Rio History: Why the First Sewing Machine in Texas was Delivered to Padre Island

Special to the PRESS

If it were not for a chance meeting of two brothers on the streets of New York City, separated for almost a quarter of a century, the name Singer might never have become synonymous with the sewing machine.

In 1851, you could say that Isaac Singer’s future was “hanging by a thread,” as he strode along the wooden walkways near the wharfs of the Shaw Shipping Lines in New York City. Isaac was a large man, standing well over six feet tall. Weighing in excess of 200 pounds, men moved aside as he plowed his way through the crowd. He was in the financial crisis of his life. If he couldn’t produce some money within the next few days he could lose his chances of forming an important new partnership.

It seemed that Isaac and a partner were renting a room from Orson Phelps, a machinist who, by coincidence, was busy building sewing machines for J.H. Lerow and S.C. Blodgett. The machine, which had only been invented the year before, produced a lockstitch much like that used in sewing machines today.  But the design worked poorly and less than a dozen of the 120 machines were operable. Knowing of Isaac’s ability as a machinist the partners asked him to help solve the problem.

Studying the machine for a moment Isaac quickly pointed out that the circular motion of the shuttle took the twist out of the thread.

“It should move back and forth on a shuttle,” he said, “and the needle should be straight so it is stronger and should move up and down.” Isaac made several significant improvements by changing the direction of the needle and eliminating a device that fed the cloth through the machine but prevented the operator from sewing a seam any longer than the width of the plate. Finally he added a foot treadle to power the machine. Convinced they had a winner Lerow and Blodget agreed to take on Singer as a partner.

Singer made a drawing of his new machine and followed shortly with a working model. Soon afterwards, the partners began extolling the virtues of the new sewing machine. It came with a full one-year warranty and was touted as, “so easy to operate that any person of common ability can learn how to use it.”

It was about this time that Elias Howe, who had perfected a patent on his own sewing machine in the 1840s, first learned of the new machine and came to the realization that it infringed on his own patent.

Howe offered to allow Singer and Company exclusive use of his patent for the ridiculous sum of $2,000. The offer could have saved a fortune in time and money but the amount asked may as well have been millions. Frustrated at their inability to reach a compromise, Singer ended the meeting by threatening to “throw Howe down the stairs.”
Pondering his dilemma now as he walked the streets of New York City, Isaac miraculously found himself face to face with his long-lost brother, John.

After a great deal of conversation, Isaac said, “So there is my story, brother. I am broke and to keep my share of the partnership, I must raise $500.”

Reaching into a leather money belt strapped around his waist, John removed a thick sheave of bank notes and peeled off the amount asked.

“Here brother,” John said, as he handed the bills to Isaac, “good luck to you for I am off to the Texas frontier.” (After the meeting with his brother John finished his own business in New York City and boarded the first steamer to New Orleans, There he loaded his wife and their new child aboard the Alice Sadell, a three-masted schooner and set sail for Texas. His story will be told in a future column).

A settlement was soon reached between Howe and the partners. All agreed that Isaac Singer was by far the greater promoter and the Singer Sewing machine, patent infringement aside, was the superior machine. Finally, the two sides agreed that Singer and company would manufacture and distribute the machine and Howe would be paid a royalty of $5 for each one sold. The new machine would aptly be called, “The Singer Sewing Machine.”

Epilogue: New York City: 1853. A large wooden crate is delivered to the wharves in New York City where it is placed in the hold of a steamship bound for the Gulf of Mexico. The packing label reads, To Captain John Singer and wife, General delivery, Brazos Santiago, Texas.  This was the first Singer Sewing Machine delivered to Texas.

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