Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875) had a dream: to become a great actor on the stage, performing Shakespeare to accolades. For almost the first forty years of his life, he failed to achieve any success in this pursuit. Continually tinkering with machines, he just wanted to be rich. He finally struck gold with a workable sewing machine in the 1850s, in large part due to the efforts of the partner he hated. The machine, one of the most important inventions of the century, changed lives around the globe. Along the way, Singer also fathered twenty-four children with five different women. His story might come close to the Oscar Wilde insult, “He has no enemies, but he is intensely disliked by his friends.” Here is a brief version of his tortuous tale and that of his sewing machine.
Isaac Singer was born the youngest son to Adam and Ruth Singer in upstate Pittstown, New York, in 1811. His German father appears to have been Jewish, his mother Quaker. When Isaac was ten, living in Oswego, his mother divorced his father and left for good, which may have affected how Isaac viewed women. When he was twelve, the boy did not get along with his new stepmother and ran away to nearby Rochester, an Erie Canal boomtown. Singer stayed there for seven years, at the age of eighteen becoming an apprentice at a mechanic’s shop. Later bragging that he mastered the art in four months and went to school in the winter, Singer was a talented mechanic.
However, Isaac Singer was not satisfied with the life of a humble mechanic. Despite the theater being considered low class, even banned in some towns, he pictured himself a Shakespearian actor. In 1830 the eighteen-year-old talked his way into one of the many traveling theatrical troupes, beginning an itinerant life, moving from town to town. Described as being “a fine-looking youth, tall, handsome, blond, and cheery,” Singer’s favorite role was King Richard. Singer was always broke, taking odd jobs to stay alive.
Late in 1830, nineteen-year-old Isaac married fifteen-year-old Catherine Haley. The two had two children and were technically married for the next thirty years. In about 1836, the family moved to New York City, where their children were raggedly dressed and ran in the streets.
Yet Isaac was soon on the road with another theatrical troupe. As a newspaper said, “His intimacy with the female part of the population was severely commented upon, and much sympathy was expressed for his wife.”
In Baltimore, he met the beautiful young Mary Ann Sponsler. Never telling her or her family that he was married, he became engaged to Mary Ann and promised to marry her. Isaac and his real wife Catherine were soon separated and she left to live with her parents, while he and Mary Ann Sponsler moved to New York. There, in 1837, they had the first of their ten children, two of whom died at birth. Isaac always referred to Mary Ann as Mrs. Singer and everyone knew her as his wife, which she was not.
Isaac hit the road and acted whenever possible, but kept inventing to make a little money and maybe strike it rich. In 1839, he invented a rock drill that was used in the building the canals then popular, and sold the patent for $2,000, which was quickly spent. Isaac, Mary Ann, and their children then moved to Ohio, then to Pittsburgh, where he invented a carving machine that could carve the wooden type used by printers at the time.
By 1849, the thirty-seven-year-old Isaac had moved the family back to New York, hoping to make his fortune from the type-carving machine. In that era, most successful people were already midway through their careers by that age, but Isaac was still seeking his fortune.
Philadelphia bookseller and publisher George Zieber and his friends agreed to loan Isaac $1,700 to keep working on the carving machine. Looking for a place to make the machine, they set up in a Boston machine shop owned by Orson Phelps. Despite Singer’s best efforts, the carving machine did not succeed. Wooden type was beginning to be replaced by metal type, so the market for his invention was shrinking. Yet Zieber, though running out of money, continued to finance the impoverished Singer, now with two “wives” and eight children.
Phelps’ machine shop had started manufacturing sewing machines. While first invented in Europe, the sewing guilds, predecessors of trade unions, wanted to protect their jobs and prevented the adoption of sewing machines. A series of Americans had made major advances in making a practical, working machine, but none were sufficiently reliable or commercially successful.
Singer’s partners asked him to see if he could improve the ones Phelps was making. At first, Isaac was uninterested in getting involved in such “a paltry business.” He went on to say, “What a devilish machine! You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing!”
Zieber and Phelps convinced Singer to take a look at the machine to see if he could improve upon it. He said, “I don’t give a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I am after.” In 1850, the three men formed a partnership, with Zieber putting up the money, Singer doing the inventing, and Phelps the manufacturing. Their agreement provided for a three-way split of all revenues and equal ownership in any patent they could secure.
