Isaac Merritt Singer, the eighth child of German immigrants, was born In Troy, on 27th October, 1811. Soon after his birth the family moved to the frontier town of Oswego. In 1821, his mother left the family home: "His father, then 68, was a remote and unsympathetic figure, and his stepmother, whom his father married soon after the divorce, made things worse rather than better." (1)
At the age of twelve he left home and went to live in Rochester with an older brother and two years later he began an apprenticeship in a machine shop. Over the next few years he became a talented mechanic and obtained contracts to build a lathe-making machinery. However, in 1830 he joined a local theatre company that performed plays by William Shakespeare. (2)
It is claimed that although Singer had no formal education and was barely literate, he was a talented actor. "Singer was well fitted for the stage, his handsome face helped - square jaw, grey eyes, massive brow, framed by thick auburn hair - but it was the almost frightening energies radiated by his presence that people remembered most vividly." (3)
Singer could not make a living as a actor and he was forced to work as a mechanic. In 1830 he married Catherine Haley, a fifteen-year-old girl from Palmyra. For a while he lived with her parents but eventually the couple moved to Port Gibson in Manchester where he found work in a dry goods store. However, no job lasted very long and he would often join up with a drama company that visited the area. After a few weeks he would return to his wife and would be forced to take a local job. (4)
In 1835 Singer and his family moved to New York City where he got a job in a printing press factory. The following year he set off with an acting troupe without telling his wife. During this period he developed a reputation for being a womanizer. According to one newspaper "his intimacy with the female population was severely commented upon, and much sympathy was expressed for his wife." (5)
Singer found work with a company building the Illinois and Michigan Canal. In 1839 he made a machine that drilled through rock. His employees were so impressed that they paid him $2,000 ($48,000 in today's money) for the invention. He used this money to finance the acting group, the Merritt Players. The group continued until 1844 when he ran out of money. He found work in a sawmill in Fredericksburg. His job was to cut wooden type to be used for printing posters. It was menial work that he found unsatisfying and so he invented a type carving machine to do the job. (6)
Singer moved back to New York City and persuaded the A. B. Taylor Company to provide him with money and space to build a commercial prototype, but shortly afterwards a boiler burst in the building and the explosion killed sixty-three people. As a result of this disaster the company was forced to close. Singer found another partner but after building another prototype they were unable to find investors to produce it commercially. (7)
In 1850 Isaac Merritt Singer was asked to repair a Lerow & Blodgett sewing machine. For over 20 years efforts had been made to invent an effective sewing machine. A French tailor, Barthélemy Thimonnier, was the first to put a sewing device into commercial operation in an attempt to mechanize embroidery. He patented his device in 1830 and by 1841 he had a factory with eighty machines. However, a mob of tailors, worried about their livelihood, broke in and destroyed them. (8)
The first American to make a significant contribution was Walter Hunt, who developed a machine around 1832 that made a lock stitch. Hunt, who had invented the safety pin and the breech-loading rifle, came from a strong Quaker family, abandoned work on the machine after his daughter told him it would throw seamstresses out of work. For example, in New York City at this time, ten thousand women earned their living through needlework. Elias Howe, a machinist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was granted a patent on a sewing machine in 1846, but found it difficult finding investors to develop the machine as it was expensive to produce and factory owners felt they could get more from seamstresses for the same money. (9)
Sherburne C. Blodgett, a tailor, joined forces with John Alexander Lerow, to produce a "Rotary Sewing Machine", that was patented in 1849. However, it did not work well and was constantly breaking down. After examining the Lerow & Blodgett sewing machine Isaac Merritt Singer came to the conclusion that it would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle. The following year he patented his own sewing machine. It could sew 900 stitches per minute, far better than the 40 of a skilled seamstress. (10)
In 1851 Singer joined forces with Edward Cabot Clark to form the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The Singer was the first practical sewing machine for general domestic use and incorporated the basic eye-pointed needle and lock stitch developed by Elias Howe. The Singer met the demand of the tailoring, and leather industries for a heavier and more powerful machine. (11)
The Singer sewing machine was not an immediate success and sales were poor. For example: 1853 (810), 1854 (879), 1855 (883). In 1856 Singer brought out his first machine intended exclusively for use in the home. These machines sold for $100 each ($2,514.00). Selling these machines was a major problem as the average family income was less than $500 a year. (12)
