Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a short series of showcasing undergraduate student research in energy history. Sam Huckerby’s post is derived from an essay written for Andrew Watson’s course Energy and Power: The History of Energy at the University of Saskatchewan.
In 1852, Scientific American predicted that the sewing machine would create a “social revolution.” Housewives, tailors, and seamstresses would save “incalculable” hours – a revolution based on time saved.1 In the 1870s and 1880s, advertisements for the machines promised a revolution in energy saved with assurances, such as “no fatigue to the operator”2 and “…it sews with the least possible amount of labor…”3 Women’s productive energies and responsibilities were altered by the mechanization of sewing, yet the prime mover remained their bodies. Energy histories often prioritize fuel transitions as a means of analyzing material and social power,4 but the sewing machine offers a way of understanding how energetic change over time need not be confined to shifts in fuel.
What is revealed through contemporary advertisements, reports, and secondary scholarship is that the sewing machine’s use in Britain, the United States, and Canada changed the material experience and expected output of women’s labour but did not diminish the workload. The machine’s speed complemented a shift in energetic responsibility and gendered ideals of labour. Who sewed what and for whom would be pushed onto a smaller and smaller group of women, who had very little control over how they performed their sewing labour. When the sewing machine is examined in the context of women’s energy history, it becomes clear that its material benefits became integrated into a system of exploitation that controlled women’s productive energies.
R.W. Sandwell argues that women’s labour created an essential energetic foundation for industrializing society.5 This includes sewing. Nineteenth-century women clothed entire nations, both as waged and unwaged workers. This was a critical form of labour that largely benefited others before it benefited women. Men’s wear had been made by male tailors prior to the nineteenth century, but by the 1830s almost everything was made by women.6 Manufacturers and employers benefited from the devaluation of women’s labour and the limiting ideals of what that labour could be. They could keep wages competitively, inhumanely, low, leaving seamstresses in poverty.7 By the late nineteenth century, women’s ready-made garments were widely available, freeing all but working-class women from sewing.8 Detailing control of women’s productive energies can be an abstract concept, but men, manufacturers, and middle-class women benefited from the material and social realities into which the sewing machine emerged. The materiality of the sewing machine and the social structures of the garment industry must be understood as interconnected and key to the control over women’s productive energies. The increased speed of the sewing machine, paired with the entrenched ideals of what women’s acceptable energetic contributions looked like, worked to limit women’s control over their labour. In this context, the sewing machine must be understood as a tool for reproducing social structures and power imbalances, not merely a mechanized, sped-up version of sewing.
Speed was undoubtedly the sewing machine’s most notable feature. It decreased the time needed to sew a man’s shirt from twelve hours down to one. Machines of the 1880s averaged 2,000 stitches per minute, while hand-sewing could accomplish about 30.9 Greater speed meant increased expectations of output, however, not greater freedom. Ruth Schwartz Cowan has shown repeatedly that “labour-saving devices” often increased the labour of women.10 John Strang’s 1858 report The Sewing Machine in Glasgow, and its Effects on Production, Prices, and Wages illustrates this happening with the sewing machine. The “superior style or character of the work combined with the lessened cost of production has greatly increased demand for these articles for home consumption.”11 Women could now sew one shirt in an hour, leaving eleven hours to make eleven more shirts.
Women that did sewing for a living had no choice but to buy or rent a machine to keep pace with expected outputs and to gain hiring preference. Machines were expensive before the 1870s, costing up to $150, while seamstress wages were low, averaging $2 to $4 per week.12 The sewing machine’s speed effectively locked women into one mode of production, with little choice regarding how they performed their labour or the expense of a machine.
That same speed meant factories could hire fewer women while producing the same, if not more, clothing. In New Haven, Connecticut, a shirt factory employed 2,000 hand-sewers prior to the sewing machine. The factory put out roughly 9,600 shirts per week. After the adoption of the sewing machine in 1860, only 400 women were employed on 400 machines, yet turned out 10,000 shirts per week.13 1,600 women were left unemployed, but the factory saved money, and maintained its output. Because of the social ideals of women’s energetic contributions, women had few alternatives for paid employment.
Judy Lown and Robert McIntosh have both shown that capitalist workplace systems transplanted patriarchal relationships into market relations.14 The result was valuing men’s labour more than women’s. Seamstress wages were abysmal, despite the fact most were widows with dependents. In Canada, wages ranged from $1.50 to $4 per week while the cost of living was $4 per week. Men’s wages were $10.15 But what alternatives did women have?
