Small-Scale 20th Century Design: The Singer Sewing Machine

Women’s work, indeed!

Scanned image of a newsletter article presented by the Packard Motor Car Company.
Scanned image of a clipping from LIFE magazine, n.d.

Take a look at the clipping above, one that lauds the practice of knitting as a contribution to the war effort. It’s also a clever bit of marketing for the Packard Twin-Six, professing its ability to efficiently use gasoline, which was in short supply during World War II. Packard was instrumental during World War II, as we’ve discussed multiple times on this blog (read more here, here, here, and here). While we love to highlight Packard’s military history, today we’re taking a look at a different kind of engineering. And like the efficiently-engineered automobiles in our fleet, this example of fine mechanical precision is also at the PPG.

Vintage, early 20th century Singer sewing machine on display in the Lodge House at the Packard Proving Ground.
1910 Singer Sphinx Sewing Machine, Model #27. Photo credit: Hilary Davis.

This beautiful Singer sewing machine was donated by Hilary Davis (volunteer extraordinaire and author of the multi-post “Serendipity” series here on our blog). According to the serial number, the machine is a 1910 Singer Sphinx, Model #27. Hilary’s research revealed that our machine was likely developed in the Singer factory out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Approximately 50,000 models were manufactured there in 1910 alone, and the Lodge House machine is one of them. (Who knows how many are left floating around?)

“The machine I donated is electric, but research shows that it was most likely originally a treadle-operated sewing machine,” Hilary reported. “Treadle machines were often refitted with electric motors and foot pedals. The motor on [this] sewing machine is newer than the sewing unit and the drive belt doesn’t line up properly with the motor, main wheel and the bobbin winder, which confirms that the motor is an add-on.”

The sewing machine now enjoys a place in the Lodge House kitchen, positioned on the back work table. It’s possible that other sewing implements preceded this machine in this very place, as utilized by the Vincent family back when the Lodge House was inhabited. Odds are that Lodge House matriarch Lucile Vincent owned a sewing machine like this one, keeping it in the kitchen where her ironing was done.

In fact, it’s more than likely that this is the case, according to Hilary’s report. “My grandmothers were both born the same year as Lucile and they both had sewing machines,” she stated. “So did their sisters and cousins and friends. Just about every woman I knew from that age group had a sewing machine.” This was the case for my own grandmother as well, a bona fide wizard with sewing and cross-stitch. She made beautiful clothes and decorations, either by hand or with a sewing machine.

There was both artistry and necessity in sewing machine ownership.

Owning a sewing machine not only enabled 20th Century women to express their creativity, it also enabled them to provide practically for their families and themselves. “Back in those days, especially during the Depression, you made your own clothes and repaired them as needed,” Hilary reminded me. “People also sewed their own sheets and towels. A sewing machine helped women become self-sufficient and spared them the drudgery and tired eyes and fingers that went with hand stitching.” Although a sewing machine was likely a considerable expense to most women at the time, it was a worthwhile piece of technology to own and operate.

Our Singer sewing machine is still in good shape, given its age. It’s lovely to look at, with beautiful gold designs and stencils across the body of the machine. It runs smoothly, too, thanks to a careful once-over provided by her husband. Or it would run smoothly, had Hilary’s cautious nature considered safety first! “The old electric motor could be a fire hazard, so we removed the plug just in case someone wanted to plug it in and try it out,” she said. “We also removed the needle to keep little (or large) fingers from getting poked!”

Do you have original Packard documents, photographs, publications, or memorabilia that might be of value to the Packard Proving Grounds Library and Archives? Contact the site for information about our collection focus and donation policies.

A big thank-you goes out to Hilary for providing the topic and research for this post!

Author

  • Emily Benoit

    Lover of research and writing, libraries and archives. Graduate of Oakland University's MA of English Literature program; and Wayne State University's MLIS program with an additional certification in archival administration.