Initially, the machine was used by male workers at ateliers which mass-produced military apparel. Manufacturers, in their efforts to make the machines more "feminine" and acceptable to the female consumer, went to great lengths to embellish and disguise the simple mechanism. Machines were made decorated with "a squirrel (suggesting frugality and prudence), a cupid with a bow drawn, and a golden scissors. During the Second Empire, machines were advertised in fashion plates, where they seemed particularly out of place perched delicately on table tops, resting under the gloved hands of elaborately dressed ladies." (Coffin 91) In the Paris 1867 Universal Exhibition Catalogue, a London company advertised "New Hand Sewing Machines" which were named after great beauties of the past and mythical fairy Queens -- par exemple the "Cleopatra" and the "Queen Mab." The "New Hand lock-stitch machine" was dubbed the "Penelope," (presumably named after her counterpart in the Odyssey, who patiently sewed and unsewed her father's shroud each night in order to trick her erstwhile suitors while she waited for her husband to return home -- a conflicted title for a productive machine -- one hope the stitches were strong enough not to come undone the night after they were sewn!)
The simple machine is transmogrified into a sexual (Cleopatra), domestic (Penelope), fanciful (the fairy Queen Mab) instrument -- but at the same time it is consistently gendered feminine. The ad is careful to point out the simplicity of the mechanism, reinforcing impressions that the female customer did not have mechanical skill. It seems that there was a lingering anxiety that the elaborate gilded designs painted by hand onto the japanned metal base, itself a pudgy rococo confection defying utility, could not in and of themselves sufficiently disguise the basic machine from the discerning female reader. She must also be reassured that "[our machines] require no fixing to tables, and a child can work them!" (Paris 1867 Universal Exhibition Catalogue) This infantilization is an ongoing theme. Many advertisements emphasize the childishly simple mechanism, showing little girls on tiptoe or balanced precariously on chairs, operating the dainty machine.
This genre of advertisements transforms the heavy machine into a light confection of fairy dust and gilt. "With Wheeler and Wilson's machines, one makes the most delicate works, so rapidly and so finely, that it seems as if the hand of a fairy passed over all these objects, now gowns, lingerie, ready-made garments, etc. (Avec les machines Wheeler et Wilson, on fait les ouvrages les plus délicats, si vite et si bien fins, qu'il semble que la main d'une fée a passé sur tous ces objets, tantôt robes, lingeries, confections, etc.)" (Le Bon Ton, le 15 juin 1863, my translation.) The delicacy and fineness of the machine's work is emphasized, as if to match it more closely with the delicate, fine, and feminine household it was destined to enhance. The precious image of tiny stitches worked by fairy fingers is designed to appeal to a sense of colorful fantasy. Sewing machine titles like "La Fée du Foyer," ("The Fairy of Hearth and Home") evoked the image of a beneficent household sprite. This name, by proxy, also invoked the machine's owner as the true Fée du Foyer, the domestic angel, the goddess of the home and hearth.
Accordingly, advertisements emphasized the importance of the use of the machine as a genteel household decoration, highlighting "the dual nature of the machine -- gagne pain (breadwinner) and beau décors (handsome furnishing)." (Coffin 98) The effort to construct the machine as a "handsome furnishing" defused its status as a "breadwinner" and made its wage-earning capacity less threatening. In the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition Catalogue, W.F. Thomas & Co. advertised machines "for family use -- they are made on the same principles as the Trade Machines, & produce equally as strong work. They are made either to turn by hand, or with treadle to work by foot, on plain table, or in ornamental cabinets, to correspond with the furniture of the drawing-room." The threat of the "trade machine" is camouflaged by the effort to integrate it into the bourgeois drawing-room -- it literally blends, "corresponding with the furniture of the drawing-room" like a mechanical chameleon.In an 1880s advertisement for Neva Machines à Coudre, a young seamstress in medieval garb sits at a spindle and shuttle. A dapper gentilhomme in a cape and feathered hat presents a floating sewing machine to the lovely damsel. The mystical apparition, buoyed up by puffs of smoke, hovers at her command, obviously ready to relieve her of the burden of her handiwork at a moment's notice. This delicate rendering of the machine-fée removes the machine grease, making the sewing machine a thing lighter than air, embellished with spirals and scrolls and named after great beauties and fairy-women. One account in Le Bon Ton is particularly evocative of this trend:
"The pretty coquettes, impatient to have fresh and new toilettes, impatient to carry out the whim of the moment, must be a thousand times more happy from the discovery of American machines, thanks to which, with the promptness obtained by their mechanism, one can put to execution all the desires of a pretty woman. Was it not very gallant on the part of the inventors to have thus dreamed it up to create a magic talisman, not to leave us the time to make the least little pout, to furrow our brows with the lightest possible wrinkle?"
