James A. & Henry A. House

The House Brothers

James Alford House & Henry Alonzo House

and their contributions to the sewing machine



Issue 106, March 2012

by Martin Gregory


Wheeler & Wilson's original rotary hook machine with its curved needle was the first early machine to be widely cloned and various versions of it survived in production into the twentieth century.

Two of the engineers who developed and improved it, and designed its successor, the Wheeler & Wilson No. 8, were James Alford House (b. 1838) and his younger brother Henry Alonzo House (b. 1840).

The brothers grew up in New York State where James trained as an Architect. Both were ingenious engineers who ended up with long strings of patents to their names. Their first joint patent was for a buttonhole sewing machine, granted in 1862. This was for a very complex machine to sew buttonholes in the army great- coats required in quantity for the troops in the Union Army fighting the Civil War. It was claimed to make 1000 perfect buttonholes in a working day.

The brothers' original patent US 36.932, for the buttonhole machine was filed on 11th November 1862 and led to further patents in 1863 (4) and 1866 (4). The machine required the buttonhole to be cut first so that the needle and top thread could poke through the slot in the cloth and top clamp for the cloth. The patents were assigned to the Wheeler & Wilson Co. and the brothers became engineers to the company in 1864.

A W&W advertisement in 1866 recommended the following qualities of the machine:

1. The garment remains stationary while the needles work around the hole - a point of especial importance.

2. It bars every hole with a gimp or cord and covers the edges smoothly and firmly with two threads.

3. It works quietly and rapidly with but little friction; has no cog-wheels nor turning-plates, and no oil is used above the surface of the work.

4. It works with equal facility silk, linen, and cotton threads upon heavy and light material.

5. It strengthens the eyelet of the hole with an increased number of stitches.

Testimonials warranted that each machine could make 90-100 completed button holes per hour. Would that you could make such claims about today's machines!

The brothers patented a revised profile for the rotating hook of the classic curved needle machine on 10th July 1866 (56224); this is the form of hook that is most common on surviving machines. They even adapted their buttonhole machine to fit on a standard No. 1 frame on 2nd March 1869 (87338).

Both brothers took out patents in other fields and must have been consultants outside their day-job with Wheeler & Wilson. They built a steam carriage in 1866 but abandoned it because it frightened the horses! James worked on a scroll saw, a saw manufacturing machine and a corset boning machine in the 1860s. Henry represented Wheeler & Wilson at the Paris Exposition of 1867 but left the company in 1869 to set up his own factory to manufacture his patent knitting machine.

After 1869, Henry left sewing machines behind and became a successful entrepreneur in many fields. In all his businesses he seems to have been the ingenious engineer who devised the machinery. A couple of his enterprises included a machine to make disposable paper plates and cups (1878) and a telegraph company with a printing telegraph, later merged with the Morse Telegraph Co. (1885). His factory burnt down in 1889 and he went to London, England, to work with Hiram Stevens Maxim on his (Maxim's) flying machine. Whilst in England he and his son Henry Jnr., founded the Liquid Fuel Engineering Company Ltd. (Lifu) which developed a compact paraffin (kerosene) fired boiler + steam engine for small launches, lorries and buses.

Around 1910 he left Henry Jnr, in charge of Lifu in England and returned to America. His last major enterprise was the machinery for making the cereal "Shredded Wheat" in 1915. In all, he took out over 300 patents before he died in 1930.

Meanwhile, James remained at Wheeler & Wilson where, during the 1870s, he laid the foundations for the range of W&W machines which lasted until the takeover by Singer in 1905. All his sewing machine patents of the early 1870s were assigned to Wheeler & Wilson and all were for rotating hook lockstitch machines.

His designs introduced the cased short fat bobbin in place of the disc bobbin of the early machines, a machine with a horizontal drop-in bobbin, a machine with a hook making two rotations per stitch (like the Singer 201 60 years later) and mechanisms to speed up the hook when picking up the loop and slow it down when casting off. I have not been able to find out when he left Wheeler & Wilson. (MG)