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The Sewing Machine Combination

Sewing Machine Cartel

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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.



Now this is a bit tricky to explain without giving you a little of the background so hang on to your boots here we go.

During the 1850's sewing machine production was severely crippled by a handful of powerful men. Production of the worlds first mass-produced machines was being stopped by constant court cases.

Money was being lost in time-wasting litigation and evolution came to a halt. Evolution of the sewing machine and all the trades it touched.

The main instigator of the litigation was Elias Howe, closely followed by Isaac Singer. Although Isaac was never credited with any major invention in his part of the sewing machine history he was sneaky enough to buy up any patents that he could to protect his market.

Elias Howe had established in the American courts that it was he who had patented the first lock-stitch shuttle machine and needle with an eye at the bottom end. In reality his patent machine never worked and only after modification did it mange to stitch at all.

This did not matter as he owned two incredibly important patents in regards to the manufacture of sewing machines. The needle and shuttle. Now the law is the law however wrong in this instant it was. Howe had not invented the sewing machine but he had patents and patents could be protected. His fanciful meandering reasons of how he came about his invention are pretty far-fetched. His idea of the needle with the point at the bottom end came to him after a dream where Native Indians are firing arrows. One flies through a wigwam and pulls a thread with it, Yeah right!

Most likely he had seen the multiple machines that were around for years. he may even have seen Hunt's machine. I will explain about Walter Hunt in a moment.

Isaac Singer tried on many occasions to break Howe's patents even producing earlier sewing machines than Howe's. In the end this did not matter as it was the patents that counted. Unfortunately some early sewing machine patents were misfiled so Singer lost his case.

In court Walter Hunt, backed by Singer, produced conclusive evidence of his sewing machine invented many years before Howe's in 1834-5. The machine did use a similar needle and shuttle. Again it did not sew well but that did not matter it was the principle that was important. Howe owned the patents and silly old Walter Hunt never bothered to patent his machine.

Howe won his cases one after another. He became the all-powerful litigator. Howe not only sued anyone who made sewing machines but also people who bought them. He also did it very publicly advertising his wins in the papers to scare away potential sewing machine customers.

Right or wrong Howe was busy suing anyone who dared make a sewing machine without paying him royalties.

Isaac was doing the same and then we throw two more inventors into the pot. One was Allen B. Wilson who invented and patented two brilliant ideas, the four-motion feed and the rotary hook. The other was William O. Grover of the Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Co. He patented loads of stuff including the double elastic chain stitch, well something like that.

So here is the situation. Singer, Howe, Grover & Baker and Wheeler & Wilson own a whole pocket full of patents. A sewing machine was near impossible to make or sell without these patents.

And what were they all doing instead of becoming rich from something every household wanted? They were suing each other. The silly boys.

The only people making any real money were the lawyers. Something had to be done and there was a man to do it. Orlando. B. Potter was a peacemaker, the Henry Kissinger of his time. He could stand back from the fight and see the solution that would make all the parties who were fighting rich, no filthy rich. Orlando B. Potter was Grover & Bakers lawyer and saw first-hand all the litigation papers.

All he had to do was get all they parties around a table without killing each other and knock out a plan. The plan was simple and deadly, to pool or combine all the main patents into one pot.  After much talking and promises of untold wealth all the main characters agreed to pool their patents and form a Cartel or Combination.

And so in 1856 the Sewing Machine Combination was formed. Now any small company who dared to step out of line and make a sewing machine without paying the big boys would end up in court. The Sewing Machine Combination became an all-powerful monopoly and pretty illegal really. A loop-hole in the law allowed the Combination to continue even though the popular press hated it.

The Sewing Machine Combination was attacked in the press and in the courts but it held firm. Every sewing machine made by any firm had to pay the combination $15. That is the two equivalent of a weeks wages today.  The money was split between Singer, Howe, Grover & Baker and Wheeler & Wilson. Elias Howe taking the lions share as he held those two dubious but all-important patents.

Elias Howe became on of the richest men in the entire world. Isaac was not far behind but he had to keep messing around with women. You will just have to read his history, the naughty boy.

Now it was not all bad news. Though the monopoly was unfair it allowed all the sewing machine makers to get on with, guess what! Sewing machines. From this point on in our history sewing machines flourished. Wheeler & Wilson stormed ahead but Singer's soon caught up and overtook them.

Everything was hunky-dory for the Sewing Machine Combination until the patents started running out and Congress managed to shut the loop-hole in the law that was allowing the Sewing Machine Combination's illegal monopoly to exist. Wilson failed to have his patent extended and by 1877 it was all coming to an end. Mind you many of the main inventors were now dead including Howe and Singer who had married a young French actress. He probably died with a smile on his face!

And so in 1877 all the small sewing machine makers were on a boom not having to pay royalties to the Cartel. This meant the price of sewing machines fell dramatically and many different styles appeared.

However one small point to note. It was all a bit late for by 1880 the Singer Corporation dominated world trade in sewing machines producing nearly 75% of world sales. For nearly 100 years no other sewing machine company came close to Singer.

 The Sewing Machine Combination 1856-1877



  Well that's it, 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

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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