The treadle sewing machine has a long history. In fact, the treadle sewing machine goes back almost to the beginning of the technology and its history is the history of the sewing machine itself. A treadle sewing machine is one that is powered mechanically by a foot pedal that is pushed back and forth by the operator's foot. Today, these antiques-found in auction houses, at antique dealers, even in junk stores and garage sales-stand as reminders of America's industrial know-how and might.
A Brief History of the Sewing Machine
The first patent for a sewing machine was awarded to the British cabinet maker Thomas Saint in 1790. While it is unclear if he ever actually built a working prototype of his machine, which was designed for leather working, a machine built using Mr. Saint's patent drawings did not work.
Between 1800 and 1820, no fewer than five different attempts were made to build a working sewing machine, none of which were successful.
- 1804: Thomas Stone and James Henderson receive French patents.
- 1804: Scott John Duncan receives a British patent.
- 1810: Balthasar Krems of Germany invents a cap-sewing machine.
- 1814: Josef Madersperger, a tailor, awarded an Austrian patent.
- 1818: John Doge and John Knowles invent the first American sewing machine.
Then, in 1830, a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine that used a single thread and a hooked needle to make a chain stitch of the sort used in embroidery. This machine was powered by a treadle and what's more, it worked! Soon he had eighty machines going and a lucrative contract for army uniforms from the French government. His success was short-lived. Fearful of being unemployed because of the new machine, area tailors destroyed Mr. Thimonnier's factory.
1846 saw the first American patent for a sewing machine awarded to Elias Howe. His machine could create a lock stitch with a process that utilized thread from two different sources. Mr. Howe had difficulty marketing his invention and defending his patent. One of those who adopted his mechanism was a man who would make the treadle sewing machine a household item, Isaac Singer.
Singer Treadle Sewing Machines
Isaac Singer was the father of the modern sewing machine. Treadle powered, belt powered, hand powered and eventually electric powered, the machines made Singer the foremost sewing machine company in the world. Until the 1950s, when Japanese-made machines flooded the market, Singer held a virtual monopoly on sewing machines in the United States. This competition drove out most of the smaller manufacturers while also reducing Singer's market share to 25 percent from its accustomed 75 percent. Today, the company is out of the sewing machine business entirely, having sold its sewing machine business to Germany's Pfaff Sewing Machine Company. Sewing machines currently carrying the Singer name are branded models built in Asia for the Pfaff Company.
Improvements in Treadle Technology
The history of the "domestic" treadle sewing machine, as well as its foreign counterparts would not be complete without a discussion of the attempts to improve on this technology. These efforts reached their height between 1880 and 1900 with some very interesting add-ons for the treadle sewing machine.
- The Bradbury Automatic Foot Rest. For treadle machines with a cross brace between the treadle sides, this invention had a footboard and a counterweight on a pivoting rod. All the operator had to do was touch the weight and the foot rest would come down.
- The Hall Treadle Attachment. Placed gearing between the pedal and the flywheel to insure that the machine would start in the right direction.
- The Spengler Treadle. Instead of the customary treadle, the operator would rock a full length pushbar back and forth. This was connected to a free wheel device via a cord, which translated the motion from linear into circular.
- The Whitney Cushion. This was a shaped piece of rubber that attached to the treadle. It was claimed that the device would make the machine start quicker and run faster while making the entire process more comfortable by relieving the operator of shock and vibration.
- The Cowles Treadle System. This system, using two pitman shafts and cranks that give a one-up-one-down pedal motion, received a medical endorsement from physicians who said that the device would improve the operator's health the more it was used.
Antiques Vs. Vintage Reproductions
One area where collectors need to be wary is with the issue of vintage reproductions that foreign manufacturers are putting the Singer name on. The most common of these are the Models 15, 20 and 221. In the United States, they are labeled as vintage reproductions, but they are also being sold in other parts of the world where manual power, that is by treadle or hand-crank, is still necessary. These machines can be expensive and are generally inferior to their antique counterparts. This is especially true of the electric models, which often run too fast and have a tendency to rattle.
On the other hand, the treadle and hand crank models are better built and can sew a good straight stitch. They do, however, feature very crude decals, in either the 1930s lightning and eagle motif or the Egyptian Memphis motif, and their black enamel is quite thin. In spite of the good work they put out, these machines are easily distinguished from genuine Singer machines by the poor quality their workmanship.
Enduring Vintage Domestic Equipment
The treadle sewing machine is one of the most enduring pieces of technology ever devised. Still in production and still in use around the world, the treadle's reliable design has made it a favorite since 1830. While you must beware of imitations and reproductions, the real thing is certainly worth finding.