Alex is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, consulted on films, books and publications world wide.
Spending a lifetime in the sewing trade it would become a passion of mine to find out about the inventor that made my profession possible. For over 30 years I have keenly collected every anecdote and piece of information that I could uncover to bring you one of the most complete works to date on Elias Howe, inventive genius, and sewing machine pioneer.
If you just want quick dates for a project or the like then use the Wikipedia page that has condensed much of my work.
In my history of Elias Howe I try and find the man, his struggles hopes and failures. Like Wyatt Earp and his part in the shoot out at the OK Corral, tales change in the telling and many versions of Elias Howe exist. Some slaughter the man, others are indifferent and just state dates and figures. All-in-all I want to bring you a tiny drop of his life force for he is the most important man in sewing history, the man who changed our world.
From the clothes you are wearing to the sofa you watch TV on, they are all made on the humble sewing machine which properly started with Elias Howe.
I do hope you like my history of Elias Howe and may others take the flag forward to complete my work. I have added every snippet I have gained over decades of research. A big thank you goes out to all those who supplied information over the years, especially his relatives.
Please excuse any mistakes and my English spelling and do feel free to correct me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Quick points of interest.
1838 Works for Ari Davies with sewing machines.
1841 Marries Elizabeth Jennings Ames.
1846 Patents sewing machine with unique ideas.
1851Howe sells part of his patent interests to stave off bankruptcy.
1854 Wins patent protection in law courts and becomes rich.
1862 Serves in American Civil War.
1867 Dies at the age of 48 as one of the richest
men in America.
1876 The US Government notes the Howe sewing machine as one of the most notable inventions.
2004 Added to United States National Hall of Fame.
Elias Howe, 9th of July 1819 to the 3rd Oct 1867.
I love the hair!
"As I speak today over
men in the field, in our great struggle, our Civil War, are clothed,
kitted and covered by fabric sewn on machines using my inventions."
What an opening paragraph! And much of it open to argument. Sewing machines littered the 19th century. In fact countless sewing machines had been made before Elias Howe brought his machine to patent! Most of them pretty useless.
Though men had tried to make a machine that sewed for centuries it was Elias Howe who finally patented the real deal in 1846. His machine, with his unique patents, produced one of the first reliable lock-stitches in history. His patents were copied by almost every sewing machine manufacturer in the business, many ending up in court fighting against Elias.
From a modest beginning many say that Elias Howe became the second wealthiest man in the world from his invention! However after he died his estate was in turmoil. His assets were eventually re-valued by the executors and, much to the annoyance of his heirs, just a fraction of his supposed wealth turned up.
The Howe Patent Model
Read on and find out about our amazing young farmer who suffered from a weak constitution and was plagued by ill health. Ill health that finally stole him just as he was about to enjoy his rewards.
Elias Howe's story is a brief but turbulent one. It was one that touched the birth of the first proper sewing machine industry. Elias Howe knew all the pioneers in his field and most of the great names in the sewing business from Isaac Singer to Grover & Baker.
The humble sewing machine sparked the greatest manufacturing expansion in history and led to employment of millions.
Our world changed
Clothes became cheaper as the sewing machine could do many times the work of a hand sewing tailor. Clothes became abundant and much easier to obtain and our world looked better because, simply, we all dressed better. Famous New York tailors, Brook Brother, cut down the waiting time for their first-class overcoats from three weeks to just six days and the price dropped accordingly. A hat, which everyone wore, however rich or poor could be made ten-times faster on a sewing machine than by hand.
Historians tell us that several men invented sewing machines which is true. For example Walter Hunt, years earlier than Howe, made a lock stitch sewing machine but he never patented it. Also we only saw his 'improved model and plans' made after he had seen Elias Howe's and many other machines. It also must be noted that he was being paid a substantial sum by Isaac Singer to come up with a working machine to help his court case against Elias. There were many like Hunt and you can read about them in my History of the Sewing Machine.
Now, we cannot rely on Walter Hunt's machine but we can on Elias's Patent Model which is registered and fact.
Many say that Elias Howe may have somehow come across Walter Hunt's machine and basically copied it. If he did, he certainly didn't remember it very well as, to an engineer, they look very different. It is actually more likely to be the other way around as Walter Hunt had plenty of time to examine Elias Howe's machine before appearing in court with his new model.
