Sewing machine miniature. Silver. Italy, mid-19th century. Gift of Anonymous Donor in memory of Albert and Rebecca Elsberg, 1938-6-1

A Sewing Machine in Miniature

The craft of sewing is over 20,000 years old. The first needles were made of bone, antler, or horn, used to stitch together animal hides with thread-like sinew. Over time, thread and woven textiles became prevalent and there were advances in sewing tools—the earliest iron needles date from the fourteenth century, and the eyed needle was invented in the fifteenth century—but one thing remained constant: all sewing was done by hand.

This changed with the invention of the sewing machine in the late eighteenth century. The device would enable the mass production of clothing, and lead to the development of the clothing industry. By the mid-nineteenth century, early home sewing machines promised a revolution in household labor. Called “The Queen of Inventions,” by Gody’s magazine in 1860, the sewing machine offered women relief from the hours and tedium of hand sewing. Early manufacturers, such as the I.M. Singer Company, recognized this potential market and promoted their machines as modern women’s conveniences that, while expensive, were worth the savings in time and drudgery. The machines could be purchased on monthly installments, making them available to an ever expanding domestic market. Home sewing machines came in table-top models and treadle-powered versions on their own stands. The metal housings were often embellished with elaborate scrolled decoration, and the stands echoed this motif in their curving cast iron bases.

Among a group of miniatures in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection, this highly ornamental and delicate example in the shape of a treadle-powered sewing machine is made of filigreed silver wire. Filigree is a labor-intensive metalworking technique in which fine wire, usually gold or silver, is shaped and soldered into an openwork pattern or form. The technique is primarily used in jewelry and the ornamentation of small objects such as this one. Here, the fine wire has been curved and twisted to form a sewing machine on a rectangular stand with a treadle in the base, and a circular hand crank on the side. Like it’s full-size counterparts, this sewing machine has moving elements: the treadle, crank and slotted arm. While the form is similar to sewing machines of the mid-nineteenth century, foot-treadle machines of this type existed well into the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, until the advent of the electric-powered sewing machine.

Today is Sewing Machine Day

Museum Number: 
1938-6-1