Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in Russia

The Singer Manufacturing Company developed a major factory to make sewing machines in Podolsk, Russia, in response to consistently growing Russian sales.

Summary of Event

In 1905, the Podolsk factory of Kompaniya Singer, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Singer Manufacturing Company in the United States, began making sewing machines (called machine heads, to distinguish them from the cast-iron stands) for the Russian market. The development of this factory, which within a few years would be Singer’s third-largest manufacturing plant, was the natural outgrowth of the growing size and importance of the Russian market for Singer machines. Sewing machines
Manufacturing;sewing machines
Singer Manufacturing Company
Kompaniya Singer
[kw]Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in Russia (1905)
[kw]Sewing Machines in Russia, Singer Begins Manufacturing (1905)
[kw]Machines in Russia, Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing (1905)
[kw]Russia, Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in (1905)
Sewing machines
Manufacturing;sewing machines
Singer Manufacturing Company
Kompaniya Singer
[g]Russia;1905: Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in Russia[01190]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1905: Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in Russia[01190]
[c]Trade and commerce;1905: Singer Begins Manufacturing Sewing Machines in Russia[01190]
Dixon, Walter F.
Flohr, Albert
Neidlinger, George

The Singer Company had its roots in the 1850’s, when Isaac Singer Singer, Isaac brought together the elements that were central to any successful design of a sewing machine and his partner Andrew Clark developed an effective marketing approach using a form of installment credit. Singer quickly sought foreign markets, establishing general agents first in London, in 1862, and then in Hamburg, in 1865. The Hamburg agent, George Neidlinger, quickly established links to Russia, selling through an independent agent. During the 1870’s, Singer perfected its marketing approach, using myriad small shops with door-to-door canvassers, and decided to take direct control of all its sales, whether in the United States or abroad. In 1877, Neidlinger was put in charge of Russian sales and began building an organization nearly identical to that already in place in the United States, Great Britain, and parts of Western Europe.

Sales of Singer sewing machines in Russia grew steadily through the 1880’s and early 1890’s. With the quickening tempo of Russian economic development in the 1890’s, it was increasingly likely that Russia would develop into a major market, perhaps second only to that of the United States. To position the company to take advantage of this opportunity, Singer’s management in New York City decided to create a wholly owned subsidiary in Russia and to develop a factory there to help supply the rapidly increasing needs of the Russian sales organization. Neidlinger incorporated Kompaniya Singer in 1897, soon acquired what was perhaps the finest commercial location on St. Petersburg’s premier business street, Nevskii Prospekt, and began an intensive search for a site suitable for a major factory. In the spring of 1900, Kompaniya Singer acquired its preferred site in the town of Podolsk, twenty-six miles south of Moscow. To supervise construction of the new factory and then to manage its operation, Neidlinger hired Walter F. Dixon, an English-born civil engineer with extensive industrial experience, first in the United States and then for seven years in Russia.

Dixon proceeded cautiously, following the pattern that Singer had used in developing factories in Scotland and Germany. At first, the Podolsk factory made only the easily fabricated cast-iron stands for sewing machines, which were then assembled with imported machine heads. This permitted slow and careful development of a skilled workforce. Neidlinger and Dixon knew that Russia did not have the kind of skilled industrial workers available in the West. They brought experienced workers from Singer’s plant near Glasgow to begin operations. Each of these worked in tandem with a single Russian worker until the Russian knew how to do the work precisely, then each would take on another Russian. To guard against bringing in bad practices from other Russian factories, Dixon hired only peasants with no previous industrial experience. His approach was remarkably successful: The Podolsk plant achieved quality and productivity levels near those of its sister factories in New Jersey and Scotland and was, according to one official American survey, the only factory in Russia to approach Western standards.

In 1905, the Podolsk factory employed only 398 people. It was able to produce nearly 150,000 stands, coming close to satisfying the needs for the Russian market. The well-trained workforce then began making machine heads. The first 450 were ready by April. During 1907, the factory made 190,000 stands and shipped nearly 100,000 machine heads. In 1908, the Podolsk plant employed more than 1,300 workers and was by far the largest machinery producer in the Moscow region; in 1912, with nearly 3,000 employees, output reached 245,000 stands and 425,000 machine heads.

This extraordinary growth required almost continuous additions to the factory, leading to the acquisition of nearly forty adjacent acres to accommodate expansion. The scale of output created pressure in another quarter—the need for lumber for machine covers. In 1912, Dixon sought and eventually won approval to buy 186 square miles of forest in the Vetluga district, four hundred miles northeast of Podolsk.

The prodigious expansion of output at Podolsk did not, however, keep up with growth in sales of sewing machines in Russia. Russia was Singer’s largest growth market between 1902 and 1914. Sales grew threefold, jumping from 15 percent of Singer’s total sales to 30 percent, and Russia became the most important market after the United States. The man who directed this remarkable achievement was Albert Flohr, a German who had begun working for Neidlinger in the 1890’s and had taken control of Kompaniya Singer and the Russian marketing organization in 1902. Flohr was an uncommonly skillful leader, energetic, creative, and tough. By 1914, he headed a sales organization that was the largest nongovernmental organization in Russia. It had 27,000 employees supervised through fifty district offices and working out of nearly five thousand retail shops.


