Saturday, January 17, 2015

Isaac Singer: Pirate or Scumbag?

Thanks for pinning this picture for me, Linda. I hope you are having a wonderful time in delightful, warm, Texas. (yes, that was sarcasm...) As you know -- I sew every day -- especially in the winter!! AND THIS PICTURE IS PERFECT FOR THIS LAST POST about Isaac Singer...
Sewing has brought so much joy to my life...and it seems I have Isaac Singer to thank...
In some internet accounts of his life, Isaac Singer leaves home at the tender age of 11, and maybe even joins a circus. I wonder. At some point, he worked as an apprentice at his brother's machine shop, which is where he learned the trade that would eventually make him rich and famous. (But it's very confusing -- did he do that apprenticeship before he was 11 years old?).

He became such a rich and famous man, his early life has been written about so many times, it has taken on a mythical quality -- like Buffalo Bill or Davy Crockett. It's hard to know what's true and what has been fictionalized to create a more interesting story.

But it's pretty clear that being a machinist was not his first choice.  His real dream was to become a star.  He wanted to be an actor.

In 1830, Isaac Singer married Catharine Maria Haley. The couple moved to New York City and lived with her parents. By 1833, Isaac was in Otsego County, NY, working at a machine shop.

Isaac and Catharine had two children: William Singer, born in 1834, and Lillian Singer, born in 1837. By 1836, Isaac Singer had been bitten by the acting bug, and he joined a troupe of traveling players.

When the troupe performed in Baltimore, Singer, now 25, met 18-year-old Mary Ann Sponsler, and the same year his daughter Lillian was born to Catharine, he fathered a son, Isaac, by Mary Ann Sponsler.

The marriage of Isaac and Catharine was effectively over after that point, although the couple did not divorce until 23 years later...

In 1839, Singer received his first patent. It was for a rock-drilling machine, and it earned him $2,000. Singer used this money to found his own acting troupe, the "Merritt Players", with himself and Mary Ann Sponsler as the "stars".  Singer performed under the name Isaac Merritt, and Sponsler performed under the name "Mrs Merritt".  Basically, they entered into a common-law marriage -- Sponsler went on to bear him 10 children. The Merritt Players toured the country until the money ran out.

They happened to be in Ohio when the troupe disbanded. Singer took a job in a local print shop, where he conceived the idea of a machine to cut wood blocks for printing images. After a short stint there, he also worked in Pittsburgh and then in New York City. In New York City, the prototype of Singer's cutting machine was at the machine shop of A. B. Taylor, but when the boiler blew up, Singer's prototype was destroyed.

However, Orson C. Phelps, who had a machine shop in Boston, heard about Singer's cutting machine and invited Singer to recreate it in his shop, where, coincidentally, Phelps also had some Lerow Blodgett sewing machines. Sewing machines were far from new. It is generally recognized that US inventor Walter HUNT invented the first American sewing machine in about 1833, but because he failed to patent it at the time, he had trouble staking his claim. US inventor Elias Howe (1819-1867) patented his sewing machine on 10 September 1846.

Isaac Singer's cutting machine was not a success, but while he was in Boston, Singer conceived a way to improve the Lerow/Blodgett sewing machines and make them much more practical. Isaac Singer received his sewing-machine patent on 12 August 1851. With financing from George B. Zieber, Singer went into partnership with Zieber and Phelps to found the "Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company", named after Stockholm-born soprano Jennie Lind (1820-1887), known as the "Swedish Nightingale", who had a highly successful tour of the US in 1850-1852. The company was soon renamed I. M. Singer Co.

The venture was a huge financial success, and it made Isaac Singer a wealthy man. Singer lived in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City with his "wife" Mary Ann Sponsler and their children in the 1850s and the early 1860s. He finally divorced his first wife Catharine in 1860, having accused HER of adultery with one Stephen Kent. But all was not as it seemed, for Isaac Singer was again leading a double - in fact, triple - life. Singer had a "third" family with Mary Eastwood Walters, who bore him a daughter, Alice Eastwood.

Singer also had a "fourth" family with Mary McGonigail, an employee at his company's factory. She had borne Singer five children and set up a household with him as the Matthews family.  One day Mary Ann Sponsler saw her husband driving in a carriage with Mary McGonigail openly. This embarrassment was too much for her, and Sponsler had Singer arrested for bigamy. (you've got to love the irony of her indignation, eh?)

He was released on bail, but his reputation was ruined, (his reputation?)  and in 1862, Singer and Mary McGonigal sailed for Europe, where Singer would remain for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Sponsler lost no time in marrying John E. Foster in Boston in 1862. Singer and Mary McGonigal lived in London, but soon Singer went to Paris, where he met Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Summerville.

He married Isobelle on 13 June 1865, and this marriage endured for the rest of his life. The couple settled in Paignton, Devon, England, near Torquay, in an area known as the "English Riviera". They bought an estate there and built a 115-room palace known as Oldway Mansion.

They moved into this mansion as soon as it was habitable, and Singer's daughter Alice was married there in 1875. Several of Singer's children by earlier liaisons came to live with him at Oldway.
Singer couldn't return to the United States because of the pending bigamy charges.  So he established a sewing-machine factory in Scotland in 1867. He also set up factories in France, near Paris, and in Brazil, at Rio de Janeiro, making the Singer company one of the first American multinationals.

Singer died on 23 July 1875, age 63 years. He was buried in Torquay.  After his death, his many children fought over his estate. By his five "wives", Singer fathered 24 children, of whom two died young. In his will, Singer acknowledged and set up luxurious trust funds for 22 children.

His wealth was so vast, it took five generations to finally trickle his fortune away...

Here's my question.  WHY ISN'T ANYBODY MAKING A MOVIE ABOUT ISAAC SINGER??  Holy Cow.  His real life is more interesting than any movie or reality show I've ever seen.


  1. Thanks for sharing. What a scandolous life he led. I would pay to go and see a film about him if they made one. Geaorge Clooney or Matthew "Alright, Alright" McConnaughey would be fun to watch!

  2. I saw an YouTube article about sewing machine history years ago, and Singer's life and exploits were depicted. I've thought the same, Rita. His life was a real roller coaster ride that would be interesting to see on the big or small screen. Maybe you and I should work up a treatment and pitch it to HBO? :-)