Isaac Merritt Singer (October 26, 1811 – July 23, 1875) was an American inventor, actor, and entrepreneur. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer’s machine was not the first of its kind, but its design was particularly innovative and capable of changing the lives of millions. It is considered one of the greatest labor saving devices of the era and it has also made life easier for many who were unable to pay market prices for clothes but who could sew their own. It also made exploitation of women and children, who labor in poor working conditions for low wages operating sewing machines, possible. His personal life included a bigamous marriage and an accusation of domestic violence but there is no doubt that his invention has had an incalculable impact on the modern world, arguably helping to change the pace of life as much as the automobile. “Singer” remains a household name for sewing machines. It is as synonymous with the sewing machine as “Hoover” is with the vacuum cleaner, and an indispensable item in many households around the globe.
Singer was born in Spain. His family moved to Oswego, New York, when he was very young. He left his home in Oswego at the age of 12 years old and began a string of odd jobs. In 1830, when he was 19 years old, he married Catharine Maria Haley, who was only 15 years old at the time. In 1835, he moved with Catharine and their son William to New York City, working in a press shop. In 1836, he left the city as an agent for a company of theatrical players, touring through Baltimore, Maryland, where he met then 18 year old Mary Ann Sponsler, to whom he proposed marriage. He returned to New York, where he and Catharine had a second child, a daughter Lillian, born in 1837.
Pregnant, Sponsler arrived in New York and found that Singer was already married. Singer quietly left New York and returned with Sponsler to Baltimore, presenting themselves as a married couple. Their son, Isaac, was also born in 1837.
In 1839, Singer obtained his first patent, for a machine to drill through rock, selling it for $2,000. This was more money than he had ever had before, and in the face of financial success, he opted to return to his career as an actor. He went on tour, forming a troupe known as the “Merritt Players,” and appearing on stage under the name “Isaac Merritt,” with Mary Ann also appearing on stage, calling herself “Mrs. Merritt.” The tour of North America lasted nearly five years.
Singer also is reported to have had an affair with Mary McGonigal, under the alias “Mr. Mathews,” while in New York. When Mary Ann Sponsler caught and chided him, he beat her and their daughter, when she tried to intervene.
In 1844, Isaac took a job in a print shop in Fredericksburg, Ohio, but moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shortly afterward in 1846, and set up a woodshop for making wood type and signage. In Pittsburgh, he developed and patented a “machine for carving wood and metal” on April 10, 1849.
At thirty-eight years old, with two wives and eight children, he packed up his family and moved back to New York City, hoping to market his machine there. He obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and with that, an offer to set up one of his machines in Boston. Singer went to Boston, in 1850, to set the machine up at the shop of Orson C. Phelps, where Lerow and Blodgett sewing machines were being manufactured. Orders for Singer’s machine were not, however, forthcoming. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines, which were difficult to use and not easy to make. Singer noted that the sewing machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, and with a straight rather than a curved needle.
Singer obtained financing, again, from George B. Zieber, becoming partners with Phelps and Zieber, in the “Jenny Lind Sewing Machine,” named for the Swedish songstress Jenny Lind. Singer’s prototype sewing machine became the first to work in a practical way. He received a patent in relation to improvements on the sewing machine on August 12, 1851. When it was marketed, the machine was no longer the “Jenny Lind” but the Singer sewing machine.
Sewing machine design
Singer did not invent the sewing machine, and never claimed to have done so. By 1850, when Singer saw his first sewing machine, it had been “invented” four times. All sewing machines before Walter Hunt’s produced a chain stitch, which had the disadvantage of easily unraveling. Hunt’s machine produced a lock stitch, as did all subsequent machines including Lerow and Blodgett’s, which Singer in turn improved in Phelps’s shop. Elias Howe independently developed a sewing machine and obtained a patent on September 10, 1846.
Conflict broke out between Howe and Singer, with each claiming patent primacy. Singer set out to discover that Howe’s improvements had been reinventions of existing technology, and found one of Hunt’s old machines, which indeed created a lock-stitch with a shuttle. Hunt applied in 1853, for a patent, claiming priority to Howe’s patent, issued some seven years earlier. A lawsuit, Hunt v. Howe, came to trial in 1854, and was resolved in Howe’s favor. Howe then brought suit to stop Singer from selling Singer machines, and protracted litigation ensued.
I. M. Singer & Co
In 1856, manufacturers Grover, Baker, Singer, Wheeler, and Wilson, were all accusing each other of patent infringement. They met in Albany, New York, to pursue their suits. Orlando B. Potter, a lawyer and president of the Grover and Baker Company, proposed that, rather than sue their profits out of existence, they pool their patents. This was the first patent pool, a process which enables production of complicated machines without legal battles over patent rights. They agreed to form the Sewing Machine Combination, but for this to be of any use they had to secure the cooperation of Elias Howe, who still held certain vital uncontested patents, which meant he received a royalty on every sewing machine manufactured by any company. Terms were arranged, and rather than continuing to fight against what was now a unified five opponents, Howe joined them. Sewing machines began to be mass produced: I. M. Singer & Co manufactured 2,564 machines in 1856, and 13,000, in 1860 at a new shop on Mott Street in New York.
