Artifact Corner: Victorian Sewing Machine

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at an early sewing machine that we have in our collections. Our model of sewing machine was made in the mid 1850’s. It is set on a wooden table, and the means of propulsion is by a foot treadle. The machine itself has beautifully hand painted flowers and vines adorning it. The table has one small drawer for storing supplies. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of the sewing machine.

Prior to the invention of the sewing machine, all garments were made by hand. The oldest sewing needle ever discovered comes from Serbia and dates to about 60,000 BCE. It was made of a bird bone, which is ideal due to how small and light weight bird bones are. The down side to using bird bones is that they are fragile. Other needles that have been found dating to 45,000 BCE have been made from ivory, camel bone, deer bone, and whale bone. Humans started using metal sewing needles around 7,000 BCE, and used copper, iron, and bronze needles. Metal needles are far stronger than bone needles, and therefore can last longer. Metal needles are also great for working with more dense and heartier materials, like animal hides and leathers.

For almost all of human history, if you wanted a garment, you either had to sew it yourself, or have another person hand sew it. In the late 18th Century a British cabinet maker named Thomas Saint created the first sewing machine to create a chain stitch. He designed it to be used on leather, and mostly in the manufacturing of shoes. It is not known if he ever actually made the machine, he had his invention drawn up and patented, but nothing survives in the record about whether or not the machine ever actually existed. In 1830 a French tailor named Barthélemy Thimonnier patented and made the first mechanical sewing machine. This machine also used a hooked needle to create a chain stitch. Unlike Thomas Saint, he not only made his first mechanical sewing machine, but he also put it into production. Thimonnier invented his machines to produce uniforms for the French army. Tailors in France were afraid that the machines would put them out of business, and around 200 of them rioted and destroyed all of Thimonnier’s machines. But, the genie was out of the bottle, and the sewing machine would soon be all of the world. In the United States by 1860, over 110,000 sewing machines were manufactured and sold. Soon sewing machine would be affordable enough that the average person could own one. This was a huge time saver, primarily for women. Darning and mending a families clothing was time consuming when doing it by hand. A sewing machine would dramatically cut down on that task, allowing women more time to pursue other interests.

Our sewing machine was made by D. Corkins from Troy, NY, again in the mid 1850’s. We’ve had some trouble locating information about this manufacturer, but according to the Smithsonian Institution, that’s not surprising. In the mid 1800’s, there were so many sewing machine makers, and so few of them lasted for any length of time, that there are many “one off” makers out there. Our machine is in good condition, but not currently in working order. It is missing it’s belts, and would likely need to be professionally restored before we would try to use it. It is a beautiful example of early Victorian sewing machines, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. If you’d like to see it in person, we have it on display this season, and we are open for tours on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 3. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot