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Prima Donna Sewing Machine

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                Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide. Over the last two decades Alex has been painstakingly building this website to encourage enthusiasts around around the Globe.


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Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.



The Prima Donna Sewing Machine
Whight & Mann

Geo Whight & Co

The Prima Donna circa 1870

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The Prima Donna sewing machine is one of the rare beauties that we collectors quietly drool over. Few exist today, perhaps as few as 20 are known to survive. I only have one in my Sewalot Collection. I missed one at Christies machine auction in the 1990's by a whisker. Please be aware that there is also a Prima Donna sewing machine from the 1950's but what were are talking about here is the Victorian machine.

Little is known about the company that made the Prima Donna. Let's see what we do know.

the pretty and delicate Prima Donna was capable of a good stitch through most materials.

The Prima Donna was built by a a Suffolk engineering firm based in the busy trading port of Ipswich. As a kid my uncle would take me around Ipswich filling up cigarette and bubble gum machines for which he had the licence. Millions of old pennies and coins would be collected and taken to the bank for changing into pound notes, then to the pub where I would quietly sit sipping Tizer and eating a packet of crisps sprinkled with the blue sachets of salt that came in every pack. On Saturday afternoons we would go to the wrestling matches and watch Big Daddy and Giant Haystack beat each other to pulp with much applause and cheering from the old ladies that had brought their knitting!

Now, enough reminiscing and back to our sewing machine.

The firm that built the stunning Prima Donna were Whight & Mann. George or Geo Whight may have started as early as 1859 or 1860 making, repairing and importing sewing machines.

Whight & Mann were manufactures, importers and agents. They imported several machines from German companies. The business was based near one of Britain's busiest docks and by the railway, they were in the perfect place for import and trade.


Whight & Mann

Patentees & Manufacturers

The Gipping Foundry & Works were at New Station Road, Ipswich

12 & 143 Holborn Bars, London

At the Gipping Works they also had showrooms and displays of their machines. The first model which carried the Whight & Mann label was the Excelsior sold between 1862 and 1877. In 1865 came the Star machine and then in the Alberta sold between 1868 and 1876. The Princess sold between 1869 and 1871 but there is a little more interesting info on the Princess at the bottom of this page.

The best sewing machine ever offered to the public! Wow they knew how to exaggerate in those days. I wonder if they sold hair tonic as well! Advert circa 1870's

In 1869 out came the machine we are concerned with. The Prima Donna. It was sold from 1869 until 1876. It may have been superseded by a New Family Prima Donna similar to the Singer 12k, I have never seen one so I cannot be sure of this.

The Whight & Mann New England machine probably bought from James Weir or Chas Raymond, circa 1870.

In 1875 the Whight & Mann Little Darling sewing machine was born. 1876 was a good year for Whight & Mann winning there only gold medal at the International Manchester Exhibition.  

Charles Raymond of Canada secured Whight & Mann of Holborn, London, as his London agents and sold through them his chain-stitch. Whight & Mann had sold the beautiful Prima Donna sewing machine. He sold his standard Raymond chain-stitch machine to Whight & Mann infuriating Weir who was just around the corner.

The tight-stitch Excelsior, perfect for embroidery and darning. Typical of the American Pillar/ Hydrant machines of the 1860's

The Whight & Mann Excelsior circa 1863.It's a needle feed machine and pulls the material from left to right.  If you look at the sewing foot you will notice it is the opposite way to normal and look at the needle bar that swings, pulling the work with the needle. The operator sits at the end of the machine rather than the front as usual. The later Whight New Excelsior was a lockstitch rather than this chain stitch early model

Geo Whight Excelsior sewing machine

The much later Excelsior sewing machine. This model was imported from Germany, probably made by Haid & Neu and sold via Newton Wilson & Co to George Whight of 143 Holborn Bars, London. Circa 1870's. Whight may have split from Mann and continued selling bought-in sewing machines for a while.

During their period of expansion showrooms and retail offices were set up in London. These were at  122 Holborn Hill, London from 1862 to1863. From 1864 to 1876 they moved to 143 Holborn-Bars, London.And then finally from 1876 to 1877 they were at 12 Holborn-Bars, London.

The best servant for every home!


In 1878 the business became George Whight & Co up until its final closure around 1884. George worked from 39 The Buttermarket, Ipswich. During this time they kept the Prima Donna and the New Excelsior Supplied by the German company Junker & Ruh also the Columbia Supplied by Junker & Ruh and the Duchess which was a small chain stitch to compete with the Willcox & Gibbs machines.


Note the chainstitch Weir/Raymond advert at just 2 guineas.

Interestingly just up the road from Ipswich, in Attleborough, Norfolk was an iron mongers, Horace C. Johnson, who sold an identical machine to the Prima Donna for several years from 1879 to 1884. It is a possibility that as Whight's company was failing he sought to sell his machines through other outlets, agents and wholesalers. Like the Jones Sewing Machine Company who often put different makers names on their own sewing machines.


Whight might have done the same with is Prima Donna machine. It was a popular lockstitch and an easy product to sell. Very similar to the Little Wanzer from Hamilton in Canada. The Little Wanzer sold over a million models.

The price list circa 1870. Note the heavy duty boot machine called the No2.

Also in 1883 just a year before the end of Whight's business the Pitt Brothers in Liversedge, Yorkshire, produced an identical Prima Donna machine supposedly from their own foundry! They called it the Princess. Was this coincidence or just a bit of badge engineering which was commonplace in the Victorian era before the Trades Description Act. The only other possibility is that the Pitt Brothers bought the rights and equipment to carry on making the Prima Donna and Princess sewing machines after Whight had finally closed his business. 

The Geo Whight Excelsior sewing machine supplied by Newton Wilson.

Interestingly I have just come across an Excelsior sewing machine clearly marked Geo Whight & Co Holborn Bars, London. It even has its own trademark and may have been George Whight continuing under his own name selling bought in sewing machines from Newton Wilson & Co.

An early advert from Whight & Mann. Prolific adverts kept the company running for many years. Note how the lady is sitting at the end of the machine!

 will do all the work required of a family in the most superior of style. It is extremely simple and so easy to learn that even the servant will become familiar with the briefest of instruction. Unequalled for Beauty and Simplicity of Construction. It will sew any material, from the finest muslin to  heavy leather.


The Princess machine of 1870. This is the first woodcut picture of this rare machine on the Internet so far!

I believe that around 1884 George Whight retired from the sewing world though some say he continued until 1888.

Notice the single paw foot supporting the plate and the pretty scrolled base.


  Well that's it, not a lot for Prima Donna but all I know so far. I do hope you enjoyed my work. I spend countless hours researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought: alexsussex@aol.com. Also if you have any information to add I would love to put it on my site.

News Flash!

All Alex's books are now on: www.crowsbooks.com

Both books, Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
 are now available instantly on Kindle and iPad.


Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires

Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.

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