CANADIAN SEWING MACHINES

While the history and development of the sewing machine industry in the United States has received considerable attention, very little research has been conducted on the same industry in Canada. In fact, it is not commonly known that Canada even had such an industry. Despite the large number of American sewing machines sold here in the nineteenth century, however, a domestic industry did emerge which produced thousands of machines over a period of thirty years. The industry's development and decline can be measured from 1860 to 1897, a period when fourteen Ontario manufacturers, in business from as few as two to as many as thirty-four years, were producing family or domestic sewing machines.

These operations varied significantly in size and production output, the smallest employing 12 men and producing 2.500 machines per year and the largest employing 300-400 mechanics and producing approximately 1.500 machines per week. Since the primary materials required in the manufacture of sewing machines were coal, iron, and steel, factory locations were principally governed by transportation routes. As with most other industries, sewing machine factories tended to be situated either close to shipping centres along Lake Ontario or connected to the lake by the railroad. Ontario's sewing machine factories were scattered in a variety of locations, including Belleville, Perth, Toronto, St. Catharines, Hamilton, and Guelph, and although each of these towns or cities was capable of sustaining a certain portion of the industry, Hamilton and Guelph ultimately became the two major centres for sewing machine manufacturing.

Ontario-manufactured machines were based on exactly the same principles and elements as American machines. There was a trend among Canadian inventors to make additions or alterations to the basic principles; however, no significant new inventions in sewing machine technology were developed here. Stylistically Ontario machines were slightly behind their American competitors, but in quality and workmanship they were considered to be on a par.

Surprisingly, the sewing machine got off to a very poor start in Ontario. In the 1850s there was tremendous resistance to the "iron seamstress" from both tailors and housewives - ironically, the two groups who had the most to gain from using it. In the opinion of many tailors the sewing machine threatened to ruin their trade. Whereas it took an estimated sixteen hours and thirty-five minutes to sew a frock coat by hand, the same work could be done in two hours and thirty-eight minutes by machine.2 Therefore, the tailors reasoned, the sewing machine would put many of them out of business. In 1852 the introduction of a sewing machine in the Toronto tailoring establishment of Walker and Hutchison resulted in Toronto's first organized labour strike. A similar reaction occurred in Hamilton and for a time the sewing machine was set aside.

Many women were also skeptical of this newfangled device with its high price and complicated construction. They were reluctant to believe a machine could sew as well as they could. To prove that any woman could successfully operate a sewing machine, the manufacturers approached the problem in several ways. They hired female demonstrators to show off the versatility and ease of mechanical sewing. They provided free instruction to buyers in their own homes. And they even offered their machines at a reduced rate to wives of the clergy, hoping that these respected women might set an example others would follow.

During the 1860s the popularity of the sewing machine increased and several manufacturers built factories in Ontario. Due to favourable patent legislation, which encouraged manufacturers to pirate foreign technology, a variety of machines were produced. However, the still limited demand enabled only two of the companies to survive the decade.

Ontario sewing machine manufacturing entered its heyday during the early 1870s. Improved or refined technology resulted in well-constructed, durable machines that could be manufactured cheaply and sold at a price affordable by everyone. Favourable public reaction to this cheap, accessible, labour-saving device was reflected in the tremendous increase in demand during the 1870s. The manufacture of sewing machines clearly spelled opportunity and the decade witnessed the establishment of a wave of new companies and an enormous increase in registered Canadian sewing machine patents. It was also during the 1870s that the sewing machine became a leading Canadian export.

By the mid 1870s there were clearly too many Ontario sewing machine companies competing for the domestic market and a number of the smaller companies either folded or were absorbed by larger ones. The eventual decline of the industry occurred for a variety of reasons. Changes in Canadian patent requirements resulted in a proliferation of American branch plants on Canadian soil, a factor which seriously threatened Canadian dominance in the home market. Comparatively low tariffs on imports promoted the dumping of American sewing machines into the Canadian market at ruinous prices. In addition, overproduction and the depression of the late 1870s severely damaged the industry. The ultimate result was disaster for the once thriving sewing machine industry of Ontario and one by one the companies disappeared.

Although the factories and the inventors are long gone, a great many of the machines still survive and they tell a great deal about themselves if one takes the time to make a careful examination. Almost all are marked with a patent date, a manufacturer's initial or name, and the name of the model. Some even have the original instruction booklet tucked away neatly in a drawer.

Despite slight differences in appearance and construction, sewing machines from this period make either a chain-stitch or a lock-stitch. The chain-stitch is made by "passing the needle through the seam and bringing it back but leaving an open loop on the underside through which a second loop was thrust, this in turn secured by a third loop, and so on". The chain-stitch requires only one thread and the operation is simple and fast.

