New York, 579–581.
100. Mary Field Parton, ed., The Autobiography of Mother Jones (Chicago: Kerr, 1972), 12–13.
101. Mass. Senate, Report, 216.
102. Data computed from reports in U.S. Dept. of Labor, History of Wages, 219, 220, eastern U.S. only, excluding the Deep South.
104. For further discussion of diseconomies of scale see: Chandler, Visible Hand, and Bruce Laurie and Mark Schmitz, “Manufacture and Productivity: The Making of an Industrial Base, Philadelphia, 1850–1880,” in Theodore Hershberg, ed., Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 43–92.