There was no definitive proof of Elias seeing Walter's machine and none could be produced in later court proceedings, so it is unlikely, even though they have odd resemblances. However, most lockstitch machines have a resemblance to each other. It would be impossible to make one that does not!
Elias Howe was, much to his competitors disgust, given the rights to his patents. Even after the best lawyers in the land had tried to prove otherwise and stop him. So in our story we will also give him the benefit of the doubt!
Let us stick to the facts
Let us ignore these arguing points and stick to the facts. Elias Howe's machine clearly shows the brilliant idea of a curved needle with a hole at the point end. All needles before had the hole where they had always been, at the top end, like a modern hand-sewing needle, except in England where John Fisher had patented a similar needle to Howe for lace stitching in 1844. More of him later.
This novel idea for a needle carried the thread, forward, through a piece of material, where another thread, held in a metal shuttle, passed through a loop in the needle thread (caused by the needle moving forward then suddenly backward). The needle was then retracted and this action pulled the two threads to lock them in the fabric. The Lockstitch was born.
The shuttle was not new it had been used in the textile industry since the time of the Egyptians and even before in India and China, but making a miniature metal one was his stroke of genius. Along with the wrong-end eyed-needle (that's a tongue twister but I hope you know what I mean) these were just two great ideas which he patented. Also there was the semi-automatic method of feeding the work through the machine in equal amounts. It was these ideas that would later help him win one of the toughest court-case's of the century.
The Elias Howe patent of 1846
These ideas seems so fundamental now but, way back in 1846, they were revolutionary. For centuries people had wanted a machine or 'engine' that would sew, however not even Leonardo Da Vinci could figure it out.
Elias Howe did what no other man had done properly before. No, not boldly go into space but he boldly went to the metal shuttle lockstitch.
If you read my Sewing Machine History you will see the muddled path that led to this point in history. It is a fascinating read. Go on read it. If you are going to read the rest of this piece that has taken three decades to write you had better put the kettle on and make yourself a nice cup of tea, or a gin and tonic if that's your poison.
Stitch ! stitch ! stitch !
fingers weary and worn,
Everyone knew the first person to ever make a machine would become rich. Many thousands of people worked in the sewing industry. Great factories employed girls, even children, hand sewing. Every stitch on every piece of clothing was hand stitched, upholstery, shoes, leather and sails. Look around you for a second. Even today every stitch you are wearing right down to your car seat is still sewn-up.
Some of the factories worked the young girls until their eyesight went. They were sent home to spend the rest of their lives with poor eyesight brought on by the constant strain of sewing 12 hours a day in poor factory conditions. It was not a great life.
Elias Howe, the beginning
Elias Howe was born at home on the farm in Spencer, Massachusetts on the 9th of July 1819. He was the son of Elias Howe Senior who was a farmer, local doctor and vet. His mother was Polly Beamis. The Beamis family had settled in Spencer as early as 1721.
The Howe family were prolific inventors, William Howe invented the wooden truss bridge that is still named after him. His nephew, Amasa Stone, gained the patent rights for building Truss Bridges outside of New England and became a wealthy Clevelander.
Tyler Howe patented ingenious bed springs to give you a better nights sleep than straw. However it would be Elias Howe who would invent something that would change the world.
As Elias Junior grew his father saw, and encouraged, his son's inventive streak something that he later came to bank his farm on when he had to double mortgage it to fund Elias's court cases.
(I was always fascinated by what happened to Elias Howe's wealth and at the end of this page is an interesting note from one of his distant relatives and some recent archive discoveries).
Elias Howe Senior was a busy man. He worked his mills and farm with the help of his eight children. The grist mill pulled in money during the autumn grinding grain as did the saw mill and shingle machines. The farm itself was a constant struggle but they all pulled together to make it work.
By the time Elias Howe Junior was six, yes six years old, he was working most days on his dad's farm. Also other work was brought in. One of Elias Howe juniors jobs was making cards for the cotton mills in the area. This amounted to placing wire teeth into lengths of leather to strip back the bales of cotton before thread making. Also for the napping of cloth, wool and felt. The cotton cards were then sent back to the cotton mills for use in their industry. It was early piece work.
Elias went to school in the quiet months, usually winter. By the age of 11 Elias went to work on a neighbouring farm but, homesick and unwell, he soon returned to the familiarity of home where he worked until he was 16. It became clear to Elias's father that his son was weaker than normal and as much as he wanted he could not do a hard days work on the farm without being exhausted.
Elias's dad always worried about his frail son and would take special care to help him any way he could. It was this help, later in life, which proved to be the lottery winner for his family. One day the poor sickly lad would become one of the richest men in the land.
There are several different versions of how Elias Howe came to invent such a remarkable machine and I will go into those step-by-step later.
"Proud was he of his name and race,
Of old Sir William and Sir Hugh,
And in the parlor, full in view,
His coat of arms, well framed and glazed,
Upon the wall in colors blazed;
Upon a helmet barred; below
The scroll reads, "By the name of Howe,"
And over this, no longer bright,
Though glimmering with a latent light,
"Was hung the sword his grandsire bore,
In the rebellious days of yore,
Down there at Concord in the fight."
Elias Howe Snr was the 4th great-grandson of John Howe who arrived in America in 1630 from Brinklow in Warwickshire, England. John Howe had the claim to fame to be the first white man to settle in Marlborough and helped found the town of Sudbury MA.
One of John Howe's grandson's, David, opened the Wayside Inn in Sudbury Massachusetts where the great American poet Wordsworth Longfellow spent time writing his superb poems and verses. The Wayside Inn still exists today as one of the oldest Bed & Breakfast in the country. How fascinating is that!
Amasa Bemis Howe
This is the actual signature of Amasa Bemis Howe, Elias's Brother, helper, friend, sewing machine manufacturer and also inventor. In Elias's final years a bitter row broke out between the brothers.
Now back to Elias Howe.
In 1834/5 Elias Howe, now around 16, went to work in a textile mill at Lowell where he gained precious knowledge of shuttle movements and fabrics. He worked in the repair workshop for the cotton spinning machinery.
The cotton mill was badly hit by a state-wide depression and in 1837 Elias Howe moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here he found work in a rope making factory before getting a job working as a mechanic's apprentice along side his cousin, Nathaniel Banks. Nathaniel P Banks became a Major General before becoming Speaker in the house of Representatives. These influential connections would later help Elias gain a rare patent extension worth millions.
Now the real good stuff starts in 1838. In 1838 Elias Howe was working for master craftsman Ari Davis in Cornhill, Boston. Ari Davies specialized in precision instruments and sewing machine repairs, yippee we're on a roll boys.
Elias Howe was a frail thin young man with a rash of curly hair and an inventive streak. In-between his constant bouts of weakness Elias Howe worked for this precision engineer learning a skill that would later help him make one of the greatest inventions in history and become one of the wealthiest men in America.
While in Boston with the volatile Ari Davis he would repair not only nautical instruments, which Ari specialized in, but the constant stream of new-fangled faulty sewing machines that were badly designed and never really sewed well. Ari often boasted that he could make a sewing machine better than what was available, although he never attempted to do so. In 1839 the two men even had a small wager on it.
Ari and Elias Howe knew full well that the first inventor of a proper sewing machine would become a wealthy man and they probably had long discussions over the machines as they went about repairing the mechanisms. Elias would often travel around as a journeyman fixing all types of machines on site. He would often arrive back at the end of the week exhausted.
This grounding in repairing multiple machines of all different shapes and sizes was just perfect for the inventive mind of Elias Howe. His father back on the farm was to be proved right about his son. Give that man a cigar.
Elias played with his sewing machine ideas while working away at Ari's business for several years.
As a bachelor Elias Howe spent endless hours scribbling down ideas and thinking about his sewing machine or sewing engine as he called it. Dozens of prototypes were made before he eventually got it right.
In 1841, at the age of 22, Elias Howe married his first wife. Elias Howe married Elizabeth Jennings Ames on the 3rd of March 1841 in Cambridge Massachusetts. She was an English girl born in 1827 to Simon Ames. She was 14 when she married and died in 1849 at the young age of 22.
Soon Elizabeth was expecting. Elias settled down to family life but with the arrival of more children and earning just nine dollars a week Elias had his work cut out. He would work all day and come home exhausted. He would sit and watch his children play while his wife busily mended and made clothes by hand for extra money.
It was while recuperating in bed that his first sewing machine thoughts were to take physical form. He would get up and scribble down his ideas. As soon as he was fit enough, and had the time, he would make the parts that he had thought of for his new invention. Sometimes it would work sometimes not.
He often joked to his dear wife I wish I could just lie here in bed for the rest of time. A wish that would sadly come true many years before it should.