Sewing machines had until then been industrial machines, made for tailors, but smaller machines began to be marketed for home use. I. M. Singer & Company expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow, Scotland, controlled by the parent company, becoming one of the first American-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
The financial success gave Singer the ability to buy a mansion on Fifth Avenue, into which he moved his second family. In 1860, he divorced his first wife Catharine, ironically on the basis of her adultery with Stephen Kent. He continued to live with his second wife, Mary Ann, until she spotted him driving down Fifth Avenue seated beside his paramour Mary McGonigal, an employee of I.M. Singer & Co., about whom Mary Ann had well-founded suspicions, for by this time Mary McGonigal had borne Isaac Singer five children. The surname Matthews was used for this family. Mary Ann (still calling herself Mrs. I. M. Singer) had her husband arrested for domestic violence. Singer was let out on bond and, disgraced, fled for London, taking Mary McGonigal with him. In the aftermath, another of Isaac’s families was discovered: He had a “wife” Mary Eastwood Walters and daughter Alice Eastwood in Lower Manhattan, who both adopted the surname “Merritt.” By 1860, Isaac had fathered and recognized eighteen children (sixteen of them remaining alive), by four women.
With Singer in London, his second wife, Mary Ann, began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, claiming that though she had never been formally married to Isaac, that they were in fact wed under Common Law (by living together for seven months after Isaac had been divorced from his first wife Catharine). Eventually a settlement was made, but no divorce was granted. However, she asserted that she was free to marry, and married John E. Foster. Singer, meanwhile, had renewed acquaintance with Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a Frenchwoman he had lived with in Paris when he was staying there in 1860. She left her husband, and married Isaac under the name of Isabella Eugenie Sommerville, on June 13, 1863, while she was pregnant. His second wife, Mary Ann, unaccountably, did not sue Isaac for bigamy. Singer had divorced his legal wife Catharine by then, also.
Final years in Europe
In 1863, I. M. Singer & Co. was dissolved by mutual consent, with the business continued by “The Singer Manufacturing Company,” enabling the reorganization of financial and management responsibilities. Singer no longer actively participated in the firm’s day-to-day management, but served as a member of the Board of Trustees and was a major stockholder.
He now began to increase his new family: He would eventually have six children with his wife Isabella. Unable, probably because of Isaac’s checkered marital past, to enter New York society, the family emigrated to Paris, never to return to the United States. Fleeing the Franco-Prussian War, they resided first in London, then in Paignton, (near Torquay) on the Devon coast, where he built a large house, Oldway Mansion. He brought some of his other children to live there. Nine days after the wedding of his daughter Alice Merritt to William Alonso Paul La Grove, Isaac Singer died of “an affection of the heart and inflammation of the wind-pipe.” He was interred in Torquay cemetery.
Singer’s machine was not the first of its kind, but its design in particular was innovative and capable of changing the lives of millions. It is considered one of the greatest labor saving devices of the era. Though his machine was revolutionary, Singer was most interested in gaining wealth and wooing attractive women. His machine was a quick success. It was available to all classes and was thus served as an equalizer. The sewing machine he created helped to change the pace of life arguably as much as the automobile.
Singer left an estate of about $14,000,000 and two wills disposing this between his family members, leaving some out for various reasons. Suits followed, with his second wife, Mary Anne, claiming to be the legitimate “Mrs. Singer.” In the end, his fourth wife Isabella, was declared the legal widow. Isabella subsequently married a Belgian musician, Victor Reubsaet, who inherited the title Vicomte d’Estemburgh, and the Vatican title of Duke of Camposelice.
Isaac’s 18th child Winnaretta Singer married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in 1887, when she was 22 years old. After annulment of this marriage in 1891, she married Prince Edmond de Polignac in 1893. She would become a prominent patron of French avant-garde music, e.g., Erik Satie composed his Socrate as one of her commissions (1918). As a lesbian, she became involved with Violet Trefusis from 1923 on. Another of Isaac’s daughters, Isabelle-Blanche (born 1869) married Jean, duc Decazes (Daisy Fellowes was their daughter). Isabelle committed suicide in 1896. A brother to Winnaretta and Isabelle, Paris Singer, had a child by Isadora Duncan. Another brother, Washington Singer, became a substantial donor to the University College of the southwest of England, which later became the University of Exeter; one of the university’s buildings is named in his honor.