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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Elias Howe

Elias Howe followed other inventors to make the first truly effective sewing machine. Embroidery machines were first patented in 1790, using the idea of the double-pointed needle, which was first used by Charles Weisenthal when he was attempting to make a sewing machine in 1755. In 1804, John Duncan improved the embroidery machine by adding multiple needles.

Howe was born in Spencer, Mass. in 1819, the nephew of two inventive uncles. He grew up among cotton carders in his father’s mill and later worked in a Lowell cotton factory. As an adult he watched his girlfriend, later wife, sew to form an idea on how to mechanize it. At this time, in 1839, he was an assistant to capitalist and mechanic, Ardis Davis. In 1842 the first sewing machine was patented, as designed by John J. Greenough. It used a double-ended needle (a point and hole were on both end) and was basically ineffective.

About this time he had a dream of being ordered by a monarch to perfect the sewing machine at once or he would be decapitated. He felt powerless and watched the savages move forward to behead him. He could see their weapons were long with grooved lances and eye-holes near the tip. This dream gave him the idea for improving the Greenough machine and he abandoned the idea of copying hand sewing. Instead, he “beheaded one end of the needle” and made two threads catch each other around a curved needle and used a shuttle. By 1844, he needed an exact model to show others, but he lacked fund to make it. So he partnered with George Fisher, who provided housing, food and workspace for Howe, his wife and three children, plus $500.00.

With the model completed, Howe demonstrated in 1845 that his machine could take 250 stitches a minute. He would have “sewing races” with women. He could make two men’s suits before they could. Some tailors didn’t believe it, and many did not want to, fearing it threatened their livelihood. Instead it was Howe’s finances and business that was threatened, as he had spent all his money on accomplishing this and now had little left. The sewing machine was expensive and slow to catch on with American women. He was forced to work for the railroads as an engineer to feed his family. 

He sold off some of the earlier models he had invented. An English manufacturer of carpetbags, stays and umbrellas, bought his sewing machine, with rights, for 250 pounds and promised a 3 pound royalty for each machine sold. Records indicate this was never fulfilled. Eventually through deaths, and his partner Fisher, he got his shares back in 1854 and his right to collect royalties on the machines manufactured. He finally made money on his successful machine. His patent expired in 1867, which was also the year he died.

* Women (and Men) at Work

© 2004 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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