Technological Object: Sewing Machine

In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the most technological inhabitants of Narnia turn out to be, unsurprisingly, the Beavers. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are impressed by the fine dam constructed by Mr Beaver, whose snug little house is filled with ‘gumboots and oilskins and hatchets and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets and sacks’. This scene, a welcome sight to the cold and frightened children, is complemented by another technological object:

The first thing Lucy noticed as she went in was a burring sound, and the first thing she saw was a kind-looking old she-beaver sitting in the corner with a thread in her mouth working busily at her sewing machine, and it was from it that the sound came. She stopped her work and got up as soon as the children came in.

In this strange world through the wardrobe, where it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’, this image of domestic activity is comfortingly ordinary. Its aural and visual details are succinctly observed: the onomatopoeic ‘burring’, and the thread in Mrs Beaver’s mouth (picked up by Pauline Baynes in her illustration) will be familiar to anyone who has used a sewing machine, or seen someone else ‘working busily’ at one. As the group makes frantic preparations to set out and rescue Edmund from the White Witch, Mrs Beaver considers whether she can take the machine with her: ‘I can’t abide the thought of that Witch fiddling with it’, she protests to Mr Beaver, ‘and breaking it or stealing it, likely as not.’ Of course she can’t take it with her, but in this brief comic moment what is implicitly acknowledged is that the sewing machine is an intricate and finely tuned instrument, which won’t respond well to casual ‘fiddling’. Soon after, Father Christmas tells Mrs Beaver that he has left her ‘a new and better sewing machine’ (he also promises to mend Mr Beaver’s dam and fit a new sluice-gate). In the light of these presents, the objects handed to Peter, Susan, and Lucy – a sword with a shield, a bow and arrows, an ivory horn, and a bottle of cordial – are also serious, practical implements: Father Christmas tells the children they are ‘tools, not toys’.

The origins of the sewing machine are complicated, and enmeshed in a web of patent wars. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, attempts in England had been made to simulate sewing by hand, and various European patents were issued for mechanized stitching devices in the early nineteenth century, none of which took off. It was on the other side of the Atlantic that the modern sewing machine eventually emerged. Not without controversy, most notably a court battle with Elias Howe who had invented the crucial lockstitch mechanism (whereby two threads, one above and one below the fabric, loop together in each stitch), Isaac Singer launched the first commercially successful sewing machine in the 1850s. Early models were hand-cranked, like Mrs Beaver’s, or powered by a foot treadle, but by the early twentieth century electric sewing machines were widespread; a 1906 advertisement for Edison Primary Batteries explained that they were suitable for ‘Stationary and Portable Gas Engines, Slot Machines, Fan Motors, Railroad and Mine Signals, Phonographs, Sewing Machines, X-Ray Outfits, Electro-Medical Use, Telephone, Fire and Burglar Alarm Systems, and all other classes of work’.

A booklet entitled Genius Rewarded; or The Story of the Sewing Machine, published in 1880 on behalf of the Singer Manufacturing Company, reveals the intertwining narratives of domestic and industrial revolutions with which the sewing machine was framed from an early stage. ‘The Telegraph and Steam-engine live daily in the broad blaze of public view; the Sewing Machine modestly hides itself away beneath three million of the nine million roofs of America’, it pronounced. In ephemeral literature from many of the major manufacturers, the discourse of the sewing machine is highly gendered, usually building on stereotypes of the frustrated wife who is so overwhelmed by her housekeeping duties that she has no time for leisure. Grover & Baker’s 1861 pamphlet A Home Scene, for example, tells the story of Mr Aston, who saves his wife from despair with the purchase of a sewing machine. Accompanied by testimonials from other satisfied (male) customers, the Astons’ life undergoes a transformation thanks to the agency of this invention: ‘there the Machine stood, an implement wholly domestic in its character; but its influence extended itself into the drawing-room, on the promenade, at the church, or other public places, and in the elegant and stylish wardrobe of the family’. Although there are occasional references to the success of sewing machines in overseas factories, military bases, and missions, where they were often operated by men, they are primarily associated with middle class women in their own homes.