("Les jolies coquettes, impatientes d'avoir fraîches et nouvelles toilettes, impatientes de réaliser le caprice de la veille, doivent être mille fois bien heureuses de la découverte des machines américanes, grâce auxquelles, avec la promptitude obtenue par leur mécanisme, on arrive à mettre à exécution tous les désirs d'une jolie femme. N'est-ce pas bien galant de la part des inventeurs d'avoir ainsi songé à créer un talisman magique, ne nous laissant pas le temps de faire la moidre petite moue, de creuser sur nos fronts la plus légère ride?") (Le Bon Ton, le 23 Juin 1863, my translation.)
The underlying implication is that, like spoiled children, women's capricious whims must be indulged. Women are concerned primarily with fashion; they are frivolous society ladies frantic to keep up with the latest mode. The "desire of a pretty woman" is merely to further enhance her beauty. But the "gallant" inventor-magicians are happy to indulge this sweet preoccupation: they produce the "magical talisman," the sewing machine.In the Neva advertisement, the sewing machine floats amongst the clouds, supporting itself on its own, as perhaps the young seamstress in the image now can -- for of course, the sewing machine had very real financial benefits. Despite the fact that it was initially far too expensive for most couturières (seamstresses), installment plans were designed to make the machine accessible to all classes. Advertisers faced a rare conundrum -- their most likely customers were dirt-poor. A different genre of advertisements appeal to an ambiguous class. These advertisements are characterized by the familiar Singer lady in her simple clothes with her hair in a chignon, bent demurely over her machine, (an image which has endured for many years), and the advertisements of the French company Le-Roy, featuring a woman in a similar pose, wearing an almost masculine white collar and a dark unadorned gown. (See illustration below.) These advertisements cut across categories, and despite their proletariat appeal, were displayed without incongruity for years in the backs of the same ladies' journals that extolled "la jolie machine-fée", the pretty fairy-machine, so frequently. (Le Bon Ton, le 15 janvier 1864) These were the companies' basic all-purpose advertisements. They evoked industry, morality, and virtuous feminine labor without referring specifically to either a domestic or a factory setting. They have no context, both in the visual sense (there is no background), and in the metaphorical sense (they endeavor to remain neutral). These ads represent a different genre, a different category of appeal, emphasizing respectability.
Companies no doubt felt it was important to emphasize respectability, in light of the contemporary discourse surrounding the sewing machine. The public was in an uproar about the danger to female sexuality represented by the potential freedoms which might tempt the ouvrière during her excursions outside the home. Discomfort with the challenge posed by women's roles in the garment industry was thinly disguised as a concern for women's health: "A Dr. Eugène Gibout, writing for a Parisian hospital bulletin in 1866, described in vivid detail [the most serious health risk of all]:
As you know, these machines are propelled by two pedals, one for each foot. They are driven by the rapid up and down motion of the lower limbs, in particular the thighs. Sometimes the movement is simultaneous and isochronic for the two limbs, which rise and fall together, thereby giving the entire body a continual and regular rocking motion. Sometimes, however, with differently constructed machines the driving motion of the two limbs alternates, that is, when one thigh rises, the other descends. In this latter case the body doesn't bear this regular rocking motion easily, but experiences a jolt, a general agitation, ceaselessly repeated, resulting from this rapid friction of the thighs against one another.
