With typical Yankee push, the American sewing machine of the 1850’s was publicized and quickly accepted as the great American labor-saving machine which people around the world could use for fun or profit. The industry was in the vanguard of America’s commercial and technological thrust into the world market.
The sewing machine industry owed its inception in the early 1850’s to a series of partnerships between inventors and capitalists. The business partnership of Isaac Merrit Singer and Edward Clark brought together a profligate whose natural mechanical genius enabled him not only to spot defects in existing machines, but to correct and improve upon their action.
At the London Crystal Palace in 1853, four American machines were exhibited and publicly demonstrated. Two were Singers, which were very noisy in operation, and two were made by Wheeler & Wilson, which drew “the greatest number of admirers.”
Undaunted by this experience, Singer moved to secure patents in France and England on recent improvements. Charles Louis Fleischmann, a patent agent living in Paris, was hired to handle the French negotiations. The company was successful in both countries in February 1854.
The Civil War strengthened the sewing machine industry’s concern for foreign markets. In their attempt to recoup the “immense sums” lost in shipments and consignments to the South, the northern sewing machine manufacturers turned with renewed interest to overseas markets. The rising premium on foreign gold also encouraged such sales. These two developments combined to prompt manufacturers to export to foreign countries “to many fold greater extent than they had ever done before, or could have done but for the war.” To better supply this market, the Americans established depots, sales rooms, and agencies in Europe. These investments were made despite the increased American tariff on pig iron (a prime material used in the machine), Howe’s private tariff ($1.00) on all machines exported, and “the abnormal state of exchange.”
At an informal meeting on June 6, 1863, the partnership between Isaac Singer and Edward Clark was dissolved. Incorporation proceedings were then initiated by Clark. Four employees from the factory and office were offered shares in the reorganized operation and became, along with Clark and Singer, the new board of trustees.
The Singer company made two major decisions in its foreign business between 1864 and 1867: the appointment of two general agents for Great Britain and Europe, and the construction of an assembly plant in Glasgow, Scotland. These decisions reinforced the underlying situation: the company’s exports were in 1864 over 40 per cent of total production.
An American trade journal reported in 1880 that of the five American sewing machine companies active in Great Britain, Singer had “made the greatest effort to perfect an organization.” This was true, but it discounted the real and persistent difficulties facing the management. Woodruff frequently posed the problem of how to push sales, maintain a large sales force, and keep down the cost of selling. His own answer was the “economic consolidation of our organization, but it is not easy to see just how it is to be done.
It was not easy to find honest men for this type of work. The “great problem” was “how to get better men and sell more sewing machines at less cost.” The company’s increasing use of its own sales personnel and its slow phasing out of consignment or purchasing agents, were a part of its effort to rationalize the marketing techniques of the sewing machine trade. The specialization of office and field functions, and the provisions for control, were illustrative of the process of centralization of routine work and the decentralization of decision making within specialized areas. The optimum goal was to provide for making enough low-level operational decisions to utilize personal initiative for the benefit of the firm while maintaining intact central office control.
In 1867 the Singer Company established its first factory in Europe. This move was a milestone in the overseas commercial expansion of American business. The company was not the first to build a factory in Europe, but it was one of the earliest (and perhaps the best known) American firm whose foreign operations had by the end of the American civil war reached a level where failure to get closer to the markets would have resulted in Singer’s diminution through the slow attrition of competition.
The construction of a foundry in Austria in 1883 illuminates the company’s desire to circumvent tariff barriers
During these post-bellum decades of seeking foreign markets, the Singer Company and possibly other firms did not solicit the aid of the American government nor its diplomatic personnel. Once a commercial foothold was established in Europe by its own efforts, both the agents and the New York office avoided official contacts except as they dealt with the company’s legal status or trade name.
Europe was clearly aware of the power and the threat of the early firms like Singer during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Singer’s expansion was part of an increasing American push into the world market. American machinery and hardware, including pianos, steam engines, and sewing machines, reported one journal in 1871, “have now a lasting reputation established.” A good deal of such talk and analysis was exaggerated, but it did bespeak a growing economic nationalism and a desire to cease being a colony of European industry.
The sewing machine was in the vanguard of this American commercial and technological penetration of the world market. At the Vienna Exhibition of 1873, for example, sewing machines were displayed in one of the largest exhibits. There were about fifty European manufacturers represented (of which twenty-nine were German) but all imitated the American machines of Howe, Singer, and Wheeler & Wilson.
In the 1880’s, American sewing machine exports rose steadily from 12 per cent of all iron and steel-manufactured exports in 1881 to 16 per cent in 1885.67 These exports clearly affected Great Britain and Europe. Not only did English competitors adopt American business methods, but the trade “which has always been more or less American in character, is rapidly being completely Americanized.