By 1844 his uncle had invented a slicing machine for palm leaves which could slice the large leaves into thin strips for weaving into various things from hats to baskets. His father, Elias Howe Snr, encouraged by his brothers invention, left the farm with his family and, for a period, moved up to Cambridge to help in the business of making palm-leaf strips.
Elias Howe Jr, his family and his dad all lived together until a fire ripped through the palm-leaf cutting-machine business. Times were hard, the depression was still bitting and Elias Jr was frail, often being unable to go out to work. Dad went back to run the farm and left Elias in the capable hands of his adoring wife.
1844 Elias had the good fortune to bump into a old school-mate, a wealthy young man looking to invest his inheritance. George Fisher was a merchant in the wood and coal industry and was willing to help an old friend. It was a bit more of a partnership that he imagined. A near penniless Elias Howe and his family moved in with George Fisher. Later George would drop Elias just as he was about to make his fortune. George would have become a multi-millionaire if he had stuck with Elias just a little longer than he did.
For housing Elias and providing him with a workshop, tools and finances (which grew, first to hundreds then over two-thousand dollars), he would receive half of his patent, if it ever made it to a patent. It was a big risk but one an old friend was willing to take. Later George Fisher would say...
"I believe I was the only one of Elias Howe's friends and neighbours in the area that had any confidence in his ability and his invention. Many people thought of him as an eccentric visionary trying to invent the impossible."
In fact things got much worse as Elias could not make the journeys necessary for his work as a journeyman mechanic for Ari Davies.
Now I must add a little pointer here, Elias Howe was not only an accomplished engineer he was also a very good seamstress, well tailor, you know what I mean, he could sew and sew really well. He could knock up clothes as fast as his well-trained wife. Some of his many early sewing engine ideas were novel to say the least. One was a needle with the eye in the middle, banana shaped, it rocked to-and-fro through the sewing. None of these first ideas bore fruit but each day as he worked he got closer to the invention that would change the world.
Physically unable to travel as a journeyman machinist anymore poor old Elias decided to take a job as engine driver on the Boston Railway. The thought of standing on the engine room platform did not sound so fatiguing as travelling around on his horse and cart. However this also proved to physical for Elias and he had to give it up.
While resting Elias tinkered with more ideas and by October of 1844 a basic machine was complete. The machine was little more than a collection of different materials, wood, steel, wire, rivets and pins but it proved the idea of a lock-stitch sewing machine was possible. Elias had made his first seam on his new fangled sewing engine. However from this working model he knew he could construct a stronger working machine.
Through the winter of 1844 Elias spent his time perfecting his patent model shut away in a small annex of George Fisher's house. This model was the machine that would change our world. Have I said that before...hehe.
Elias spent a solid 12 weeks working non-stop making a patent model and by April 1845 it was complete. Completing his invention and selling it was a whole different matter. Elias spent the rest of the year trying to flog his contraption to no avail. As the months rolled by and debts mounted George Fisher was regretting his decision to help an old friend.
Even though Elias had no luck selling his machine he got all his money together and went ahead with applications for patenting.
By the spring of 1846 Elias had two machines one for the Patent Office and one to show off at exhibitions. Elias's very first machine was later exhibited at the Great Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. More of that later.
A funny fact is that quite possibly, had Elias been of a stronger constitution, he would never have had enough time off work to complete his invention. How strange fate is.
The most important date in sewing machine history
Elias Howe had played with his ideas for years and finally, after nearly eight years, and his first discussions with Ari Davies (and over 40 prototypes) he had made his first fully working machines. Some say it was little more than wire and wood but they are just jealous. It was a lock-stitch sewing machine that actually worked. The first hand built sewing machines of Elias Howe was a triumph of blood sweat and tears and, more importantly, modern engineering.
His sewing machine was capable, in Elias's hands, of sewing over 250 locked-stitches a minute without breaking thread, 300 if Elias was in a good mood. Few other people could get a stitch out of the contraption but the maker had the magic touch! His sewing skills and personal knowledge of the machine made it possible for him to sew on it.
By the spring of 1846 the machine was forwarded for patenting. To prove its worth Elias stitched up his own suit which he wore until the cloth perished. In fact he made one for his old friend, George Fisher, as well. Later he would often point out that even though the cloth was worn the stitch was still strong.
While waiting for patent approval Elias was still trying to work and exhibit his invention. In 1846 Elias Howe, in his new home-made suit, and George Fisher boarded the train for Washington to exhibit at a Washington Fair.