For this young woman, these different movements produced a considerable genital excitement that sometimes forced her to suspend work, and it is to the frequency of this excitement and to the fatigue it produced, that she attributed her leucorrhea, weight loss, and increasing weakness. (Coffin 109)
The images of automated femininity and sexuality are linked. Women's work outside the home brought to mind other ways of transgressing the domestic space, ensuring that the meeting of woman and machine would be inevitably sexualized. The machine is figured as a masturbatory marathon, the moral effects of which could only be imagined. The long history of the seamstress' association with sexuality contributed to this improbable "scientific deduction," which was eagerly seized upon and echoed by popular discourse.The seamstress had for many years been romanticized as a paragon of female virtue, a romanticization accomplished by contrast with the threat of prostitution, the spectre of a more profitable trade which it took moral strength to resist. The figure of the prostitute hovered behind the poverty-stricken seamstress, and they ultimately represented two halves of the same whole. During the 1860s, tales of beautiful but poor seamstresses or working women cropped up frequently in Le Journal des Demoiselles, a magazine for young Christian girls, along with book reviews of Jules Simon's L'Ouvrière and Marthe Blondel: L'Ouvrière de Fabrique, (The Factory Worker) a novel written by Mme. Bourdon in 1863 only one year after the publication of Jules Simon's manifesto on the woman worker. The book review of Marthe Blondel, although it is accompanied by the explicitly stated motive to urge rich female readers to take a charitable interest in the plight of the pitiable ouvrière, does not neglect to mention that "[The author] will show you worthy people in battle with every temptation. . . (Elle vous montrera donc les gens de devoir en lutte avec toutes les tentations. . .)" (Le Journal des Demoiselles 1863, 69) The nature of the "temptations," in this case, is all too obvious.
In light of this association between seamstress and prostitute, and knowing what we now know about the implications of women's departure from the domestic sphere, is it less surprising that the sewing machine could result in such controversy. In Thésée Pouillet's treatise on masturbation, De l'onanisme chez la femme, the "doctor" pays a visit to his seamstress "patients" and makes a few predictable discoveries:
During a visit which I once paid to a manufactory of military clothing, I witnessed the following scene. In the midst of the uniform sound produced by some thirty sewing machines, I suddenly heard one of the machines working with much more velocity than the others. I looked at the person who was working it, a brunette of 18 or 20. While she was automatically occupied with the trousers she was making on the machine, her face became animated, her mouth opened slightly, her nostrils dilated, her feet moved the pedals with constantly increasing rapidity. Soon I saw a convulsive look in her eyes, her eyelids were lowered, her faced [sic] turned pale and was thrown backward; hands and legs stopped and became extended; a suffocated cry, followed by a long sigh, was lost in the noise of the workroom. The girl remained motionless a few seconds, drew out her handkerchief to wipe away the pearls of sweat from her forehead, and, after casting a timid and ashamed glance at her companions, resumed her work.
As I was leaving, I heard another machine at another part of the room in accelerated movement. The forewoman smiled at me, and remarked that that was so frequent that it attracted no notice. (Coffin 110-111)
One has the impression of a dimly present fantasy man in the trousers that the girl is "making" in this account. The girl's fabrication of countless anonymous pants for strangers becomes a kind of mechanical, displaced prostitution, an inherently erotic engagement which evokes her alter-ego the grisette . Undoubtedly this passage is merely an erotic fantasy on the part of M. Pouillet. The regular dousings of water required by women workers, used as evidence of their sexual arousal, were more likely inspired by the sweating caused by hard physical labor. This passage stands as a uncomfortable reminder of the sexuality assumed to be inherent in women's work, and the implication that women, and women alone, cannot escape their biological nature. The woman's "work" takes on an "automatic" quality. ("While she was automatically occupied with the trousers she was making on the machine," her mind was wandering elsewhere. . .) This account, and the entire discourse surrounding masturbation and women's work, ultimately undermines women's factory work as an example of physical and intellectual skill and expertise, replacing it with an automatic ability which is part of feminine "nature" but has nothing to do with female intelligence, strength, or technological know-how.The "medical" controversy surrounding the double-pedaled sewing machine died down somewhat when a little-known woman inventor, Mlle. Caroline Garcin, and a clock-maker, M. Adam, charitably patented a design for a single-pedal machine in 1872 in response to the current controversy. This innovation was sold enthusiastically as a hygienic improvement. (Offen 94-95) After 1872, "pèdales hygieniques" became a common staple of sewing machine advertisements and catalogues. In Hurtu, Hautin, et Diligeon's 1891 catalogue, single and double-pedaled machines were offered "par choix" alongside more expensive steam-powered models -- with no mention of their original origins, so that the uninformed viewer would think nothing of it.
