This Day in History
Elias Howe Demonstrates the First Sewing Machine

Elias Howe Demonstrates the First Sewing Machine
September 11,1846

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States, especially New England, contributed lavishly to the Industrial Revolution. Eli Whitney invented not only the cotton gin, but the principle of interchangeable parts; David Bushnell launched the first submarine; Charles Goodyear galvanized rubber for the first time; the artist Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph; and Charles Thurber, chiefly, developed the typewriter. None contributed more than Elias Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts, who, in 1846, received the first patent for the sewing machine; and, after bitter struggles, years later vindicated his title to that invention.

In the beginning, his invention met with hostility and skepticism - hostility from seamstresses, threatened by technological displacement; skepticism about its effectiveness. In 1845 Howe demonstrated its value by a public competition with five seamstresses: it is that scene which Mr. Künstler has here recreated. Even Howe’s rather primitive machine, operated by hand, outperformed what the seamstresses could do. With the introduction, first, of the foot pedal, and then of electric-powered machines - which achieved up to 2000 stitches per minute - the sewing machine all but put an end to traditional dressmaking and tailoring. The sewing machine, in short, was socially as well as economically one of the more important inventions of the nineteenth century. It turned tailor shops - and later even shoe shops - into factories. It created vast new ready-made clothing industries, and the subsequent urbanization invited the organization of labor unions on a large scale. Such unions would prove among the most progressive and enlightened in the whole of organized laber.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.