The most wonderful curiosity of our time that will drag women from the drudgery of their daily chores.
Roll up, roll up, come and see the future...
Crowds huddled around to see the invention that would drag women from the drudgery of their daily choirs. The marvel of the age.
However no one bought the machine. Not one single sale followed. It was just too expensive for people to gamble on. $300 was the sale price and the average wage between $5-10 a week. The machine was the equivalent of almost a years wages, a new car in today's money!
It must have been a depressing journey back from Washington without a single order.
Unperturbed Elias still went forward with his patent application.
Patent No 4750 patent awarded to Elias Howe September 10th 1846.
(Patent 5346. Patent 5942 Bradshaw improved Howe 1848)
Elias soon began to see that sales were not going to be so easy. After years of bad machines people were sceptical about yet another sewing machine! Amazing as it seems now there were actually hundreds of inferior sewing machines before 1846 and not one of them made a reliable, regular stitch. Proving his machine was better than anyone's was going to be a big problem. Another problem is that it took him months to make each machine.
George Fisher was now in a mournful state. He came to see there was little prospect of Elias selling his sewing machines and George had now spent over $2,000 supporting and paying for Elias and his family. With George Fisher's wealth diminishing by the day he had to pluck-up enough strength to ask Elias and family to leave.
Elias and family moved back in with his dad while he continued in vain to try and sell his sewing engine.
Let's step back a second and look at his invention. I hate it when people quote others saying that Elias Howe was a poor or mediocre engineer. They should look at his work and see if they could build a sewing machine. He indeed was a superb engineer and improved with time. Unfortunately he was the only one who really knew how to operate his machine, when others tried they made a mess of it. However, later, his input in both Howe sewing machine companies was to prove invaluable.
Some say his invention came about because of his continual ill health and his long spells in bed, watching his wife sewing. It was while recuperating that the inspirational movement of his sewing machine went from mind to paper to reality. While off work he had time and opportunity! Hey that sounds more like a murder trial, read on...
Other say that it was Elias Howe's early training as a machinist's apprentice at the Lowell Textile Mill that helped his invention. Others that it was the inspiration of his inventive family and possibly Ari Davies. I guess it was a mixture of all his experiences that led to his sewing engine.
I have a dream
Later on Elias Howe himself had another version for the courts. Elias Howe told how the idea of a needle with a hole in the 'wrong end' came to him. His version varies but this is the most likely one.
It was all a dream... Elias Howe was in the middle of a dream where Red Indians were attacking another Indian camp. During the attack they were firing arrows. Some of the arrows pierced through wigwams made of stout cloth, not hide. As the arrows pierced the tents (the arrows had flint heads) some snagged threads, drawing the threads through with the tips of the arrows creating large loops of loose thread.
Elias woke in the middle of his dream, rushed to his workshop, and put his 'dream' into practice. The rest, as they say, is history, or a good story for the court.
Whatever the truth, what we know is that he did build a machine that made a lock stitch with two threads, a shuttle and a bent/curved needle with a hole at the wrong end and a feed mechanism for moving the material!
"Be it known that I, Elias Howe, Jr, of Cambridge, in the county of Middlesex and State of Massachusetts, have invented a new and useful machine for sewing seams in cloth or other articles requiring to be sewed...
In sewing a seam with my machine two threads are employed, one of which threads is carried through the cloth by means of a curved needle..."
Now, in many ways this was not a great machine. It had lots of problems. it still fed the work vertically with the needle moving horizontally. The fabric had to be supported on sharp pins and only in short lengths. Operators who tried to use it ended up with pricked fingers and scowling faces. Although Elias Howe had put some great sewing machine principles together in one machine it was a tricky little devil to operate.
What the machine did do (which Elias later found out) was allow other inventors to see his ideas and make improvements on it.This in turn led to a massive expansion in the sewing machine industry. In an instant anyone seeing the shuttle movement could copy it. Watching the movement of the Howe sewing machine at one of his demonstrations or exhibitions which he attended would have been a Eureka moment to an engineer.
For example, try and guess all the lottery numbers, almost impossible, see six numbers and write them down, easy.
Two very different machines models by Elias Howe
Even after many demonstrations beating as many as five sewing girls at a time Elias Howe's Chunky and awkward machine was not a seller.
