The Singer sewing machine was so revolutionary that even Mahatma Gandhi, who eschewed all other machines, made an exception for it. After learning to sew on a Singer in a British jail, Gandhi called it “one of the few useful things ever invented.”
Many outside the prison population agreed. The Singer Company became one of America’s first multinational corporations, and a staggeringly successful one at that. At a time when the average American income totaled $500, Singer sewing machines were selling for $125 — and they were selling. As TIME noted, by the time Isaac Singer died in 1875, his company was turning a profit of $22 million a year.
Singer didn’t invent the first sewing machine, but the one he patented on this day, Aug. 12, in 1851, was the most practical — and the most commercially viable. Its success was a testament to Singer’s industrious spirit: he’d worked variously as an actor, a ditch digger and a cabinetmaker before striking it rich in the sewing field.
Fans of the new machine hailed from all walks of life. Among the most notable:
- The publisher of America’s first fashion magazine, Lady’s Book, who gushed: “Next to the plough, [the sewing machine] is perhaps humanity’s most blessed instrument.” (After it became a fixture among dressmakers, women’s fashions changed dramatically, per TIME — “bedecked with ribbons and yards of machine-made frills.”)
- The Wright brothers, who made the covering for their first airplane wing on a Singer sewing machine.
- Admiral Richard Byrd, the polar explorer, who brought six of the machines along on his Antarctic expeditions.
- Russia’s Czar Alexander III, who put his soldiers to work on Singer sewing machines to make 250,000 tents for the Imperial Army.
Singer himself cared less about the usefulness of the device than about the wealth it brought him, however. “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after,” he once said, according to TIME. He was perhaps more fond of his other creation: the first payment plan, which allowed his customers to pay in installments for a machine too expensive for most to afford as a lump sum.
It was in keeping with Singer’s business ideals, then, that the company, which had diversified heavily in the 1960s and 1970s, ditched sewing machines altogether in the mid-1980s — in the face of increased competition from Asian manufacturers and a steep decline in home sewing — to focus on its more profitable aerospace division. (It spun off its sewing operations to a separate firm, which continues to manufacture under the Singer name.)
So while Singer’s invention may have impressed Gandhi, his life philosophy likely did not. Singer amassed a personal fortune of about $13 million; some of it, per TIME, “supported the 24 children that Singer fathered by two wives and at least three mistresses. He died in England at the age of 64, while constructing a half-a-million-dollar mansion that he referred to facetiously as his ‘wigwam.’”
Read more about the Singer corporation’s decision to stop making sewing machines, here in the TIME archives: Dropped Stitch