Howe Patents His Sewing Machine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Elias Howe’s invention of the first practical sewing machine in the United States revolutionized the clothing and other textile industries and helped transform what had been a primarily agrarian country into an industrial nation.

Summary of Event

The United States Industrial Revolution;United States entered the nineteenth century as a small agrarian nation heavily dependent upon European nations for its essential manufactured products. By the end of that century, it had become a rich and powerful country with a diversified economy, well on the way to leadership among the world’s industrial states. The origins of this evolution are clearly evident in the antebellum period, particularly in the two decades before the Civil War (1861-1865), as a coalescence of historical forces transformed the national economy. New methods of transportation, expanded domestic markets, the westward movement, and the growth of industry contributed to the reshaping of the United States. The development of new labor-saving machinery and the emergence of the factory system were of central importance in making it possible for a small population to spread out over a wide geographical area without a dissipating industrial development. Howe, Elias Sewing machine Inventions;sewing machine Textile industry;and sewing machines[Sewing machines] [kw]Howe Patents His Sewing Machine (Sept. 10, 1846) [kw]Patents His Sewing Machine, Howe (Sept. 10, 1846) [kw]Sewing Machine, Howe Patents His (Sept. 10, 1846) [kw]Machine, Howe Patents His Sewing (Sept. 10, 1846) Howe, Elias Sewing machine Inventions;sewing machine Textile industry;and sewing machines[Sewing machines] [g]United States;Sept. 10, 1846: Howe Patents His Sewing Machine[2460] [c]Inventions;Sept. 10, 1846: Howe Patents His Sewing Machine[2460] [c]Trade and commerce;Sept. 10, 1846: Howe Patents His Sewing Machine[2460] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 10, 1846: Howe Patents His Sewing Machine[2460] Hunt, Walter Saint, Thomas Singer, Isaac Merrit Thimonnier, Barthelemy Wilson, Allen Benjamin

The Industrial Revolution was spawned in Great Britain Industrial Revolution;Great Britain , and as in so many other areas of American development, English technology and patterns of industrial production shaped early American manufacturing efforts. In addition to demonstrating ingenuity in adapting European technology to New World conditions, U.S. inventors gradually began to move toward original breakthroughs, which in turn stimulated new industries. The invention of the sewing machine represented the vitality of U.S. inventiveness and Yankee ingenuity. The spectacular results of the sewing-machine industry characterized the evolution of the U.S. mercantile economy into the age of industrial capitalism.

The development of the sewing machine is a classic example of the old adage holding that “necessity is the mother of invention,” as several men independently developed the basic principles of the sewing machine in response to an obvious need. By the 1830’s, Americans had passed beyond the age of a self-sufficient household economy to a point at which families depended upon specialized producers for many of their daily needs. As early as 1825, the first ready-to-wear clothing factory manufacturing sailors’ suits appeared in the United States. All the work in this operation was done by hand. Soon, many similar factories appeared; clearly, the U.S. market was ready for mechanized sewing.

Many people contributed to the development of the sewing machine and the industry it spawned. The earliest record of a mechanical sewing device is a 1790 British patent that was issued to Thomas Saint Saint, Thomas . His machine is described as a device to sew leather; however, it is not known if it was actually built. In 1830, a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, Thimonnier, Barthelemy patented and built a chainstitch machine that was not completely satisfactory but performed sufficiently well for the developer to prosper briefly from its sale. However, Thimonnier and his machines eventually fell victim to the resistance of irate tailors who believed the machine threatened their livelihood, and also to the upheaval of France’s 1848 revolution.

Around that same time, Walter Hunt Hunt, Walter , an American living in New York City, developed a lockstitch machine for sewing, stitching, and seaming cloth. Like Thimonnier’s machine, Hunt’s machine was imperfect but workable. Also like Thimonnier’s Thimonnier, Barthelemy machine, however, it fell victim to social conditions and hostile beliefs, not technical failure. Believing that his machine would throw many seamstresses out of work, Hunt did not try to perfect or patent it. He abandoned his project in 1838.

Meanwhile, during that same year, the New Englander Elias Howe started on his long quest to construct a machine that could sew. Howe was apprenticed to a Boston builder of precision instruments and, while working in his shop, overheard a conversation between his employer and a customer to the effect that a fortune awaited the man who could develop a practical sewing machine. The poverty-stricken Howe became obsessed with the pursuit of this goal and the attendant wealth. After much experimentation and failure, he finally patented a sewing machine on September 10, 1846.

Howe was not the first person to invent a sewing machine, but he deserves credit for solving some of the most vexing problems in the machine’s development. Among his most valuable innovations were the shuttle—the holder of a second thread, known as a bobbin—and the point-eyed needle through which the spooled thread passes. The synchronized movements of the bobbin and needle threads produced a secure lockstitch that could not easily be unraveled.

After securing his patent, Howe made an unsuccessful trip to England to market his sewing machine. Upon returning home in 1849, he discovered a ready market for the sewing machine in the United States. By then, however, many competitors were already in the field, most with machines that infringed upon his patent. Howe spent the remainder of his life trying, unsuccessfully, to protect his patented rights.