Sue Davidson notes that an “ideology of domesticity” emerged in the early 1800s, which closely associated women’s acceptable work with the home.16 Sewing was one of the few paid industries with which women could respectably engage. A contemporary phrase summarizes this ideology nicely: “Marry, stitch, die or worse.”17 A woman’s acceptable energetic contributions were to marry and perform unwaged work in her home or sew for a wage. “Worse” was sex work. In testimony given as part of the 1889 Report of the Royal Commission on The Relations of Capital and Labor in Canada, W. H. Howland, the Mayor of Toronto, said, “I have only got to answer this — that a good woman will die first…”18 before poor wages would force them into prostitution. Nevertheless, according to McIntosh, estimates show that between one-quarter to one-half of seamstresses in London, Ontario were forced to supplement their income with sex work.19 Many a “good woman” was limited by societal ideals of women’s acceptable work and forced to utilize unacceptable avenues because of it.
Diane M. Douglas put it best, “sewing machines do not create social revolutions – people do.”20 Any influence the machine had on power dynamics were materially informed, but ultimately socially constructed. Increased speed was the machine’s notable feature, a feature that fit in well with pre-existing systems of exploiting women’s sewing energy. These systems had been in the making since the early nineteenth century, and in typical sewing machine fashion, it merely sped them up. The sewing machine must be understood as an integral aspect of women’s energy history, specifically as a tool of energetic control.
1. “Sewing Machines,” Scientific American, July 17, 1852.
2. The Sewing Machine Gazette Journal of Domestic Appliances, January 1, 1881, 15.
3. W.A. White & Co., Champion Family Shuttle Sewing Machine: Adapted to Every Variety of Family Sewing (Toronto: Daily Telegraph Printing House, 1871).
4. Examples of such scholarship include Cara Daggett, “Energy and Domination: Contesting the Fossil Myth of Fuel Expansion,” Environmental Politics 30, no. 4 (June 7, 2021): 644–62; Andreas Malm, “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Historical Materialism 21, no. 1 (2013): 15–68.
5. R. W. Sandwell, “Changing the Plot: Including Women in Energy History (and Explaining Why They Were Missing),” in Abigail Harrison Moore and R.W. Sandwell, eds., In A New Light: Histories of Women and Energy (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), 16-45.
6. Joan M. Jensen, “Needlework as Art, Craft, and Livelihood Before 1900,” in A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike: Women Needleworkers in America, Women in Political Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 4.
7. Ava Baron and Susan A. Klepp, “‘If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine…’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology,” in A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike: Women Needleworkers in America, Women in Political Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 23; Robert McIntosh, “Sweated Labour: Female Needleworkers in Industrializing Canada,” Labour / Le Travail 32 (1993): 117; “Ontario Evidence,” Report of the Royal Commission on The Relations of Capital and Labor in Canada (Ottawa, 1889), 167.
8. Baron and Klepp, “‘If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine…’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology,” 38.
9. Average stitches per minute calculated based on three advertised stitch-speeds outlined in Note 16 of Godley. a Singer Company adverts from Oldham Chronicle c. 1880-81 that notes different stitch speeds of various brands. Willcox and Gibbs chainstitch machine operated at 2,600 stitches per minute; Bradbury’s lockstitch at 1,200 per minute; Singer’s new lockstitch sewing machine at 2,100 per minute. Hand-stitching speed calculated from Baron and Klepp. A shirt could have up to 20,000 stitches completed over 12 hours of work. Baron and Klepp, “‘If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine…’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology,” 22; Andrew Godley, “Singer in Britain: The Diffusion of Sewing Machine Technology and Its Impact on the Clothing Industry in the United Kingdom, 1860–1905,” Textile History 27, no. 1 (1996): 74.
10. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (London: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), 12.
11. John Strang, “The Sewing Machine in Glasgow, and Its Effects on Production, Prices, and Wages,” British Association for the Advancement of Science 21, no. 4 (1858): 465.
12. Jensen, “Needlework as Art, Craft, and Livelihood Before 1900,” 15.
13. J.M. Gregory, “A History of the Sewing Machine to 1880,” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 76, no. 1 (April 2006): 133; Jensen, “Needlework as Art, Craft, and Livelihood Before 1900,” 15.
14. Judy Lown, Women and Industrialization: Gender at Work in Nineteenth-Century England, Feminist Perspectives (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 3; McIntosh, “Sweated Labour,” 106.
15. Baron and Klepp, “‘If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine…’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology,” 23; Capital and Labor in Canada, 307.
16. Sue Davidson, “Introduction,” in A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike: Women Needleworkers in America, by Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson, Women in Political Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), xi–xxii.
17. Baron and Klepp, “‘If I Didn’t Have My Sewing Machine…’: Women and Sewing Machine Technology,” 24.
18. Capital and Labor in Canada, 168.
19. McIntosh, “Sweated Labour,” 122.
20. Diane M. Douglas, “The Machine in the Parlor: A Dialectical Analysis of the Sewing Machine,” The Journal of American Culture 5, no. 1 (March 1982): 21.