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The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine

Posted by James Wolfensberger on

When I first began reading and understanding the history of the sewing machine, I realized I had never considered all possibilities for the way people would have responded to early attempts to build and utilize such a machine.

The machines of Barthelemy Thimonnier engaged in sewing uniforms for the army in France were destroyed by a mob, and the development of what promised to be America's first practical machine (that of Walter Hunt in 1834) was laid aside for fear of taking the bread out of the mouths of the seamstresses.

That quote is from the 1929 Smithsonian report The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine. With the sewing machine being the first "industrial" appliance to become common in the household, it's easy to grasp why it would be dubbed "the servant" (in spite of the required operator). The sewing machine lost this prominence in America about fifty years later as the 1970s evolved - cheap international labor largely replaced home sewing and American women increasingly worked outside of the home as a matter of both equality and financial necessity.

Reading a history composed in 1929 is particularly interesting in that the domestic sewing machine, as used in homes, remained vital to families at that time. The topic was very current. It's a different context than a history of sewing machines written today, less imbued with nostalgia and more immediate in its relevance. Liken this to reading about mobile phone development over the past ten years - something with which 85% of the world's population is intimate.

Would you rather read a 2016 history of the iPhone or a 1929 history of the sewing machine? Since you landed here on this page, I can guess your answer. Enjoy!

Too much to read?

Try The History of the Sewing Machine in a single image.

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