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MACHINE WITH SPHINX: How self-taught theater artist Isaac Singer founded the world’s first transnational corporation

MACHINE WITH SPHINX: How self-taught theater artist Isaac Singer founded the world's first transnational corporation
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Isaac Singer. Edward Harrison May. National Portrait Gallery of the United States. Washington, D.C., 1869 /


It is said that his journey began with counterfeiting. Isaac Singer’s parents were fond of telling how their young son industriously drew a zero to a number on a one-dollar bill. It seems that his capital in the future multiplied with the same ease and desirable consistency.

A philanderer, a self-taught theatrical performer, a slacker, a man with a sense of money, a nouveau riche, and a hustler — there was a lot of chatter about Singer. But he gave us the most famous sewing machine with sphinx and scrolls, which spread all over the world.

He was not only an inventor but also an entrepreneurial man who, by slightly improving the drawings, was able to combine the most successful technical findings of his predecessors into his creation.

Singer was a successful businessman and probably would tell a lot of interesting things in his memoirs if they were written. He was the man who organized one of the very first American startups of the XIX century in New York, invented such concepts as franchise, installment payments, the option of «goods by mail», founded the world’s first transnational corporation, uniting and reconciling competitors.




IsaacSinger left home at the age of 12 and started part-time work as a mechanic’s helper. He didn’t like turning bolts and nuts and serving wrenches at all. After four years in the workshop, he joined a traveling theater troupe, where he got all the major roles.

After growing up, he married an actress — a colleague in the theater. People in the creative profession earned little, and children began to appear one after another. Isaac Singer’s financial situation became increasingly difficult. He divorced, married again, and thought about his own theatrical project, but money was still not enough.

Working as a laborer on the construction of the water canal in Ohio pushed an enterprising theatrical patented drilling machine. Isaac was able to raise as much as $2000 — a fabulous fortune for 1839! He decided to invest the money in promoting himself as an actor.

When he was in his 40s, he already had ten children. He was an actor, director, and businessman of his own theater. After surviving betrayal and theft of money from the theater, Isaac Singer quite accidentally focused his attention on the hard work of seamstresses.

He was struck by the graceful girls who had to cope with the unruly mechanisms and weighty parts of powerful sewing machines. Isaac decided to make their lives easier by offering his own version of a machine. Soon, there was «I.M. Singer & Co».




The advent of the Singer sewing machine made a technological breakthrough in sewing shops. The fact is that several previous machines were so complicated and imperfect that seamstresses preferred to use their hands in the old-fashioned way. For example, such as Elias Howe’s sewing machine. It made three hundred stitches per minute and several times a week required adjustment.

Isaac Singer bought such a machine for $40, improved it in a week, and sold it for a hundred dollars. Swinging shuttle machine mechanic-theatrical machine made smooth stitches and worked much faster.


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When Singer patented his new sewing machine device in 1954, he learned about his competitors — Wilson and Gibbs. Becoming friends with those who held patents for any sewing machine inventions, the enterprising Singer gathered them into a partnership, The Singer Manufacturing Company, and protected his inventions by law. It was then that the first sewing machine factory was opened.

So, what were the innovations that made Singer machines the best on the market? Singer invented the bottom pedal drive, which allowed seamstresses to work with two hands without continuously turning the sewing wheel or handle, the horizontally positioned oscillating shuttle, the fabric table for the dressmaker’s convenience, and the needle holder foot. Designers have developed embellishments with monograms and a sleek metal stand for the machine. But how do you sell it to every home?


Singer sewing machine
Singer sewing machine /




And then Isaac Singer came up with a revolutionary payment system: the installments. You could work hard and earn money or embroider your family, and pay the money back gradually. And then he went further and offered a campaign of unprecedented generosity: everyone who turned in a machine from another manufacturer to the manufactory received a $50 discount on a new Singer machine.

Thanks to the mass production of the legendary Singer in 1863, the prices for them from a hundred dollars fell to ten. For many families, even that price was unaffordable. But Isaac Singer made provision for this and began to give machines for rent.

Then the first franchise appeared — Singer sewing machines were sold by partners all over the world and provided service in Europe, Turkey, and Russia. In many countries, factories for the production of legendary machines appeared.

Isaac Singer wanted his Singer to be in every home. In the windows of company stores, beautiful girl models sat behind the machines, creating a desired image. In churches, markets, and ladies’ salons all over the world, postcards were handed out with a picture of a beautiful blonde girl stitching something on a Singer machine. What lady wouldn’t want to be like her?

By the way, Isaac Singer spent a fabulous $1 million to advertise his products. When he was named an American treasure, he and his young wife had already moved to Britain to a house with 115 rooms and a large stable. Isaac Singer left a hired director in his place, which was also an innovative business decision ahead of its time.

The entrepreneur lived a bright, full life — he was the father of 24 children, had several wives and many love affairs, engaged in theater and productions, and, in general, lived for his own pleasure. Business was also a process that brought him pleasure. Perhaps that is why he became so successful.


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