The growth and evolution of Singer’s Russian sales and manufacturing organization followed a pattern typical of many major American industrial firms. As firms grew, they often found that sales in their existing markets were growing slowly or were even stagnant; in order to sustain growth, they needed to develop new markets. Singer was unusual only in that it began this process so early, driven in significant measure by the disruptions the American Civil War brought to the company’s domestic market.

Singer quickly discovered how profitable foreign sales could be, and by the 1870’s it was committed to selling machines everywhere in the world that it could find markets. In some countries, such as Austria and Canada, it found that it had to do some local production, either to escape heavy tariffs or to protect patent rights, and thus established small foundries that made only stands. In larger markets such as Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, Singer recognized that it had to have local manufacturing capacity to retain its competitive position and sustain growth. Its American facilities simply could not meet the demand. Indeed, Singer’s first overseas production began on the initiative of the company’s London agent, who could not get enough machines from the United States following the Civil War. This evolution from developing a market to supporting that development with local manufacturing is a pattern that many other firms followed, including Ford and Eastman Kodak.

Singer’s Russian experience is interesting because of the virtual absence of government involvement. Historians have often characterized late Imperial Russia, especially under Finance Minister Sergey Yulyevich Witte Witte, Sergey Yulyevich in the 1890’s, as vigorously courting foreign investors and promoting industrialization. That picture finds absolutely no confirmation in the Singer experience, however, nor do Singer records suggest any significant problem with official venality, another common theme in histories of the period. The internal logic of Singer’s marketing strategy and its remarkable success in expanding Russian sales, rather than governmental encouragement, drove the decision to manufacture at Podolsk.

The second great multinational company active in Russia at the time was International Harvester. International Harvester Company Its principal predecessor, McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, had developed strong overseas sales but had not developed any overseas manufacturing capacity at the time of the 1902 merger that created International Harvester. Believing the American market to be largely saturated, the new company paid particular attention to developing foreign markets. By 1906, in response to the strength of some European competitors and the difficulty in competing effectively from a North American base, International Harvester had bought an old factory in Norrköping, Sweden. It soon followed up with factory acquisitions in France, Germany, and Russia. As with Singer, concerns about tariffs, licensing, and other issues sometimes helped focus attention on the question of the appropriateness of local manufacturing, but the fundamental driving force behind the development of local factories in Russia and elsewhere was the necessity of providing adequate quantities of goods to meet rapidly growing sales.

Unlike Singer, International Harvester did get deeply involved with the Russian government when it decided that it ought to develop manufacturing capacity in Russia. The prospect of government bounties for the manufacture of complex modern harvesting equipment and the possibility of facing stiff duties on imported machines led senior managers at International Harvester to open negotiations with top Russian officials. The company ultimately reaped no benefits from these negotiations; in fact, they distracted management from the critically important supervision needed to make the Russian factory a success. Ultimately, International Harvester’s experience in Russia confirmed the lessons of Singer’s history there: There was very little the Russian government would or even could do for a market-oriented investor. The challenge was to manage the marketing organization and its supporting manufacturing plant with skill and insight. Sewing machines
Manufacturing;sewing machines
Singer Manufacturing Company
Kompaniya Singer

Further Reading

  • Bissell, Don. The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Brunswick, Maine: Audenreed Press, 1999. Business history of the Singer Company from the perspective of company presidents since the organization’s founding. Chapter 7 discusses the establishment of the Russian factory. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • Carstensen, Fred V. American Enterprise in Foreign Markets: Studies of Singer and International Harvester in Imperial Russia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Detailed case studies of Singer and International Harvester (and its principal predecessor, McCormick Harvesting Machine Company) in Russia. Based on rich archival sources. Provides analysis of how these two transnational corporations developed.
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977. Authoritative history of the rise of hierarchical corporate management in American firms between 1850 and 1920. Provides excellent context for understanding the processes at both Singer and International Harvester.
  • Davies, Robert B. Peacefully Working to Conquer the World: Singer Sewing Machines in Foreign Markets, 1854-1920. New York: Arno Press, 1976. A good general description of Singer’s overseas development, including materials on Singer in Japan, China, India, South America, and Europe. Weak on the critical marketing developments of the 1870’s.
  • McKay, John. Pioneers for Profit: Foreign Entrepreneurship and Russian Industrialization, 1885-1913. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. One of the best summaries available of foreign enterprises active in Russia.
  • Wilkins, Mira. The Emergence of Multinational Enterprise: American Business Abroad from the Colonial Era to 1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Authoritative and comprehensive survey of American transnational companies operating prior to World War I.

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