Sewing Machines | Historical Trade Literature in Smithsonian Collections
IntroductionExplore the CollectionAbout the Smithsonian Trade Literature Collections

The Textile Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Sewing machines, along with firearms, clocks, and agricultural machinery, played a major role in developing nineteenth-century American industry. When history museums focus on the evolution of American technology, sewing machines serve as primary evidence in this study. Sewing machines were originally collected by Smithsonian Institution curators because of this importance to the early history of technology. Increasing interest in design, material culture, social and cultural history, economic history, labor history, technical communication, and advertising closely relates to the sewing machine industry and ensures that sewing machines will continue to be researched and explored.

During the nineteenth century, the United States Patent Office Museum of Models exhibited models of patents that had been granted. Ultimately, the number of models on display reached 150,000 and in 1926 Congress decided that the models should be dispersed. The Smithsonian was given the first chance to select models for the national collection, a responsibility shared by Museum curators Frederick Lewton and Carl Mitman. Fortunately for the Textile Collection, Lewton collected heavily in textile manufacturing, particularly sewing machines.

A major acquisition from the Singer Company in 1960 included many important patent models of sewing machines and attachments. Some recent accessions include Mrs. Tom Thumb's sewing machine; Watson's Family Sewing Machine, about 1850; an 1855 American Eagle Sewing Machine (cast in the shape of an eagle); and a collection of Singer Industrial Design Prototypes from the 1940s to the 1970s. The National Museum of American History sewing machine collection currently numbers approximately 750 sewing machine patent models, 750 sewing machine attachment models (tuckers, guides, buttonholers, etc.), and about 250 commercial, family, treadle, cabinet, electric, and toy sewing machines. The dates range from 1842 through 1976.

Early research based on the Textile Collection of sewing machines and models began with The Servant in the House, written by Frederick Lewton in 1929. This Smithsonian Publication, reprinted in 1930 from the Smithsonian Annual Report, 1929, pages 559-83, featured significant sewing machines and their inventors. Grace Rogers Cooper succeeded Lewton as curator and continued to collect sewing machines. Cooper's book, The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development, published in 1968, was revised and expanded in 1976. It is considered a classic in the field. Along with the written history of the sewing machine are photographs of many of the machines in the Collection and illustrations from various pieces of sewing machine trade literature. In 1990 the exhibition catalog, Icons of Invention: American Patent Models, edited by Barbara Suit Janssen, featured a chapter highlighting sewing machines in the Collection.

The Textile Collection of sewing machines has served other purposes as well. Over the years objects from the sewing machine collection have been exhibited in Smithsonian museums and in traveling exhibitions. Researchers - from high school participants in National History Day to academics working on their dissertations to sewing machine collectors - have published works based on the sewing machine collection.

One area of collecting that has grown greatly is that of trade literature. Cooper's 1976 book listed the holdings of the Textile Collection as consisting of thirty-two advertising leaflets, instruction booklets, flyers, and illustrated directions for threading and operating sewing machines. Currently the Textile Collection of sewing machine literature numbers more than 950. Researchers use the collection to enrich their knowledge of commercial sewing machine manufacturing. Collectors use trade literature to learn how to thread machines, to know what parts are missing from machines, and to understand operating instructions. Writers use illustrations from trade literature to picture a machine for which there may be no known surviving example. Finally, finding trade literature for a sewing machine about which little or nothing is known often provides leads to the commercial history of the machine, its inventor, or its manufacturer.

Barbara Suit Janssen
Museum Specialist, Textile Collection
Natural Museum of American History
October 2000

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