I love sewing, indeed I make all my own clothes, so when I spotted an article in Godey’s Lady’s Book about “The Fairy Sewing Machine” I had to know more. But like tugging on a thread and watching a garment unravel, when I pulled on that thread I discovered some unexpected connections and implications to this seemingly innocent household device.
The Fairy Sewing Machine
First, let’s look at the device in question which Godey describes thus: “In the first place it will attract attention from its diminutive, fairy-like size and with the same ease with which it can be carried, an important matter to a seamstress or dressmaker employed from house to house … What no other sewing machine attempts to do, it runs and does not stitch, it sews the more delicate materials an ordinary sewing machine cuts or draws….”
The Fairy Sewing Machine was designed as a labor-saving machine to sew lightweight fabrics (a baby’s layette is mentioned) which is portable and easy to use. The machine is clamped to a tabletop for use, where it sews a running stitch via a “simple hand-cranked gear cloth feed.”
At a retail price of $19, it was also considerably cheaper than larger more conventional machines selling for around $125. A bargain, I hear you cry…but not so fast. Let’s convert those 1863 prices to 2023
- $19 is equivalent to around $460 today
- $125 is equivalent to over $3,000 today.
Ouch! Suddenly this gentile machine falls into the luxury goods category. However, an interesting footnote is the Christie’s Auction House, London, recently sold (2019) just such a machine for around $880 (equivalent value in 2023) so a purchase price of $19 seems a reasonable investment!
The article that drew my attention in Godey’s Lady’s Book was a covert advert, and the ad placed by Fairy’s remarkable creator, Ellen Louise Demorest. (More of her shortly.)
Sewing and Society
In the 19th century, home sewing ticked all the boxes of an ideal occupation for women (as decided by men). It was gentile, productive, home-based, and demonstrated patience and a nurturing spirit. In the extract below, taken from a letter, Mrs. Trench expresses herself admirably:
[Sewing] fills up the interstices of time… It accords with most of the indoor employments of men, who… do not much like to see us engaged in anything which abstracts us too much from them. It lessens the ennui of hearing children read the same story five hundred times. It can be brought into the sick room without diminishing our attention to an invalid. May 1811, Mrs. Trench to Mrs Leadbeater. [*]
The invention of the sewing machine was in some ways controversial. One of the early concerns about its invention was it would put seamstresses out of work. Indeed, for this reason in 1833, the prolific inventor Walter Hunt decided against patenting his device, as he didn’t want to put seamstresses out of work. However, in reality, these machines were so expensive they were a luxury item and only available for the few. Indeed, the early sewing machines were ornately decorated as they were designed to be on show in a drawing room, to advertise that the owner was a person of wealth.
An unexpected upshot of the rise of the domestic machine was it helped liberate some women, but not in the way you might expect. By enabling women to create their own garments with less effort, they started sewing garments such as pantaloons for cycling, which weren’t available to buy elsewhere. They were also able to sew banners and sashes for the various campaigns promoting Votes for Women, and thu loosen the hold of the patriarchy.
An Innovative Woman: Ellen Demorest
Talking of which, the inventor of the Fairy Sewing Machine was something of an innovator. Ellen Louise Demorest (1824 – 1898) was a successful milliner and an ‘influencer’ of the day. She is credited with inventing the tissue paper sewing pattern, a method of sharing sewing patterns with the masses that is still widely used to this day.
Ellen set up a company, with her husband, which interpreted French fashions onto paper and sold the patterns within the US. She was no slouch when it came to marketing and in 1860 setup a magazine to promote the patterns. This brings us back to Godey and her ‘article’ (read advert) within Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Godey as a Social Influencer
Going back to the original article about the Fairy Sewing Machine which caught my eye, this was in a copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book. The latter was the 19th-century version of Vogue magazine meets Amazon. It contained articles about fashion, crafts, cooking, and what the well-to-do had in their homes and also offered goods for sale. It was a highly desirable publication (and mentioned in Margaret Attwood’s book ‘Alias Grace’ which I’ve just finished reading, as a copy was found covered in blood in the bed of one of the murder victims….but I digress).
Godey and Demorest must have been a match made in heaven, as they had similar ideas of self-promotion. Godey was aware that husbands would pay for their wives’ subscription to his magazine, so positioned it as being a money-saving purchase for the husband.
Remember the Lady’s Book is not a mere luxury; it is a necessity. There is no lady who takes the Book that does not save twice the price of it in a year in the matter of domestic economy. Its receipts, its patterns, its needle-work, and its instructions in housekeeping are invaluable to the housekeeper. [Paragraph from Godey’s Lady’s book explaining the book’s worth. ]
Godey also peppered the magazine with cautionary tales of husbands stopping the subscription, only to find they were out of pocket because their spouses no longer had access to money-saving recipes and needlework ideas.
This brings us neatly back to the Fairy Sewing Machine and an observation that although the sewing machine was a time-saving device, sewing was almost exclusively a female pastime that proved their feminity, and it remained a female foot that pressed the treadle.
Godey’s Lady’s Book: Godey’s Armchair, Vol 66, 1863
A Stitch in Time, VAM, Letter, May 1811, Mrs Trench to Mrs Leadbeater