Isaac Merritt Singer was an odd man. Part inventor, part actor, he had a way with women – to the point where one wife had him arrested for bigamy, and by the end of his life he had fathered at least 20 children (the exact number has been debated). He was such a pariah that he was chased out of New York City society and fled to England. Today, his scandalous personal life is an amusing anecdote while his claim to fame is the Singer sewing machine.
Singer machines take the lead
The sewing machine was “one of the first mass-marketed consumer durables as well as an industrial tool” (Coffin, 1994, p. 750), and many companies marketed variations of the machine in the mid-nineteenth century. Singer was not the inventor of the sewing machine. Rather, in 1851 Isaac Singer placed a patent on a mechanical update to the sewing machine. The mechanics of his machine improved past models and made it easier for home use. A few legal battles over patenting rights* notwithstanding, he quickly formed a partnership with Edward Clark (one of his lawyers for the patent problems) and began to revolutionize the way business was done. Without the strong business acumen and clever marketing strategies in its early years, it is likely that the Singer company would have been just another generic sewing machine company.
Isaac Singer envisioned the use of the machine in every home. However, the sewing machine could cost between $20 and $55 depending on the model, a range that proved to be too expensive for most households to pay upfront (Lynn, 1957). To solve the problem, Edward Clark took advantage of an installment payments system that developed a few years earlier for farming equipment. For just a modest down payment, a sewing machine could be purchased and taken home, followed by weekly payments until the balance was paid. The machine could be repossessed at any time if there was a default on payment.
On the production side, the installment payments helped cover the high fixed costs of making the sewing machine. Even if there was a lull in demand, the weekly payment system helped Singer & Co. continue production for future sales. Additionally, as Lynn (1957) notes, “a formalized system of credit” added a buffer against bad debts (p. 423).
On the consumer side, installment payments not only allowed interested buyers the option to buy a sewing machine, but also opened to the door to machines of higher quality. For the Singer company, the adoption of installment credit was essential for establishing the household market that Isaac Singer had envisioned.
Once a domestic market had been established, Singer & Co. took its ideas abroad, including its successful installment credit system. It joined a small cohort of businesses who were taking advantage of a “technologically-underdeveloped” European market that was more than willing to accept new and more efficient products. (Davies, 1969)
Today of course installment credit is familiar in the form of home mortgages and a variety of personal loans. But in the mid-nineteenth century, installment credit was in its infancy. Perhaps unknowingly, the Singer company helped take the credit system beyond the neighborhood grocery store and redefined the purchasing power of the average household. And from its modest beginnings, credit began to rapidly extend to large-scale commerce at home and abroad.
*For a great piece on the patent issues with the sewing machine, please see Robert Davies’ article linked below. The legal battle was complex and involved many parties, including Elias Howe, another inventor whose machine inspired Singer’s improvements. Howe walked away a very rich man, receiving a tariff on all future production.
Coffin, Judith G. “Credit, Consumption, and Images of Women’s Desires: Selling the Sewing Machine in Late Nineteeth-Century France.” French Historical Studies. Vol. 18, No. 3 (Spring, 1994), pp. 749 – 783.
Davies, Robert B. “‘Peacefully Working to Conquer the World’: The Singer Manufacturing Company in Foreign Markets, 1854 – 1889.” The Business History Review. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 299 – 325.
Lynn, Robert A. “Installment Credit before 1870.” The Business History Review. Vol. 31, No. 4 (Winter, 1957), pp. 414 – 424.
Both images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Image 1, “Interior view of the central office of I.M. Singer & Co., 458 Broadway, New York City / Keating sc.” August 29, 1857.
Image 2, “The cycle of a century” 1800-1900. Singer sewing machines lead all others.”