On this date in 1851 Isaac Merritt Singer (October 27, 1811 – July 23, 1875) filed a patent for an improved sewing machine. Many people had patented sewing machines before Singer, but his success was based on the practicality of his machine, the ease with which it could be adapted to home use, and its availability on an installment payment basis.
In 1839, Singer obtained his first patent, for a machine to drill rock, selling it for $2,000 (or over $50,000 in 2018 dollars) to the I & M Canal Building Company. With this financial success, he opted to return to his career as an actor. He went on tour, forming a troupe known as the “Merritt Players”, appearing onstage under the name “Isaac Merritt.” The tour lasted about five years. Later, he developed a “machine for carving wood and metal” which he patented on April 10th, 1849.
At 38, with his wife, Mary Ann, and eight children, he packed up his family and moved to New York City, hoping to market his wood-block cutting machine there. He obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and constructed one in the shop of A. B. Taylor & Co. Here he met G. B. Zieber, who became Singer’s financier and partner. However, not long after the machine was built, the steam boiler blew up at the shop, destroying the prototype. Zieber persuaded Singer to make a new start in Boston, a center of the printing trade. Singer went to Boston in 1850 to display his invention at the machine shop of Orson C. Phelps. Orders for Singer’s wood cutting machine were not, however, forthcoming.
Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines were also being constructed and repaired in Phelps’s shop. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines, which were difficult to use and produce. Singer concluded that the sewing machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle. Singer was able to obtain US Patent number 8294 for his improvements on August 12th, 1851. Singer’s prototype sewing machine became the first to work in a practical way. It could sew 900 stitches per minute, far better than the 40 of an accomplished seamstress on simple work.
In 1856, manufacturers Grover & Baker, Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, all accusing each other of patent infringement, met in Albany, New York to pursue their suits. Orlando B. Potter, a lawyer and president of the Grover and Baker Company, proposed that, rather than squander their profits on litigation, they pool their patents. This was the first patent pool, a process which enables the production of complicated machines without legal battles over patent rights. They agreed to form the Sewing Machine Combination, but for this to be of any use, they had to secure the cooperation of Elias Howe, who still held certain vital uncontested patents. Terms were arranged, and Howe received a royalty on every sewing machine manufactured.
Thenceforth, sewing machines began to be mass-produced. I. M. Singer & Co manufactured 2,564 machines in 1856, and 13,000 in 1860 at a new plant on Mott Street in New York. Later, a massive plant was built near Elizabeth, New Jersey. Until that point, sewing machines had been industrial machines, made for garments, shoes, bridles and for tailors, but in 1856, smaller machines began to be marketed for home use. However, at the then enormous price of over $100 ($2,800 in 2018 dollars), few sold. Singer invested heavily in mass production using the concept of interchangeable parts developed by Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney for their firearms. He was able to cut the price in half, while at the same time increasing his profit margin by 530%. Singer was the first who put a family machine, “the turtle back”, on the market. Eventually, the price came down to $10 ($280 in 2018 dollars). His partner, Edward Cabot Clark, pioneered installment purchasing plans and accepted trade-ins, causing sales to skyrocket. Singer expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow, controlled by the parent company, becoming one of the first US-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro. In the 1950s my mother learned dressmaking in Buenos Aires, and bought a Singer sewing machine there that was a foot treadle model, that had been converted to electricity with the addition of an electric motor. This was a fixture in my household when I was a boy, and both my sisters learned to sew on it. Singer sewing machine always conjures up for me a black machine with gold poker work. That machine traveled the world with us.
Financial success allowed Singer to buy a mansion on Fifth Avenue, into which he moved his second family. He continued to live with Mary Ann, until she spotted him driving down Fifth Avenue seated beside Mary McGonigal, an employee, about whom Mary Ann already had suspicions. By this time, McGonigal had borne Singer five children, who used the surname Matthews; Florence L., Mary, Charles A., and two others who died at birth. Mary Ann, still calling herself Mrs. I. M. Singer, had her husband arrested for bigamy. Singer was let out on bond and, disgraced, fled to London in 1862, taking Mary McGonigal with him.
In the aftermath, another of Isaac’s families was discovered: he had a “wife,” Mary Eastwood Walters, and daughter, Alice Eastwood Walters, in Lower Manhattan, who had adopted the surname “Merritt.” By 1860, Isaac had fathered and acknowledged eighteen children, sixteen of them still then living, by four women.
With Isaac in London, Mary Ann began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, claiming that, though she had never been formally married to Isaac, they were wed under Common Law by living together for seven months after Isaac had been divorced from his first wife Catherine. Eventually a settlement was made, but no divorce was granted. However, she asserted that she was free to marry, and, indeed, married John E. Foster.
Isaac, meanwhile, had renewed acquaintance with Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a Frenchwoman he had lived with in Paris when he was staying there in 1860. She left her husband and married Isaac under the name of Isabella Eugenie Sommerville, on June 13th, 1863, while she was pregnant. They had six children. In 1863, I. M. Singer & Co. was dissolved by mutual consent; the business continued as “The Singer Manufacturing Company,” in 1887.
In 1871, Singer purchased an estate, in Paignton (now a part of the borough of Torbay) in Devon in England. He commissioned Oldway Manor as his private residence, which was rebuilt by Paris Singer, his third son with Isabella, in the style of the Palace of Versailles. He died in Devon on July 23, 1875, and was buried in Torquay.
I am going to pick a recipe based on Singer’s final days in Devon, because it gives me a chance to vaunt English food – yet again. The Torbay sole (Glyptocephalus cynoglossus) should not be confused with true soles such as the Dover sole (Solea solea) nor with Lemon sole (Microstomus kitt). They are from three different genuses even though they all look somewhat similar to the untrained eye. Both Dover sole and Lemon sole have a fine flavor and delicate flesh, but can get exorbitantly expensive. Torbay sole, also known as witch founder, tends to be much more moderate in price because it lacks the delicacy of the other two. Its lack of distinction is to the Torbay sole’s advantage, however, in that you can afford to be extravagant with saucing it. A sauce of lemon and capers is nice, but a bit ordinary (even though sole meunière bewitched the young Julia Child on her first day in Paris). I like Torbay sole with a cream sorrel sauce. I used to grow my own sorrel and pick the leaves when they were quite young, so that their sourness was lively, rather than overbearing. It’s a perennial that is really easy to grow, and a useful addition to the herb garden. Sorrel makes a nice addition to green salads, can be made into soup, or poached as a vegetable.
Torbay Sole with Sorrel Sauce
4 Torbay sole fillets, skin attached
2 tbsp butter
125ml white wine
2 tbsp crème fraîche
1 bunch sorrel, washed and shredded
salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 200˚C/390˚F.
Lay the fish, skin side down, in an ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper to taste, dot with butter, and pour over the wine. Bake the fish for 10 mins, or until just cooked. Carefully lift the fish on to a warmed plate, and keep on a warming rack (not in the oven).
Pour the juices from the oven dish into a small saucepan with the crème fraîche, boil until slightly thickened, then stir through the sorrel until just wilted. Spoon over the sauce over the fish and serve with boiled new potatoes.