Perhaps the ablest of the early inventors was Allen Benjamin Wilson Wilson, Allen Benjamin . In 1848, while living in Michigan and unaware of parallel efforts by inventors in the East, Wilson conceived of a sewing machine that included a motion to grip the material and automatically move it forward. Like Howe, Wilson did not receive great monetary reward for his inventions. Unlike Howe, he is not often mentioned, although his inventive genius had a far-reaching effect on the development of the sewing machine.

One of the most important of Howe’s competitors was Isaac Merrit Singer Singer, Isaac Merrit , who in 1850 began to market the first really practical sewing machine in the United States. The Singer design proved adaptable to a variety of tasks in both the home and the factory. By 1860, an aggressive sales force of three thousand people sold 111,000 sewing machines for both domestic and commercial uses.

With Garment industry;sewing machines professional seamstresses barely able to eke out their livings while working eighteen hours a day on slow, laborious hand-stitching, the machine proved to be a vast success in the clothing industry. The garment districts of big cities began using sewing machines so extensively that by 1858, in the city of Troy, New York, alone, there were three thousand sewing machines producing shirts and collars. Thanks largely to the machines, the value of ready-made U.S. clothing production increased from forty million dollars in 1850 to more than seventy million dollars in 1860.

Because machines could sew through leather, they were gradually adapted to all the sewing phases of shoe production. By 1880, the mechanization and division of labor in the shoe industry was almost complete, and the cost of shoes, which had been seventy-five cents with hand labor, was reduced to about three cents per pair. Between 1864 and 1870, the number of shoes produced by machines increased from five million pairs per year to more than twenty-five million; by 1895, it had reached one hundred twenty million. Sewing machines were also used to make saddles and harnesses. Using the American system of standardized parts pioneered by Eli Whitney, and drawing heavily upon techniques already developed in the small arms and clock industries, factories for the manufacture of sewing machines soon ranked among the country’s largest establishments.

Meanwhile, the Civil War (1861-1865) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);uniforms brought final and dramatic proof of the machine’s capabilities and importance to the economy. At the beginning of the conflict, soldiers’ uniforms were imported. By 1863, a mechanized domestic industry, concentrated in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, was able to clothe the entire Union forces. Similarly, the boot and shoe industry rapidly expanded to meet the wartime emergency. A newspaper in Lynn, Massachusetts, reported that “buildings for shoe factories are going up in every direction; the hum of machinery is heard on every hand.” The demand for boots and shoe-sewing machines was so great that their developer received $750,000 in royalties annually during the war.


The sewing machine, its production, its sale, and the industries it spawned had clearly become big business by the end of the nineteenth century. During the late nineteenth century, more than two hundred sewing machine companies operated in the United States. Although the manufacture of clothing was the principal use of the machines, by the year 1900, sewing machines were also used to produce tents, sails, saddles, harnesses, linens, pocketbooks, trunks, banners, flags, and numerous other products, to the aggregate sum of nearly one billion dollars.

The development of the sewing machine was typical of many U.S. industries during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it represented the emergence of an industry dominated by the type of specialized entrepreneurs who concentrated on production of a single item or closely related products, and the phasing out of the merchant capitalists with diversified economic life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With this transition, the United States entered the age of industrial capitalism. Elias Howe and his peers in the invention and manufacture of the sewing machine played a central and significant role in this development.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bissell, D. C. The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Brunswick, Maine: Audenreed Press, 1999. Company history that offers a brief history of the invention and development of sewing machines, along with a brief biography of Isaac Singer and biographical sketches of all the company’s presidents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Grace Rogers. The Invention of the Sewing Machine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1980. Presents the history of the sewing machine. Appendixes contain biographical sketches of early inventors, U.S. sewing machine patent list, nineteenth century sewing machine companies, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernandez, Nancy Page. “Innovations for Home Dressmaking and the Popularization of Stylish Dresses.” Journal of American Culture 17, no. 3 (Fall, 1994): 11. Discusses the appearance and spread of dressmakers’ drafting systems, paper patterns, and sewing machines during the late nineteenth century, and their effect on women’s dress and roles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Law, Charles B. Encyclopedia of Antique Sewing Machines: A Reference Manual for the History, Identification, Maintenance, and Use of Antique and Vintage Model Sewing Machines. n.p.: Author, 1998. Comprehensive and well-illustrated reference for antique collectors that contains a great deal of history of sewing machines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyon, Peter. “Isaac Singer and His Wonderful Sewing Machine.” American Heritage 9, no. 6 (October, 1958): 34-38, 103-109. This colorful account emphasizes Singer’s flamboyant private life as well as his contributions to the sewing machine industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parton, James. “The History of the Sewing Machine.” Atlantic Monthly 19 (May, 1867). An early study of the history of sewing machines based on interviews with Elias Howe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pursell, Carroll W., Jr. “Machines and Machine Tools, 1830-1880.” In The Emergence of Modern Industrial Society: Earliest Times to 1900, edited by Melvin Kransberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. Vol. 1 in Technology in Western Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Briefly traces the development of the sewing machine. Places the industry’s growth in the perspective of general industrial development.

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