The Western Electric Sewing Machine

A brief history of the first sewing machines

| December 1999

  • Western Electric Sewing Machine
    A patent drawing for Elias Howe Jr's Western Electric sewing machine.
    Elias Howe, Jr.

  • Western Electric Sewing Machine

Editor's Note: In the September 1999 issue of Farm Collector, Ralph Look, Wichita, Kan., wrote to ask for information on the Western Electric sewing machine. His query was answered by representatives of the Sharon D. Ansted-Williams Memorial Library. 

More than 150 years ago, on Sept. 10, 1846, a patent was granted to Elias Howe Jr. for the sewing machine. No invention has so touched the everyday life of mankind like the sewing machine. The clothes that we wear, many of the furnishings in our homes, even the automobiles that we drive, have in some way benefited by this marvelous invention.

Before the sewing machine, few people had more than one change of clothes. Sewn by hand, tailor-made clothes were reserved for the wealthy, and properly fitting clothes were a luxury. Shoes were held together with pegs, and there was no "left" or "right" shoe. The shoemaker was known as the cobbler, a term that illustrates the difficulty of producing a quality product.

The first sewing machines were operated by hand. The foot treadle – Isaac Singer's innovation – would dramatically improve the operation of the machine.

In 1885, Charles Cretors, the inventor of the popcorn machine, advertised a small steam engine suitable to operate a sewing machine.

Thomas Edison was among the first to advocate the use of electricity to operate machinery for the home. "Washing machines, cream separators, and sewing machines could be coupled to an electric motor and would reduce the labor of the servant and home maker," he wrote. By the end of the nineteenth century, Westinghouse Electric offered a small electric motor that could be attached to a sewing machine.