Singer Sewing Machine’s World, 1892

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If ever a particular brand-name machine changed the lives of Americans, it was the Singer sewing machine. The first American patent was issued to Elias Howe for “a process that used thread from two different sources.” But sewing machines did not become mass produced until the 1850s, with Isaac Singer’s first commercial machine. “Singer built the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle,” notes “Previous machines were all hand-cranked.”

In addition to making essential machinery, the Singer Manufacturing Company was an aggressive advertiser. During the 1890s, when chromolithographic “trade cards” were the customary promotional giveaway, Singer’s cards were among the most ambitious. Some of their cards simply showed the iconic machine or the “S” logo, while others took customers on a tour of the world. Talk about product placement in the international series, Singer machines are found in the four corners—the Zelig of machinery—representing progress and civilization at its most grand (and Western). Shown here is a portion of a larger set I recently acquired that is also in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which notes:

Each card features people from a different country dressed in traditional clothing and posing with Singer sewing machines. The rich color and high level of detail in the chromolithographs make these images enduringly engaging while the accompanying text provides insight into contemporary discourses on race, ethnicity, consumerism and industrialization.

The visually rich cards draw the viewer in to read the advertisements for Singer sewing machines, which reference interwoven tropes of race, ethnicity, imperialism, and industrial progress. This text is transcribed in the additional information area of the image record.

Singer seemed to understand precisely how to use the new advertising medium to get onto everyone’s lips. The company alternated between the hard and soft sells. One set focuses on the alluring American Song Bird on the chromolithographic front of the card and Singer promotional copy in black and white on the back. By the 20s and 30s advertisements in national magazines, posters and signs were more directly aimed toward the consumer. It has been well over 100 years since these cards were printed. Lots of advertising under the bridge. And as testament to the brand, when asked to name a sewing machine, I still can only come up with Singer.

.For more Steven Heller, check out his book The Education of an Art Director—one of the many Heller titles available at