The sewing machine was marketed as an instrument that would be perfectly respectable for middle class women to use. In 1890 the New Home Sewing Machine Company issued a small pamphlet, Shakespeare Boiled Down, consisting of summaries of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays interspersed with snippets about the commendable features of New Home machines. The cover illustration shows Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan – domestic upset can be avoided, the implication is, by investing in a sewing machine, which will also give women more time to engage in aspirational pursuits like reading or going to the theatre. The pictures of the New Home machines show them encased in elegant oak or walnut cabinets and tables, which fit harmoniously into the middle class interior. The cast iron bodies of these machines were often ornamented with floral designs which softened and distracted from the sharp mechanical parts, making the sewing machine into an aestheticized feature of domestic space.

‘I don’t know how we ever got along without that sewing machine. It does the work so easily’, says Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, one of her memoirs of pioneer life in the later nineteenth century. At the same time, however, the sewing machine became a target for polemic about the plight of garment workers in increasingly powerful industrial systems. Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (published anonymously in Punch in 1843), about a seamstress who ended up in the workhouse, was a popular text for social reformers. This poem turned the repetitive act of hand-stitching into a lament, but the noise made by the rapid motion of the sewing machine’s various moving parts lent itself even more readily to metrical song and verse. While George Pope Morris’s ‘Song of the Sewing Machine’ (c. 1860) gave voice to a resilient ‘Iron Needle-Woman’ who rejoices in ‘a song of cheerful measure’, the sewing machine sounded a much more sinister note to others. For the three orphaned girls in the tragic novella Mabel Ross, the sewing-girl (1866), for example, the purchase of a sewing machine initially offers hope. Its efficient noise expresses the optimism of Mabel, her younger sister Lilly, and their friend Hilda:

‘Click, click, click! It’s pretty, Mabel! Lilly loves to hear it, and to see the wheels run round so fast, – so fast!’ and little Lilly would clap her hands in delight as the bright new sewing-machine whirred its busy music; while, guided by Mabel’s fingers, the snowy linen received its neat rows of fairy stitches.

They are sure the sewing machine will save them from destitution, and Mabel is relieved that ‘the sound of her sewing-machine was a soothing lullaby of which her younger sister never wearied’. Inevitably, however, they are abused by greedy sweatshop owners and sink deeper into poverty. News reaches them that two other young workers have died of cold, one found slumped over her machine: ‘just as the oil of her sewing-machine was frozen, so was the blood in her veins still and dead’. Little Lilly falls very ill, and the song of the sewing machine becomes torturous: ‘I can’t bear its whir, whir, try as I may. It goes all the time to my back, sharp and throbbing’, she complains, and several chapters later, she is dead. The sewing machine’s tune was easily changed from one of liberation into one of oppression.

The weariness of the worker is also central to an ironic Frank Loesser song, ‘The Sewing Machine’, in The Perils of Pauline (1947), sung by Betty Hutton (playing the central figure, the actress Pearl White):

Ohhh, the sewing machine, the sewing machine
A girl’s best friend
If I didn’t have my sewing machine
I’d a-come to no good end
But a bobbin a bobbin and peddle a peddle
And wheel the wheel by day
So by night I feel so weary
That I never get out to play

Although the song is performed with comic effect, the sewing machine is disturbingly ambiguous: it saves a girl from ‘no good end’, but as the song’s relentless verses emphasise, in doing so it also traps her.

When Charles Dickens meditated on the new ‘iron seamstress’ in Household Words, he acknowledged the interdependency of the human and the sewing machine in terms which blur the distinction between the two: ‘She certainly requires somebody to be constantly looking after her. She does not even hold her work herself. A servant must be in attendance to guide the cloth forward as the stitches are made in it, causing the sewing to be straight, angular, or circular, at his pleasure’. This transmutation is, it seems, about to be complete: last year the Pentagon announced funds for a project to create robots that can operate sewing machines, potentially removing the flesh-and-blood seamstress from the garment industry altogether.

—Lucy Razzall

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