Last year the Sutro Library acquired a collection of 19th century trade cards advertising sewing machines. It is not uncommon to find vintage trading cards, also known as advertising cards, in archival collections and it is a treat when you do. Some cards only have text but ones produced after the 1870s are brightly colored and highly visual due to the general adoption of four-color lithography. It is also possible to find die-cut trade cards in unique shapes or possessing folding or moveable paper pieces.
Like our modern day business cards, these highly stylized trade cards served not only as a form of advertising and promotion, but also as a form of decoration or expression. By making the cards attractive and appealing to sentiment, many women would retain the cards—along with their product information—for use in scrapbooks or home décor. Below are fine examples of how the cards used imagery and subjects that had nothing to do with sewing:
This meant that the company’s product was always present and visible to prospective customers. The presence of trading cards in women and girls’ scrapbooks from this era shows how the artwork featured during this time transcended mere commercial purpose and became an extension of personal expression [Lindquist].
Make it Sew
While Elias Howe Jr. is often credited for giving the world the sewing machine, it took several other inventors to create the machine we’re so familiar with today. Howe’s 1846 patent came after the first patent for a machine that sewed, was filed in February 1842 [NY Times]. It is hard to fathom now that before the sewing machine was invented, all clothes had to be fashioned and mended entirely by hand. Until the mid-1850s, people both in America and abroad would seek out professional dressmakers and tailors if they needed something made for a special occasion [Baron]. Wealthy individuals had all their clothes custom made but for the average person, this was a luxury few could afford. Most often, the average person had their clothes made by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or other female relatives if not by themselves (if they were female). This is not to say that men did not sew, but the task fell disproportionately to women.
Sewing was considered “respectable” work and many women made a living or supplemented their income by becoming a seamstress and taking on piecework executed at home. Manufacturers would give a seamstress a bundle of precut garments for construction by hand or the seamstress would receive work from private individuals looking for repairs, updates, or embellishments to be made. This type of work did not pay well and the overhead of rent, candles, thread, needles, etc. came out of the seamstresses’ pocket [Baron]. Competing against the seamstresses for jobs were, “… prison labor, poorhouse labor, farmers’ wives and daughters who sewed to contribute to the household income, and—especially by the 1850s—with church women’s sewing circles, which used the money earned for charity [Baron].”
Commercially, the adoption of the sewing machine brought many changes: the development of the garment industry, the displacement of hand labor, and a greater attainment of speed, uniformity, and precision creating finished products. One source states that the introduction of the sewing machine was estimated to perform the work of six hand sewers in the late 1850s [Baron].
Sew Much to Do
As a means of domestic economy, sewing could be a chore or a choice, a survival skill or an agent of personal expression, depending on the circumstances [Gordon]. Home sewing was gendered labor regardless of whether it was for hire or not. A wife or mother was responsible for all the clothes in the family, all the time. This never-ending task occupied a great deal of time and labor: “No one invention has brought with it so great a relief for our mothers and daughters as these iron needle-women. Indeed, it is the only invention that can be claimed chiefly for woman’s benefit.” [NYTimes]
Naturally, women sewing at home and home-based seamstresses were a potential market for sewing machines, but very few could afford them in the 1850s and 1860s [Baron]. In fact, in 1920, over 50 years after the sewing machine was introduced to the home market, home sewing and clothing production continued. A survey at that time found that the average worker’s wife, “… would need to sew a significant proportion of clothing for herself and her hypothetical three children, including one apron, ten cotton dresses, one wool dress, and three cotton blouses a year [Gordon].” For women of all income levels, sewing was a form of economy since homemade clothing was cheaper than ready-made.
While the work of sewing was demanding to be sure, it also provided women a venue for self-expression and creativity that traveled outside of the home. The home sewer crafted a visible narrative of her family. The clothes she made either helped in the family’s upward mobility socially or preserved their class status [Gordon].
Dressing well and adapting current fashions to one’s personal taste was a source of power for women: “From the 1890s through the 1920s, sewing fulfilled white, middle-class ideals of domesticity and provided wage-earning women a way to dress ‘respectably.’ Sewing upheld class, race, and gender hierarchies while simultaneously serving as a means to fight discrimination, gain economic power, and challenge notions of correct appearances.” [Gordon] Many women took pride in their handiwork and creativity and found a sense of satisfaction from the praise they received.
