Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A little piece of history

Since I use my vintage/antique sewing machines all the time, I don't usually think about their age and history while I'm using them. Rather than thinking about the fact that my favorite free motion machine was made during the Great Depression, I'm planning my next feather or spiral. And rather than pondering the Cold War that was in place when my Singer 500 was made, I'm deciding on which decorative stitch will best suit my project.

But this weekend I was making some simple Rail Fence blocks for the next Treadle On exchange, and was using my oldest machine, an American No. 1 from around 1875. I couldn't help thinking about history. The machine itself represents some interesting history. It was made by the American Buttonhole Overseaming and Sewing Machine Company, which was established in the 1860s. I've been researching this company for a while, which is an challenge, as it went out of business in the 1890s and original documents about the company are rare.

The original machine made by the company had different components which could be switched to make buttonholes, overseam or do regular sewing. It may well have been the first "serger" as well as the first machine buttonhole maker. The original design may have been too complicated, I've only heard of one still existing. But by the 1870s the company was making the American No. 1, which was a sewing only machine. Two things that made it very different from other machines of the era was the shuttle and bobbin, and the bobbin path, a vertical arc, instead of the straight line (transverse shuttle) or horizontal arc (vibrating shuttle) used by most machines of the time.

The driving force behind the company appears to have been a man named George Rehfuss, who held the patents on many of the components used by the company's machines. That included the unique shuttle, a small teardrop shape, which held a tiny round bobbin, one of, if not the first, to use a round bobbin.

Of course, after thinking about how different the machine is from later machines, I had to think about the woman who first owned this machine. Think how different life was for her. The Civil War was a recent memory. She probably had a family member, perhaps her husband, father or brother, who fought in the war. Ulysses S. Grant was still the president.

This was the first mechanical appliance to come into her home. There was no electricity, no telephone – Alexander Graham Bell made his first experimental voice transmission in the year 1875.

Heat and cooking most likely depended on a wood or coal stove and plumbing was probably minimal.

Her family was probably pretty comfortable. A sewing machine was still a premium item at the time, not something you could find in every home. I have a receipt for a different American No. 1, which was sold in 1874 for $65, to be paid in monthly installments of $5. That $65 is the equivalent of $1,218 today and the $5 payments equivalent to about $94.

Wouldn't it be fascinating to know the details of this machine's history, who owned it, did she leave it to a family member, how many hands it passed through before it was purchased by one of my friends, who sold her collection when she became ill. And now it's mine, to be treasured for itself, as a memory of my friend and for all the history behind it.