Singer and Zieber worked day and night on the sewing machine, finally succeeding in making a working, reliable, well-designed sewing machine which incorporated many innovations, including a better layout of the machine and improved type of needle. By 1851, they were out advertising and selling their machines, aiming for clothing factories and rich people. Singer’s bombastic, theatrical personality made for a good show as he sang “The Song of the Shirt” and promoted like P.T. Barnum.
Within two years, the partners were showing their machine at exhibitions in Europe and winning awards. The new sewing machines reduced the time required to make a men’s shirt from fourteen hours and twenty-six minutes to one hour and sixteen minutes. Most analysts consider the sewing machine as one of the most important inventions of the nineteenth century. Yet there were many competing makes. Singer and the earlier sewing machine inventors fought continuous court battles over patents.
At $125 each ($4,000 in 2022 dollars), when the average family made at most $500 per year, the machines were expensive and slow to catch on. The partners became discouraged. They advertised for a new investor, offering one-fourth ownership for $1,000, but there were no takers. Isaac Singer offered to sell out his interests for $1,500, but his good friend Zieber talked him out of it.
Without any alternatives other than giving up, the men kept pressing ahead, trying to sell their sewing machines. Phelps did sell out to a third man, but the new fellow did not get along with the other partners, and Singer and Zieber bought him out. They then owned the entire company. But when Zieber went to see Singer to formalize their verbal agreement, Singer flew into a rage and denied that Zieber had such a big share coming to him. Zieber later related, “If I had been suddenly condemned to be shot I could not have been more stunned.”
In the meanwhile, Singer had linked up with lawyer Edward Clark to work on their patent fights. Clark was two months younger than Isaac. With Clark’s legal skills and Singer’s obstinacy, they soon maneuvered to force Zieber out of the company.
Zieber was ill, and Singer told him that the doctor said Zieber would probably not survive (which was a lie). Concerned about paying back the money he had borrowed to finance the company, Clark and Singer bought him out for $6,000. Going forward, Singer and Clark would be (financially) equal partners. Zieber understandably hated both men once he realized what had been done to him.
Over time, Edward Clark turned out to be a far better businessman than anyone expected, as he turned his efforts to management rather than lawyering.
The business gradually grew. In 1856, the Singer company made 2,564 machines, up from 883 the year before.
In 1856, the three largest sewing machine makers, Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and Singer were in court in Albany fighting their patent battles. But one of the lawyers got them all together and convinced them to pool and share their patents. Thus was created the first “patent pool,” a technique that was later used in automobiles, movies, and radio. They could all use the patents by paying the pool fifteen dollars for each machine they made, and let others use the patents for similar fees. The companies would split the profits of the pool. The “sewing machine wars” came to an end.
By 1858, Singer’s production reached 3,591, third in the industry behind Wheeler and Wilson at 7,978 and Grover and Baker at 5,070. With Singer’s publicity and Clark’s management skills, Singer sold 13,000 machines in 1860, passed up the other two companies by 1867, and in 1870 made 127,833 machines.
In the interim, Isaac Singer became wealthy and continued his wayward ways. The family moved to fancier digs. Mary Ann, “Mrs. Singer,” we well-known in the fanciest stores in town. Isaac had the largest carriage in town built, replete with seating for dozens, with beds for the kids and a toilet.
Isaac’s real wife, Catherine, living in New York on Singer’s nickel, finally tired of their arrangement and she and Isaac were divorced (probably Isaac’s idea, to squeeze her out of future profits).
Mary Ann then believed Isaac was free to marry her, but of course he had no interest in such an arrangement. She agreed to continue living the farce, having little choice. But when, in 1860, she was riding in her carriage when she passed Singer and one of his mistresses in another carriage, she screamed, drawing public attention. Partner Edward Clark was horrified, concerned it would hurt the business he was running and building. It turned out that Isaac actually had four families, all living in Manhattan, with a total of sixteen children!
Accused of bigamy and adultery, even more scandalous then than today, Isaac Singer fled to England. There he met and actually married yet another woman, the nineteen-year-old Isabella Boyer from France. Isabella was reportedly the model for the Statue of Liberty. Between 1863 and 1870, the couple produced six more offspring. While Singer eventually returned to New York, he built a fabulous home in England.
(It is worth noting that Singer apparently loved all of his children, never disavowed any of them, and included all of them in his will, except one who had upset him.)
Despite Isaac’s shenanigans, Edward Clark continued to build the Singer company. He proved to be one of the outstanding business strategists of his era. Realizing the limitations of the industrial sewing machine market, he decided to try to reach more housewives. Given the high price of $125 each, he developed a program where people could rent the machines with a small monthly payment, and own them after a period of time. This was the first use of “installment plans” by a major American company. Consumer credit was born.
