Singer Corporation, now known as Bicoastal Corporation, is the company that brought the world the sewing machine. There are Singer Sewing machines in almost every country in the world and Singer instructions in more than 50 languages. Mahatma Gandhi learned to sew on a Singer and called it “one of the few useful things ever invented.” I will attempt to explain how Singer came to be one of America’s big businesses.
Isaac Merritt Singer was born in Pittstown, New York in 1811, and ran away from his immigrant parents at the age of 12 to join a troupe of traveling actors. He remained an actor until 1835, inventing things on the side. The first patent for a sewing machine was granted in 1790 in England but no one had been able to come up with a reliable design that did not need frequent repairs. Because of this sewing machines had never become commercially successful.
In 1850 Singer came up with a design and patented it. In 1851 Singer and Company was born and the Singer sewing machine was an immediate success. The machine was, however very close in design to that of Elias Howe who had been on the verge of solving the problem of the unreliable sewing machine. He sued for patent infringement. Singer hired a young lawyer to defend him. In exchange for his services Clark became an equal partner in the company. Singer ran the manufacturing side and Clark the Financial side. Clark ended the lawsuit and pooled the two patents together creating the Singer Machine Combination. This was the first patent pool in America.
Until the late 1850s, because of the price of the sewing machines, the company concentrated on the commercial market e.g. professional tailors and clothing manufactures. But around this time Clark introduced the first customer installment payment plan. Combined with an intensive marketing campaign, this meant that the product could reach a wider market than ever before and even those with relatively low incomes could afford the sewing machines.
By 1855 Singer was the world’s biggest sewing company. It begans its overseas expansion starting in Paris, making Singer the world’s first international company. The first factory outside the United States was opened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1961, followed by distribution centers in London, England, and a factory in Brighton, England that was the biggest in the U.K. at the time. By 1867 international sales exceeded at home sales for the first time.
In 1863, Clark and Singer dissolved their partnership after personal problems between the two. This was the result of Singer’s sordid lifestyle choice came to light. (24 children by 8 different women!). The company was incorporated as the Singer Manufacturing Company. Both partners retained some stock but sold the rest to employees. Clark continued as president until 1882 and Singer fled to England and died in 1875.
The Presidents following Clark consolidated Singer’s role as America’s first multinational company. They opened factories in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Prussia, Russia and Austria. The European operations were exporting machines to Africa and the South Pacific by the turn of the century. To meet the growing demand in Europe, Singer opened the largest sewing machine factory in the world in Kilbowie, Scotland. This factory employed 12,000 workers and featured the world’s second largest clock tower at 200 feet high.
This international outlook was matched with strong marketing and research and development. In 1870 the red “S” girl trademark made her debut and soon became one of the world’s best known and loved emblems. The company was propelled even more into the public eye when they build the world’s first skyscraper in New York. The Head Quarters building stood at 47 stories and 612 feet tall.
By 1900 Singer was producing 40 different sewing machines including electric powered machines. These were only available in the commercial models but in 1921 Singer introduced the Portable Electric, which was an electric-motor powered model for personal use. Singer’s continual development of new models meant that customers often upgraded and the market did not become saturated.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Singer’s profits rose steadily as a sewing machine in the home became indispensable. Although, this dipped following the Second World War and Singer has struggled to regain its position to this day.