The more complicated but more commonly used stitch is the lock-stitch, a type of stitch peculiar to machine sewing. In this stitch "a loop of thread is pushed through the seam, as in the chain-stitch, but is secured by a second thread, which is thrust through the loop by means of a tiny shuttle before the loop is closed by retraction of the needle". The structure of this stitch is very simple and when, with proper tension, the threads inter-lock, the stitch shows the same on both sides and is very secure. Therefore, if the machine has a shuttle or a space for a shuttle directly below the needle, it is a lock-stitch machine. If there is no indication of this type of mechanism on the machine, it is probably a chain-stitch machine.

Ontario's sewing machine manufacturers provided something for everyone. In addition to the large variety of machines on the market, the buyer also had her choice of tables, castings and decorations. Treadle machines came with plain stands, stands with moulding, stands with extensions, stands with extensions and/or drawers and full cabinet cases as fine as any piece of parlour furniture. Sewing machines inlaid with ebony, mother-of-pearl, or other decorative embellishments were also available upon request.

Who were these manufacturers and what kinds of machines did they produce? The following section is a chronological sketch of the companies and machines which comprised Ontario's sewing machine industry from 1860 to 1897.

 extract from

journals.lib.unb.ca

  

1852

Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire advertiser. - Friday 27 February 1852
Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire advertiser. - Friday 27 February 1852
Bell's Weekly Messenger - Saturday 28 February 1852
Bell's Weekly Messenger - Saturday 28 February 1852

 

 

1886

The Canadian Sewing Machine Trade

 

Our exchanges from America give a rather unsatisfactory report of the present condition of the Canadian sewing machine trade.

Bradstreets says : "The sewing machine industry of Canada must take a turn for the better soon, or it will be numbered among the enterprises that have been. After the manufacture of sewing machines had been well established in the United States, a number of enterprising Americans went over to Canada and in conjunction with Canadian capitalists started a number of factories at Montreal, Hamilton, Kingston, Guelph and elsewhere. Notwithstanding the competition of United States makers, these manufacturers for years did an extensive home and foreign trade. Ten years ago the exports and value of the machines were as follows :

                                                     No. of Machines                       Value

Great Britain ....................................   9.594  ....................  Dols.  120.975

United States ................................... 11.161  ....................     ,,    101.868

Newfoundland ..................................       17  ....................     ,,           585

British West Indies ...........................      381  ....................     ,,        4.643

South America  ................................   2.371  ....................     ,,       23.260

Germany .........................................   7.064  ....................     ,,       49.318

Mexico  ...........................................        32  ....................     ,,           508

Australia .........................................       504  ....................     ,,        4.592

                                                        ======                      ==========

                                         Total ........ 31.124                        Dols.   305.749

 

The imports of sewing machines in the same year (1876) numbered 1.340, valued at 35.169 dols. on which a duty of 6.154 dols. was paid. In 1876, at the request of the manufacturers, the duty was raised from 17,5  per cent, to 2,00 dols. a machine and 20 per cent, added. With this duty the Canadian manufacturers hoped to obtain a better control over the home market and also to increase their exports. The returns for 1885, presented to parliament the other day, show how much short of their expectations the results have come. While the imports have increased nearly seven-fold, the exports show a huge falling off, as will be seen from the annexed table :

                                                     No. of Machines                       Value

Great Britain ......................................  7.080 ......................  Dols.  47.974

United States ........................................  803 ......................    ,,       6.810

Newfoundland .........................................  14 ......................    ,,          349

France ..................................................  112 ......................    ,,       1.223

British West Indies .................................  409 .......................   ,,       3.208

South West Indies .................................  160 ........................   ,,       2.071

Brazil .................................................... 112 ........................   ,,       1.528

Mexico ..................................................   80 ........................   ,,          993

British Africa .........................................  601 ........................   ,,       4.782

China ......................................................  7 ........................   ,,            59

Australia ..................................................  2 ........................   ,,            31

                                                          =====                           ========

                                                Total .... 9.380                            Dols. 69.028

Last year the imports of sewing machines into Canada were 7.871, valued at 169.146 dols., on which a duty of 4.957.738 dols. was paid. The most notable features of these returns are the enormous decrease within the past ten years of the export of Canadian machines into the United States, the complete annihilation of Canada's sewing machine trade with Germany and the great reduction of trade with the Antipodes and south America. It will be seen, too, that in order to make the sales now made, the Canadian manufacturers have been compelled to reduce the export price of machines from a little less than 10,00 dols. each to about 7,50 dols. One cause of the decrease in the Canadian trade is understood to be the reduction in the price of United States' machines, caused by the expiration of the royalties and another is known to be the duty on coal, iron, varnishes and machinery.  

 

The Journal of Domestic Appliances and Sewing Machine Gazette 1886

 

 

 

 

 

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