Raunchy third-rate actor, after many wanderings, reluctantly improves the sewing machine


At the end of his life, Singer looked very much like the Belgian King Leopold II: a stout man with a long white beard who looks imperiously out at the world.

In a photo from 1870, five years before his death, he is sitting with his wife Isabella, three children and two governesses in the park of the 'insanely extravagant' house he had built in Torquay, England.

The whole company may look dignified, but no one can fail to notice that the three women look remarkably gloomy. In the entourage of Isaac Merrit Singer, world ruler in the sewing machine industry, there was no laughing matter.

He disposed of women, say his biographers, as if he were old rubbish, he cheated on friends, and every means was good to fool competitors. He was known as a loud, brash bully, feared for his ranting and hated for his tyrannical behavior.

Until he was 40, he had roamed the United States as a third-rate actor and suffered poverty. Twenty years later, however, he was extremely wealthy and everyone was allowed to know.

How could someone with such a debauched lifestyle build a solid business empire?

Singer's father, whose real name was Reisinger, moved from Saxony to New York at the beginning of the last century. He married a woman of Dutch descent and went through life as a millwright and cooper. Isaac was born on October 27, 1811.

When he was 10 his parents separated. He couldn't get along with his stepmother and ran away from home at the age of twelve, without money, without friends, barely literate. Theater was his passion, performing in Shakespeare's plays his dream.

He was part of countless itinerant theater companies and for years even had his own theater group, the 'Merrit Players'. Singer had the figure to be on stage.

He certainly also had the voice and above all the necessary animal vitality, as one critic put it, but the verdict was unanimous that the man was a hopeless dilettante.
He had inherited from his father the gift of working with machines, of quickly getting to the bottom of their secrets, of adapting and improving them if necessary.

The money he took as a mechanic in between was only used to indulge his passion for the theater. For 27 years he performed unskilled labor here and there.

While digging trenches, he developed the idea for a drill that could break through rocky soil, for which he obtained his first patent in 1839. When he was employed in a printing house to cut letters out of wood, he devised a machine for this.

He was unlucky that just around that time lead printing came into vogue.


In the summer of 1850, he was a mechanic in the Boston workshop of one Orson Phelps when one of the first sewing machines—developed by Elias Howe in 1846—was brought in for repair.

Phelps called Singer over and together they examined the device, which clearly showed all kinds of flaws to a professional. Singer was not interested in it.

According to tradition, he would then have spoken the historic words: 'Should I now put an end to the only occupation that can keep women quiet?' Yet in twelve hours he designed sketches for a number of radical improvements.

After eleven days of plodding, these were also carried out. Not all historians agree on exactly what improvements were involved. "Of the dozens of variants from those years, Singer's machine looks the most familiar to us today," said one expert.

He patented these improvements on August 12, 1851.

The IM Singer & Company was founded that same year to manufacture and market the new machine.

Singer was the designer-mechanic, Orson Phelps made his studio available and the businessman George Zieber - with an advance of forty dollars - applied as financier.

With his experience as a traveling actor, Singer traveled through markets and squares and managed to wear out his improved sewing machine. However, he led the profits in obscure channels so that there was never anything to divide with the partners.

Phelps quickly gave up and Zieber relinquished his last shares after being ambushed and pressured by Singer in his sickbed.

Just around that time, the original inventor Elias Howe from England showed up with a friendly request to pay him $25,000 for violating his patent rights.

Singer then committed one of the rare business blunders in his life, scolding Howe and kicking him down the stairs. The process that followed would go down in history as 'the sewing machine war' and last three years.

Fearing that his case would go bankrupt, Singer turned to young lawyer Edward Clark for help. And so a combination of technical insight and commercial talent was born that would eventually take Singer's machine around the world.

Commercial genius

If there was one man in the world who had to be turned off by the boisterous Singer, it was the neat, caring, and reserved lawyer Edward Clark, who taught Sunday school.

But the notorious trial, in which Singer, incidentally, lost out, generated so much publicity that things took off.

Clark became a shareholder, took over the business management and Singer was able to stroll, made small improvements to his machine, bought a few patents here and there and advertised his device at fairs and fairs.

Before and after his sales pitch, he liked to sing an old-fashioned tearjerker: he just couldn't resist.

The true commercial genius turned out to be Edward Clark. The lawyer discovered that many men thought their wives were too stupid to operate such a complicated machine. So he put a couple of strikingly beautiful young ladies behind a sewing machine in a window on Broadway.