Yet a lingering discomfort with the sewing machine remained even after the introduction of the single-pedaled version, and that discomfort plays itself out on a bewildering battlefield of advertising. An 1889 New Home Sewing Machine advertisement for A. Soudan, a vendor in Paris, depicted a scene from a popular fable written by a contemporary writer, called "Le Bon Petit Diable." The frightful image shows a toothless granny, grinning in maniacal delight, snatching up her young grandson by his inner thigh. She grabs his torn pants in her doughy fingers. He balances in a handstand, ironically enough, on the new pèdale hygienique, wearing a smug, unrepentant grin. The proximity of the needle to his crotch suggests violence and danger. If this is the "New Home," no one would want anything to do with it.
It is difficult to see how this shocking advertisement could have been accepted at the time -- and in fact it seems that there was some discomfort expressed in 1903 by La Publicité Moderne, which "chided commercial artists for their tendency to ridicule their subjects and for what the journal perceived as a rash of 'bad' mothers and ugly, frightening, or 'devouring' women in advertisements. The New Home sewing machine advertisement was singled out for criticism." (Coffin 104)
In the later 1910 "Athos Nouvelle Machine à Coudre" postcard, a crying little boy is depicted with no pants on, waiting while his mother teaches his big sister how to sew. (His big sister is still quite a little girl, so short that she must stand on her tiptoes in order to reach the machine.) "Don't cry, little Pierre, Martha is fixing your trousers!" is the caption. (Coffin 99) This image contains an ambiguous double message. On the one hand, the energies of all the females in the household are appropriately devoted towards the care of men. At the same time, little Pierre is vulnerable and half-naked.
Jules Simon's L'ouvrière, (The Woman Worker) an influential text from the 1860s, concluded that women who worked outside the home were not only a major social problem, but the "only social problem." In drawing his conclusions, Jules Simon ignored the statistics he himself cited on women's improved working conditions in factories, and emphasized instead the moral importance of women's presence in the home. He lauded women who chose to do piecework in the comfort and privacy of their homes because they presumably thereby gained enough time to pay attention to their sons -- although in fact this was not necessarily the case.
In an 1880 promotional pamphlet printed in both French and English, Isaac Merritt Singer reflects Simon's concern. Singer is presented as a knight in shining armor, motivated by "the burning desire to. . . carry relief and help to the weary seamstress." (Singer 4) However, the pamphlet seems to feel that it is necessary to justify this concern with feminine industry by extolling the virtues of a mother's gentle influence on her son:(Singer 8)
The "highest and best progress of the world" is unambiguously conflated with the good or evil men will accomplish in the outside world -- women's influences on the events of the world are confined to the household sphere and the limited persuasion a mother can exert over her son's better nature through her elevated role as "la feé du foyer." The ultimate justification for the sewing machine, according to this passage, is its valuable influence on the future men of the world through the medium of their mothers. Leisure time for women is in fact an opportunity for new work -- the work of raising sons. Daughters are not mentioned in this pamphlet -- presumably, as in the Athos advertisement, they too were expected to take up similar roles with regards to their male family members, emulating Maman's beneficent example.
