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Isaac M. Singer
Founder, Singer Company
1811 - 1875

Isaac Merritt Singer was born October 27, 1811 in Troy, New York. Singer was the youngest of 8 children and was raised from infancy by his father in a single parent home. Learning to take care of himself almost from infancy, Singer left home at age 12 years old. Singer had a burning desire to be an actor and worked at anything - carnival hand, roustabout, labor, machinist, and occasionally as a theater manager, long enough to get to the next opportunity to perform as an actor. Acting under the stage name Isaac Merritt, Singer eventually formed his own road company, the Merritt Players. The show was a failure, and Singer went to work in a factory that manufactured wooden printers type. Singer had a naturally inventive mind, and immediately saw a need to improve the type. His employer uninterested in the improvement, Singer moved to New York City and opened his own plant.

Singers type factory burned to the ground, and hearing of a type manufacturer Orson C Phelps in Boston, Singer solicited him to manufacture type and sell it to him.

At the time, Phelps was also manufacturing a sewing machine similar to Howe’s, patented by an inventor named Blodgett. One of the problems with the machine was as the bobbin turned, it took the twist out of the thread. Phelps, working on the sewing machine problem, told Singer, “Forget the type carving business. If you want to make money, improve the sewing machine.” Phelps concluded, “There’s plenty of them around, but not one works properly.” Seeing an opportunity, but without funds because of the fire, Singer made a rough of drawing the Phelps machine and then drew in his improvements. The three primary improvements included a wheel that had pins in it that came through the needle plate, moving the fabric continuously instead of intermittently, as all other machines of the era. It also included a presser foot that held the fabric down as the needle came back up, and also held the fabric against the feeding wheel, and a straight needle that moved straight up and down, instead of a curved needle. The next da
y, Singer took the drawings to Phelps, who had a visitor, George Zieber, a book salesman from New York. Phelps and Zeiber were intrigued by the drawings, and convinced that the machine would sew. Zeiber put up $40.00, Phelps the use of his shop and tools, and Singer went to work to build the machine. Thus, a three-way partnership was formed. Working 18 hours a day, 12 days later they had an operating model and the 1. M. Singer Company was operational. Singer took his machine to New York and Boston, concentrating on selling it in the garment district; however, the tailors were hesitant, having already bought earlier machines that didn’t sew. It was only Singers persistence that produced the sales that kept the company in business.

Zieber, sick and bedridden, was bought out by Singer and Phelps for $6,000.00. Singer began advertising his machine and that produced sales, but it also brought him to the attention of Howe, who was licensing all of the sewing machine manufacturers. Howe demanded Singer buy a license from him, and pay a $25,000.00 royalty on previously produced machines. Singer refused and the ensuing sewing machine war was on. Singer hired attorney Edward Clark to defend the company, giving him one third interest as legal payment in full. During the ensuing legal battle, Phelps, weary of the fight, wanted out, and Singer and Clark bought his interest, becoming equal partners. In July of 1854, with all of the attention on the legal fight, and sales dramatically declining, Singer surrendered to the court, agreeing to pay Howe $15,000.00 on previously sold machines, and buying a license for future sales.

In 1853, Singer Incorporated, issued 5,000 shares of stock. Singer and Clark each received 2,000 shares, and Singer employees purchased the other 1,000 shares. After the court settlement, a weary Isaac Singer turned the management over to Clark and retired to England, where he traveled extensively until he passed away in 1875. Singer left a fortune of 13 million dollars, 24 children by two wives, and, without a doubt was the true father of the American sewing industry. The holder of numerous patents, in just one short 90 day period, Singer received 20 patents on improvements of his machine.

1994 Vacuum & Sewing Hall of Fame Inductee