Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Isaac Singer, Part #2

Isaac Singer was a free spirited man who marched to his own drummer. Lucky for us, he was a creative thinker...but there is no question he was one of the most uncouth men in the history of business.

In some 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.

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.

But being a machinist was not his first choice. His real dream was to become a star. He wanted to be an actor.

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, and became embroiled in the patent battles with Elias Howe.

Eventually, Singer drove Zieber out of the company, and he swindled  Phelps out of his stock. (on his deathbed).

After the patent pool settlement, the Singer Co became a huge financial success, and it made Isaac Singer a very wealthy man.

Singer took up residence in a New York City Fifth Avenue mansion with his "wife" Mary Ann Sponsler and their children.  In the early 1860s, they lived a very lavish, ostentatious life. For example, Singer liked to drive about in a grandiose vehicle of his own design. A 30 ft. long carriage, painted canary yellow and black, drawn by six or sometimes nine horses, with a small band playing on board. It had seats for thirty-one people, beds for the children and a water-closet.
Isaac Singer (his pose for

Catharine finally divorced him in 1860. But, at that time, Isaac Singer was 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 the 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.  (seriously?).  In 1862, Singer and Mary McGonigal sailed for Europe, where Singer would remain for the rest of his life. 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 (ten more years). They had six children and settled in England. 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. 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, but he remained an active force in the company.  Edward Clark was in charge back at the New York headquarters -- but Singer 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...

My friend Marion and I always marvel at this -- WHY WOULD ANYBODY WRITE FICTION?  I mean, the truth is so bizarre, it NEVER LETS YOU DOWN...

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