It is the influence and memory of what his home and his mother were which mold his after life, control his habits of thought, and make him a power for good or for evil in the world. . . Whatever, therefore, brings added comfort to the matron and the maiden; whatever saves the busy housewife's time. . . whatever lifts any of the heavy household burdens, and disenthralls to any degree the WOMEN of our day, contributes an ever-augmenting influence towards the highest and best progress of the world. (Singer 8)
This was considered the "natural" order of things. In a similar way, women's "natural" skill for needlework was emphasized, rather than their technological mastery. "The 'artistry' of working 'girls' was the closest any came to acknowledging skill." (Coffin 90) Sewing ability was considered an inevitable result of being female. "Women have a sense of touch which makes them particularly adept at minute sewing work," claimed a nineteenth-century social scientist. (Coffin Dissertation 11) Women's work was thought of as artistry rather than art, more closely associated with métier (trade) than with high art. An 1858 Le Bon Ton article denounced the equation of art and trade (métier), claiming that the shoddy, soulless work of the merely mechanical artisan was trivial in comparison to true works of art. (Le Bon Ton le 15 septembre 1858, 169) Later, necessity caused a change of tune:
After the severe depression in 1873-74 which effected much of France's textile production. . . the government in 1876 pledged itself to industrial prosperity. . . The forthcoming 1878 Exposition Universelle had to resurrect 'our poor decimated nation' by rescuing the 'industrial and artistic endeavors [from the] degree of social decadence into which we have fallen.' Therefore. . . no longer deemed frivolous, the decorative object -- imbued with the moral superiority of the French nation -- was now called 'art'. Art -- eternal, beautiful, untainted, and valuable -- would be the determinant in uplifting France and transforming the nature of industry. (Davis 87)
Under this influence, women's products, initially relegated to the realm of mere artistry, came to be considered more and more as "arts" -- but this elevation, according to Deborah Silverman, was limited only to "the arts of the interior." (Silverman 199) The poster for the 1896 Exhibition of the Arts of the Woman "confirmed the theme of the interior, nonindustrial feminine applied arts. On the cover were two women engaged in 'the arts of woman.' The woman on the left was seated, embroidering, her work resting on a small rococo table." (Silverman 204) Although this exhibition was supposed to focus on the works of "modern" women, modern innovations actually escaped notice, and instead of the sewing machine the woman wields the needle. While women's arts were increasingly valued, industrial products were not included in this reformulation. In the 1890s, Octave Uzanne, an aesthete collector and writer who positioned himself staunchly against the nouvelle femme, reminded others that female adornment was "essential to the vitality of the decorative arts." (Silverman 70) However, he failed to mention that French industry depended on women's manual labor in the crafts and trades. Despite their importance, women laborers were not perceived as skilled artisans. "As the tailors saw it, the decline of skills and ruinous competition were inseparable from feminization [and the] presence of cheap female labor." (Coffin 59) Despite their active participation in the trades at all levels, more than token public recognition of this contribution was not forthcoming. "Women who worked in tailoring, shoemaking, and other 'male' trades could not join the delegations to the world's fairs of the 1860s and 1870s, and the 'women's trades,' such as lingerie, shirtmaking, dressmaking, and women's ready-made clothing were not encouraged to elect delegations at all." (Coffin 62)Women's presumed "innate talent" for needlework was used against them, to define them as purely artisans, incapable of producing true "high art": "Such was the belief in their innate talent for design that in 1892 their proficiency in this field was used as an argument in refusing women admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts." (Yeldham 41) French views on the utility of educating women in the arts reiterate the belief that women's primary medium was fabric:
The most positive view was that women had a definite contribution to make in the context of fashion, home decoration and industrial art; they were the arbiters of taste.. . . Fénelon, for example, in his treatise 'De l'Education des Filles', considered painting and drawing necessary occupations for young girls of social standing, but he carefully defined the scope of this instruction: 'cet art doit avoir un but utile, en l'appliquant à la broderie, à la dentelle et à l'ornamentation des étoffes'. . . [This art must have a useful goal, in its application to embroidery, lace, and the ornamentation of fabrics.] (Yeldham 40, my translation)
If in fact women's primary medium was fabric, the idea that fabric belonged solely to artistry and not art constituted a severe limitation on women's creativity. In accounts ranging from Baudelaire's circa 1850s rapture over "the muslins, the gauzes, the vast, iridescent clouds of stuff in which she [Woman] envelops herself, and which are as it were the attributes and the pedestal of her divinity. . ." (Baudelaire 30) to the turn-of-the-century writer and critic Octave Uzanne's belief that a woman should direct her "artistry" towards enhancing her undergarments, so that her husband could "lose himself in soft and evanescent delicacies of colors, groping for supremely sheer and subtle textures," (Silverman 71) women were ideally a froth of fabric and cloth for men to sink into and take pleasure from. Fashion, the end-product of the sewing-machine, was simultaneously acceptable as a "woman's art" and problematic insofar as it became a source of female artistic expression and a wage-earning, paying activity which took women outside of the home and into factories.The division between men, associated with the machine, and women, associated with ornament and domesticity, can be seen in the Magasin des Demoiselles' description of the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle: "If the masculine sex dominates in the galleries of machines and raw materials, women are in the majority in the various centers consecrated to fabrics, to jewels, to clothing, to ornaments, and to perfume." (Davis 85) Ultimately, what is striking and important about this argument is that the devaluation of the textile arts, perhaps solely because of their over-determined association with femininity, still continues today.
