Singer Sewing Machine Advertisement

This early twentieth century metal sign is an advertisement by the Singer Manufacturing Company (now called The Singer Company) for Singer Sewing Machines. Although Isaac Merritt Singer, the company’s founder, did not invent the sewing machine, his innovative design dramatically improved the capabilities of existing models. Possessing both technical expertise as well as a flair for business, Singer was the first to look beyond the commercial market and see tremendous opportunity – as yet untapped – selling sewing machines directly to households.

Singer’s inspired vision made it possible for millions of people, including immigrants on the Lower East Side, to buy their own sewing machines. By the 1850s, intrigued by the potential of mass production – a new technique then used to manufacture firearms – he adopted the same methods to mass-produce sewing machines. Production costs dropped significantly, enabling Singer to cut his machine’s sticker price from $100 to $10. Striving to make sewing machines even more affordable to average families, Singer’s company was also the first to offer an installment payment plan, allowing customers with limited income to buy now and pay back over time.

For many immigrants on the Lower East Side, affordable sewing machines presented an opportunity to earn a better living. By the turn of the century, more than half of the workers on the Lower East Side worked in the garment industry. By 1910, 70% of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40% of the men’s was produced in New York City. Many immigrants set up garment shops inside their tenement apartments and a Singer Sewing Machine was an invaluable investment. Although hand stitching was still demanded for certain kinds of detail work, it was impossible to compete with the speed of a sewing machine for less painstaking work. An experienced seamstress could easily sew 40 stitches per minute by hand, but at 900 stitches per minute, a skilled sewing machine operator was capable of working nearly 23 times faster.

This metal sign advertised the sewing machine to Jewish clientele using both Yiddish and Hebrew. The red square-like shape is the Yiddish letter samech and makes the “s” sound. Notice the same letter on the bottom of the sign where the name “Singer” is written in Yiddish characters. The top of the sign, which says “sewing machines” is written in Hebrew – mechonos tefira. (Sewing machines in Yiddish is ney mashinen.)

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the garment industry attract immigrant workers?
  • The advertisement depicts a very different scene than the photograph of the garment shop from the same era. How would you compare the advertisement to the reality of the garment shop?

Lewis Hine. Group of sweatshop workers in shop of M. Silverman. 30 Suffolk St., N. Y. Feb. 21, 1908.
Library of Congress.

Classroom Extensions

  • Consider businesses today that advertise in more than one language. Locate a contemporary advertisement to compare and contrast with this one. Explore the marketing strategies used in both.
  • Have students design an advertisement marketed to an immigrant population. Both the object being advertised and the design should speak to a particular ethnic group. Have students present their advertisements and explain their choices.
  • Many laborers found the conditions of garment shops like the one pictured above to be unacceptable. Discuss acceptable working conditions with your class. How many hours are reasonable to work? At what wage? In what kind of setting? Have students come up with standards for acceptable working conditions and compare their list with that of the United States Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
  • Learn more about innovator Isaac Merritt Singer at the PBS site Who Made America.