Rio History: A Man Named Isaac and Why the First Singer Sewing Machine Came to Texas

By Steve Hathcock

Special to the Parade

“The announcement that the will of Mrs. Singer, a relative of the late millionaire sewing machine inventor Isaac Merritt Singer had been read was a sad day for the relatives of the late William A Townsend, former book publisher,” read the headlines of the November 12, 1905 issue of the New York News.

“No,” the article continued, “the Townsends were not relatives or even friends of the deceased. No, their grief was not at the passing of the widow herself, whom they had never met, rather their sense of loss was at the size of her estate, half of which would have been theirs if only ‘old man Townsend’ had  not exposed himself as a pompous ass a half century ago.”

Early in 1851, William A. Townsend was a successful book publisher with a stable of writers that included such literary giants as James Fenimore Cooper, whose “last of the Mohicans inspired a slow building of recognition for the plight of the American Indians, to Frank G Forrester a rod and gun writer whose exploits were told and retold all across the country.

One day a tall burly man dressed in shabby clothes and carrying the model of his newest machine came to his office and to the intense irritation of Townsend, proceeded to extol the virtues of his new device which was an improvement Elias Howe’s sewing machine which in its current design, proved very unreliable and was prone to breakdown. He himself had redesigned the machine in such a way that it would become one of the greatest mechanical improvements of the age but he had not the means to secure the patent and put it in the market. All he needed to perfect his patent was $500. In exchange for the money, he offered Townsend a half interest in all the profits he (the inventor) was sure to make.

The man, whose first name was Isaac, was no stranger to Townsend. Just a few years earlier, he had patented an improvement in the manufacturing of movable type made from wood. Townsend’s career had taken a great leap about that time due in part to Isaac’s invention, which greatly enhanced
the speed of production and reduced the cost of printing. Townsend was not interested though. Books were his business and besides, if the truth were known, Townsend felt uncomfortable with the man’s entire demeanor and the way he was practically begging for the money.  Stating he “had not time for such a project,” Townsend dismissed the man sending him and his contraption away.

Dejectedly, Isaac took his machine and left. He returned a couple of days later and asked Townsend to reconsider his proposition but Townsend was adamant, if the machine could not be used in the printing industry then he, Townsend was not interested.

Pondering his dilemma 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, nonchalantly 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 is in Behind the Third Dune.

In the meantime, unable to reach a settlement, Elias Howe sued Isaac and his partners for patent infringement. The lawsuit revolved around one issue. Like Howe’s machine, the Singer Sewing Machine used thread from two different sources and needle with its eye at the point which when
the machine was engaged, would push the thread through the fabric, thus creating a loop on the opposite side.  Then a sliding shuttle slipped the thread through the loop. The returning needle drew the thread tight, which created a perfect lockstitch.

The outcome of the whole affair rested in the hands of Judge Sprague of Massachusetts who announced his ruling one fine day in 1852, stating, “The plaintiff’s patent is valid and the defendant’s machine is an
infringement.”

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 a

greed that Singer and company would manufacture and

distribute the machine and Howe would be paid a royalty of five dollars for each one sold. The new machine would aptly be called, “The Singer Sewing Machine.”

Prologue: 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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