My interest in this topic began when a friend of mine sat down at my utilitarian Pfaff model and was terrified because it was a machine. "I know it's just a sewing machine," she said, "but it's still empowering to run it." I was fascinated. It had never occurred to me to see the machine in this way -- as either "just a sewing machine," or as an agent of feminine empowerment. It was simply another unexamined household utility. Like the vacuum cleaner or the CuisineArt, I never thought that my ability to operate a sewing machine was evidence of mechanical ability, whereas the ability to operate a computer, a belt sander, or a power drill all seemed to imply technological mastery. When I wanted to impress people, I told them that I welded and made metal sculpture, not that I sewed or made textile art. One activity seemed to raise my status and result in respect, another was passé.
My hope is that this paper, by illuminating the historical context in which discourse around the sewing machine was shaped, will begin to illuminate modern-day attitudes, explaining how one medium, which requires just as much energy and creativity as another, should be devalued. The importance of the media in determining the trajectory of a technology cannot be undermined. Ultimately, we must examine today's media in the light of its history, hoping to uncover hidden assumptions and create new ideals. In the meantime, it behooves us to wonder if perhaps we have become too "at home" with the sewing machine.
Baudelaire, Charles; The Painter of Modern Life; The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays; (Trans. Jonathan Moyne 1964.)
Hurtu, Hautin, et Diligeon, Machines à Coudre [Sewing Machine Company Trade Catalogue]; Hurtu, Hautin, et Diligeon: Paris; 1891.
Le Genie Recompense ou L'histoire de la Machine à Coudre; [promotional literature distributed as pamphlets, I used both French and English versions]; The Singer Manufacturing Company; 1880.
1867 Paris Universal Exhibition: The Complete Official Catalogue English Version, Sold Throughout the Exhibition Palace and Park; J.M. Johnson & Sons: London & Paris; 1867.
Le Bon Ton ; Paris; le 23 mai 1858; le 23 juin 1858; le 15 septembre 1858; le 15 juin 1863; le 23 juin 1863; le 15 janvier 1864; le 1 janvier 1872.
Le Journal des Demoiselles; mars 1862, "L'Ouvrière," (pp 71-73) & mars 1863, "Marthe Blondel, L'Ouvrière de Fabrique" ( pp 68-69)
Coffin, Judith G.; The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades 1750-1915; Princeton University Press: New Jersey; 1996.
Coffin, Judith G.; Women's Place and Women's Work in the Paris Clothing Trades, 1830-1914; U.M.I. Dissertation Information Service: Ann Arbor, Michigan; 1989.
Cooper, Grace Rogers; The Invention of the Sewing Machine; Smithsonian Institution: Washington D.C.; 1668.
Silverman, Deborah; Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style; University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford; 1989.
Yeldham, Charlotte; Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France and England; Volume I; Garland Publishing, Inc.: New York and London; 1984.
Davis, Shane Adler, "Fine Cloths on the Altar": The Commodification of Late-Nineteenth-Century France; Art Journal v. 48 No 1-4; 1989. (pp 85-89)
Offen, Karen; "Powered by a Woman's Foot:" A Documentary Introduction to the Sexual Politics of the Sewing Machine in Nineteenth-Century France; Women's Studies International Forum Volume II Number 1; Pergamen Press; 1988. (pp 93-101)