Sew Much More
The trading cards found in the Sutro Library’s new collection show advertisements that feature more than just a company’s newest sewing machine. An implied message found in the cards is that a “modern woman” sews on a machine and only “ladies of yore” continue to hand sew thus trying to entice younger women to adopt the new technology.
Adopting this machine, however, was welcoming the Industrial Revolution into the most intimate space one had: your home.
In a way, it was bringing the factory with all its noise, grease, gears, and switches into an environment that seemed so counter to what the Revolution represented.
Were the copious amounts of kittens, children, flowers, and scenery used in the ads all a ploy to make the machines less intimidating? These cards depict how hard the manufacturers tried to normalize the presence of this heavy machinery in the home.
Additionally, the cards push a dishonest depiction of a mostly white, American middle class ideal that erroneously assumed the majority of its buyers wished to obtain:
Looking at the trade cards en mass, the ads imply that buying one of these machines will allow the purchaser to sew clothes that will demonstrate how “respectable” they were and help them obtain this fanciful American life. None of the women in the cards look like they work in a factory. Most of them are well dressed, with stylized hair and immaculate children living in decorated homes with blooming gardens.
In fact, some manufacturers created custom wooden cabinetry for their machines and advertised them specifically to be part of one’s décor.
The fantasy of what you could create with a sewing machine did not end with the consumer. The companies themselves believed their products created a better life for people around the globe. For example, Singer, one of the major manufacturing companies, created a series of trade cards in the 1890s featuring men and women from different countries dressed in traditional clothing and posing with a Singer sewing machine. Called “Costumes of All Nations,” Singer created the cards as a souvenir package for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago [Massachusetts Collections]:
The accompanying text offers scholars searing insight into how American society at that time viewed race, ethnicity, consumerism, and industrialization:
Singer states that its products—and by extension, themselves—improved emerging world markets after people adopted their sewing machines. This hubris hints at the continued human rights issues surrounding the emancipation or exploitation of laborers today working for the global fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia [Mehta].
There are so many ways scholars can use these trade cards as a primary resource. As an example of commercial printing, the cards demonstrate the artwork and craft of dozens of woodcuts, lithographers, and paper producers.
The Sutro Library’s collection in particular documents how sewing machines, like firearms, the telegraph, and the cotton gin, played a major role in developing American’s industrialized society. The cards stand as a physical testament to the size and development of the machines themselves and the corresponding growth of companies such as Singer, New Home, and Remington. These companies’ advertisements propagated an idealized view of womanhood that still reverberates today and provides direct evidence of how early advertising promoted ideas of race, gender, and the role of women in the American home. Additionally, labor and economic history trends can be seen, as well as the growing interest in material culture in the later part of the 19th Century.
Studying sewing machines advertisements offers scholars a highly illustrated example of how the growth and development of American technology changed over time [Cooper].
We would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for making this acquisition possible.
This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.
Baron, Ava and Susan E. Klepp, “If I didn’t have my sewing machine…” Women and Sewing Machine Technology” found in Jensen, J. M., & Davidson, S. (1984). A Needle, a bobbin, a strike: Women needleworkers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Cooper, G. R., & Cooper, G. R. (1976). The sewing machine: Its invention and development. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. https://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/HST/Cooper/CF/view.cfm
“Costumes of all nations, India, etc. The Singer Manufacturing Co., New York, New York, 1892,” Massachusetts Collections Online found at: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth-oai:cf95mx45x
Gordon, Sarah A. “BOUNDLESS POSSIBILITIES”: Home Sewing and the Meanings of Women’s Domestic Work in the United States, 1890-1930. Journal of Women’s History; Baltimore Vol. 16, Iss. 2, (2004): 68-91,209. DOI:10.1353/jowh.2004.0045
Lindquist, Benjamin. Slow Time and Sticky Media: Frank Beard’s Political Cartoons, Chalk Talks, and Hieroglyphic Bibles, 1860–1905, Winterthur Portfolio 53, no.11 (Jun 2019): 41–84. https://doi.org/10.1086/703977
Mehta, Shiyani. “Garmet Worker Exploitation: An International Human Rights Problem.” Found in Human Rights Pulse, August 25,2020. https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/garment-worker-exploitation-an-international-human-rights-problem
“The story of the sewing-machine: Its Invention Improvements Social, Industrial and Commercial Importance,” New York Times, January 7, 1860, Page 2. https://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/07/archives/the-story-of-the-sewingmachine-its-invention-improvements-social.html