Clark tried using independent sales agents across the nation, but too often they also sold competitors’ models. So he switched to using only people who represented Singer exclusively, men who could demonstrate the machines. The company opened hundreds of offices across the states, one of the earliest “retail chains.”
Both Clark and Singer understood the potential of Europe. They tried licensing their patents to local manufacturers but were again disappointed in the results. The machines made under that system were not up to their standards. So they set up a big factory in England and opened offices and hired agents, ultimately around the world. Russia became one of their biggest markets. The Singer company was thus, alongside Chicago’s McCormick Reaper works (later International Harvester), the first American company to prosper internationally.
The conservative Edward Clark and flamboyant Isaac Singer patently hated each other. When they had to pick one of them to run the business, they said to each other, “You can’t be President if I can’t be President” and selected a young man who worked in the office. (Clark finally assumed the Presidency after Singer died.)
Nonetheless, Singer’s showmanship still came in handy. The firm held a huge ball in New York, inviting all their customers and employees to free food and entertainment, while seamstresses demonstrated sewing machines on the stage. Such an affair, open to the hoi polloi, was unheard-of.
In 1875. Isaac Merritt Singer died at the age of sixty-three, leaving an estate of $13 million (over $300 million in 2022 dollars). He was buried in England. His wealthy children married into royalty and lived around the states and abroad. One son even fathered a child with famed dancer Isadora Duncan (of course they were not married).
Seven years later, Edward Clark died, leaving an estate of $25 million plus substantial real estate in New York City. His pet project, the Dakota apartment building, was not quite finished – Clark left that property to his twelve-year-old grandson. Later occupants of the prestigious building near Central Park (now a co-op) have included Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Connie Chung, Roberta Flack, Judy Garland, Boris Karloff, John Lennon, John Madden, Joe Namath, and Jason Robards. (The co-op board rejected Billy Joel and Carly Simon.)
The children of both men became philanthropists and art collectors.
After the Founders
Efficiency in production allowed the machines to drop in price to $100, then $60, then $30, and demand exploded. Company production exceeded 500,000 in 1880. The first mass consumer market for a machine had been created by Singer and especially Clark.
By the early twentieth century, the company was making more than two million sewing machines a year, over half of them in England. Estimates place Singer’s market share at 80% of global production, from 1880 through at least 1920 and beyond. Over one thousand different models for industrial and home use were offered.
To show the company’s great power, in 1900 they began the project to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. New York’s Singer building, at over 600 feet, opened in 1908. It only held the tallest honor for a year, until the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company built its Manhattan tower. The Singer Building was demolished in 1969.
At the same time, the Singer company built a headquarters for their Russian operation in St. Petersburg. Since the city had limits on how high a building could be built, the architects crowned it with a glass globe. Before the Communist Revolution, the building briefly served as the American embassy. Today it remains a famous landmark and home to one of the world’s great bookstores, Dom Knigi (“House of the Book”).
By the 1920s, Singer had 1,700 stores in the United States and 4,300 overseas, supported by 60,000 salesmen.
The Singer company continued to focus on sewing machines through the 1950s, with 3,500 stores and a 40% market share in the United States. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, management became caught up in the conglomerate fad that swept corporate America. Singer moved into calculating equipment, buying the Friden company. The company also pioneered automated point-of-sale cash register systems, with Sears being the key initial customer. Singer expanded into the aerospace and defense industries.
In 1966 sales crossed one billion dollars, and three years later, two billion. The newly diversified company, with only one-third of sales (but all of the profits) coming from sewing machines, had over 100,000 employees.
At the same time, European competitors Pfaff, Bernina, and Necchi were on the rise, along with Japan’s Brother. Gradually, the company lost interest in sewing machines, spinning that business out as a separate entity in 1986. The sewing machine operation changed hands, went bankrupt, and is today named SVP Worldwide, owned by private equity firm Platinum Equity. SVP also owns the Pfaff and Husqvarna brands. Platinum Equity, founded and run by billionaire Tom Gores, also owns the Detroit Pistons NBA team. Despite all the ups and downs, Singer still remains an important maker of sewing machines (in Vietnam and China) and one of the world’s best-known brands.
The rest of the Singer company, without sewing machines, was gradually broken into pieces, sold off, and disappeared.
And so ends the sordid saga of a man everyone hated, but whose company led the way for today’s globalized, credit-card, chain store business world.