If even such a young girl could! Across the country, he recruited three-man teams consisting of a mechanic, a salesperson and a beauty to demonstrate the new machine.

The competition was so fierce that one day a Singer agent simply shot the representative of another firm. He was promptly lynched by friends of the dead man.

At the time, the machine cost $125, while the average annual income was barely $500. Clark launched installment sales nationwide for the first time in history.

When purchasing, five dollars had to be paid, followed by installments of three dollars per month.

To clear a market saturated with defective machines from other brands, Clark was the first to offer a trade-in discount: fifty dollars for every second-hand machine, of any brand, when buying a new Singer.

He worked with door-to-door sales or delivery by post and consciously limited the distance between factory and customer: in short, he used all kinds of modern sales techniques.

Singer was the first company in history to advertise more than a million dollars in a year, run courses to teach sewing, and so on. As early as 1853, sales abroad began.

From 1861, exports exceeded domestic turnover. Four million of the 'Singer New Family' type, which came on the market in the same year, were sold in twenty years. The first European factory was established in Glasgow in 1867.


As the money rolled in, Singer took less notice of his firm and became more entangled in amorous affairs.

Edward Clark's wife learned early about Singer's savage private life and advised her husband, "Sell your stock and let the dirty pig choke." Clark, however, was given a free hand by Singer and wisely ignored his wife's advice.

Singer had married 15-year-old Catherine Haley at 19, but ran off with another while pregnant with a second child.

In the days when Singer ran into attorney Clark, he had two more children from other relationships and eight with one Mary Ann Sponsler. She had been pushing for a divorce from his first wife for 24 years. In 1860 the time had come.

The Singer, finally freed from his first marriage, did not move in with Mary Ann but with one Mary McGonival, with whom he also had five children in the meantime. That was too much for Mary Ann.

She called a halt to 'the old villain', filed a lawsuit against him and exposed his private life in the newspapers. Singer was sentenced to maintenance, which is believed to be the first such conviction in American history.

The sewing machine emperor – 'I am not interested in inventions, only in money' – thought the time had come to get away and traveled to Paris in 1863. Not in the company of Catherine, Mary Ann or Mary, but in that of Mary's sister, one Kate.

Later he married not Kate but his French mistress, Isabella Boyer. According to his own words, the early communists made life so miserable for him in the French capital that he moved to the English seaside resort of Torquay, where he had an extravagant country house built.

Here the old wanderer came to rest. Or not quite. The young Isabella gave birth to six more Singers. The balance then amounted to twenty-four children, eight of whom were legal, from six (or seven?) women.

At the time, Singer still owned 40% of his company's stock and lived on at a high rate.

He was 63 when he died in Torquay on 23 July 1875. In his will, he divided his $13 million estate among his twenty-four children. The youngest got the most.

One of them, Paris Singer, a blond giant like his father, was the favorite lover of the renowned dancer Isadora Duncan for seven years. From a literary point of view, Singer only rose to fame in Dutch. In 1928 Paul van Ostaijen's 'Huldegedicht to Singer' was published posthumously.

The name Singer, which appears no less than 39 times in it, had been a household name in the European living room for decades.
"The sewing machine was the gift of a man who, to put it cautiously, must have been convinced like no other of its usefulness for a large family," said one of his biographers.

And what about the descendants of the sales genius Edward Clark (1811-1882)? His four grandsons made a name for themselves as art collectors and racehorse owners.

They proclaimed their hometown of Cooperstown, New York, the birthplace of baseball and built a Hall of Fame for baseball players, two museums, a hospital, a hotel and a golf course.

In the most recent American rich lists, Clark's current net worth is estimated at $550 million. Not bad for a fifth generation.

Singer's Secret

  1. To clear a market saturated with defective machines from other brands, Clark offered the trade-in discount: fifty dollars for every second-hand machine, of any brand, when buying a new Singer.
  2. To enable a housewife to buy a product priced at about 25% of an average annual income, Clark designed the hire-purchase system.
  3. To improve quality and to gain better control over marketing and production costs, Clark established his own network of sales agents and organized direct factory-to-customer sales.
  4. To inform the public about his new products and their qualities, Singer was one of the first to conduct large-scale advertising campaigns. Singer was the first firm in history to spend more than $1 million a year on advertising.
  5. In order to teach the public how to use the machine, Singer organized courses that sometimes enrolled more than 1,500 women in one school.