Singer's partner, Edward Clark, came up with what became known as the Hire Purchase Plan: "By advancing a certain percentage of the total price of the machine, a customer could hire a sewing machine, make monthly payments to it, and eventually own it." Singer only charged $5 for the initial payment, but as soon as they failed to make the monthly payments, the machine was repossessed. This method of selling goods was a great success and sales soared. In 1858 the company had sold 3,594 machines, by 1861 sales were over 16,000. (13)
As a result, individuals with even small incomes could own a Singer sewing machine. As sales grew Singer could bring in mass production techniques. He was now able to cut the price in half, while at the same time increasing his profit margin by 530%. Eventually, the price came down to $30 ($716 in today's money). By 1876 Singer sold 262, 316 machines, more than twice as many as its nearest rival. (14)
In 1882 Singer expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow. (15) A Canadian plant was opened in Montreal five years later. Others followed; despite great growth in domestic business, the company was soon selling more sewing machines abroad than in the United States. It has been argued that Singer had created America's first multinational corporation. (16)
Singer had two children with Catherine, his first wife: William (1834–1914) and Lillian (1841–1912). Singer began an affair with Mary Ann Sponsler while still married to Catherine. They had 10 children; Isaac, Vouletti, John, Fanny Elizabeth, Jasper, Mary, Julia, Caroline, and two others who died at birth. In 1860, he divorced Catherine and lived with Mary Ann. Another mistress, Mary McGonigal, a former employee, gave birth to another five children.
By 1860, Isaac Singer had fathered and acknowledged eighteen children, sixteen of them still then living, by four women. Paul C. Wilson has argued: "Like many insecure men, he (Isaac Merritt Singer) had always tried as a matter of course to seduce any young women he met, and his good looks, combines one suspects, with some of the intimidation he used in all his other relationships with people, usually gave him what he wanted. A man with so much energy for other activity may have had strong sexual energies too, but physical need alone cannot explain the peculiar pattern of Singer's sexual involvements. Except for their frequency, there was nothing remarkable about his brief affairs with barmaids and working girls while on the road, but he usually sought something more permanent. In addition to sex he clearly wanted the security of marriage and family life." (17)
In 1862, Mary Ann discovered details of this relationship with Mary McGonigal and had her husband arrested for bigamy. Singer was let out on bond and fled to London. The following year Isaac Singer married Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a Frenchwoman he had met in Paris. They had six children; Adam, Winnaretta, Washington, Paris, Isabelle-Blanche, and Franklin.
The great wealth that Singer achieved enabled him to buy expensive houses. This included a mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In 1871, Singer purchased an estate in Paignton in England. He commissioned George Soudon Bridgman to build Oldway Mansion as his private residence in the style of the Palace of Versailles. Singer sourced the finest materials from around the world and instructed Bridgman to design the interior in exuberant French style. (18)
Isaac Merritt Singer died on 23 July 1875, shortly before work on the mansion was completed. It is claimed that during his life-time Singer fathered at least 24 children with various wives and mistresses.
Isaac Merritt Singer is often said to have invented the sewing machine, which isn't so. Others got there before him, including a French tailor and a Presbyterian clergyman of Macon, Georgia. Walter Hunt, an American Quaker genius who invented the safety pin, made a machine in 1834-sixteen years earlier than Singer - but abandoned it when his daughter told him it would throw seamstresses out of work. Elias Howe, a machinist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was granted a patent on a sewing machine in 1846. But Singer produced the first device with which it was possible to sew continuously.
Singer's was therefore the first practical machine, but it did not prevent Howe and others from suing him. Singer hired a lawyer, Edward Clark, who soon became his partner, taking charge of finance and sales as well as legal matters. Together they ended what became known as "the sewing machine war" by organizing the Sewing Machine Combination, America's first patent pool. Manufacture was licensed at $15 a machine. They also pioneered the use of trademarks and of instalment selling. The Singer Manufacturing Company, incorporated in 1863, became America's first multi-national corporation.
Like many insecure men, he (Isaac Merritt Singer) had always tried as a matter of course to seduce any young women he met, and his good looks, combines one suspects, with some of the intimidation he used in all his other relationships with people, usually gave him what he wanted. A man with so much energy for other activity may have had strong sexual energies too, but physical need alone cannot explain the peculiar pattern of Singer's sexual involvements. Except for their frequency, there was nothing remarkable about his brief affairs with barmaids and working girls while on the road, but he usually sought something more permanent. In addition to sex he clearly wanted the security of marriage and family life.