In fact as hard as poor old Elias Howe tried, he could not sell his invention to anyone. Not one sale! One big problem was the price. This hand-made marvel cost, in today's value, the price of a new car! No wonder no one would risk buying it or investing in it. It would have been the most expensive item in the house besides the house itself!
Elias was an unlucky salesman, he never had Singer's flare and could not sell his machine in America. Here he is demonstrating at Quincy Hall. Note the sewing girls on the bench behind trying to keep up and how small his machine actually was!
Shortly before Elias had his machine patented he had to prove its worth. In a hall at the Quincy Clothing Company Elias set up a large demonstration of his sewing engine.
For 14 days Elias Howe Jr sat at his chair and sewed up every bit of clothing that was brought to him. Tailors brought him the worst they could find but he sewed it all. He sewed against the best and the fastest ladies and bets were wagered, he beat them all.
The Quincy Hall demonstration woodcut from 1846
He had proven that he could sew the same as several skilled seamstresses. The seamstresses and tailors were unhappy about this, obsolete staff and one sewing engine operator was their future! Wrong. No one could ever have guessed the explosion in industry and employment that reliable sewing machines or sewing engines were going to create.
Unfortunately his modern marvel just did not sell. He could not find a single manufacturer in America willing to take on production or someone who would invest in his patent. The mechanism was so complex that it frightened everyone away. If it took the inventor months to make how could anyone make it quicker? Don't forget mass production was years away. What to do next?
October 1846 Amasa Howe sails to Britain
Elias Howe's older brother, Amasa, suggested that he might find a buyer in England, on the other side of the world. England was a hub of industrial factories and new ideas were being advertised almost daily in publications of the day.
Elias Howe Snr somehow found enough money to pay for a ticket for Amasa, who was stronger than Elias and could make the journey with ease.
The idea was for Amasa to go to England and see if there were genuine prospects for the machine. Amasa Howe took the only spare sewing machine and loads of samples, diagrams and plans with him hoping to find an investor.
Remember Elias had only made two machine so far. Amasa was looking for potential in England. If he found it Elias was to get his backside over there and do the deals.
Amasa set off with enthusiasm and eventually returned with great news. England was a hive of industry. Manufacturing in steel was everywhere. Amasa saw huge potential and had news that if Elias's machine could be adapted for special work there were several manufacturers who would be very interested in his invention.
In fact one big manufacturer had already agreed to patent the Howe machine in England. A man named William Frederick Thomas would invest the necessary money to protect the Howe machine from being copied. This was to lead the man to riches. Not Elias but William Thomas!
Birth of the British Sewing Machine Industry
The company that W F Thomas founded in 1846 was the Thomas Company which later became W F Thomas & Co. This was the very beginning of the British sewing machine industry which, for over 100 years, went from strength to strength until globalisation and cheap imports destroyed it.
Once more back to our story...Amasa had left the only other Howe machine with Thomas late in 1846 so that he could get the protection while he whipped back to America to pick up his brother. Thomas had paid £250 for the machine and rights to it. The money was enough to pay for Amasa to get back to America and plenty for him and brother Elias to return. Oh, when I say whipped I mean six weeks of hard travelling that would be done in six hours today.
The idea was simple, get Elias over to England to adapt his sewing machine for use in Thomas's factories. Thomas could then expand and improve production times.
The actual Howe machine patented in England by William Frederick Thomas in 1846
And so, it looked like in England, Elias was going to get lucky at last. How wrong they were.
Now, here we must stop for a mo. I have uncovered conflicting evidence that when Elias did come over to England he initially took his family as well, but some other information that states he set sail just with his brother, Amasa Howe, and sent for his wife and kids later. The truth will probably come to light with the passenger lists that have been coming on-line.
We shall go with the latter as it ties up with the information to follow.
February 5th 1847 Elias Howe goes to England
Glorious tales of hardship spring to mind. The two brothers working their passage to England on an old tea clipper or the like, cooking their own meals along the way and dreaming of riches in a foreign land. It will probably turn out to be a luxury liner but I do like the image.
Elias and Amasa sailed to the manufacturing centre of the world. If he was going to find riches, surely Europe would be the place.
While Thomas was waiting for Elias, and Amasa, to arrive he patented Elias's machine in England. On December 1st 1846 William Thomas gained his patent for much of the Howe sewing machine. It was to later earn him a fortune, not in the manufacture of sewing machines but in the selling of licences to other sewing machine manufacturers.
William Thomas, Cheapside, London.
William Thomas was already a giant in the manufacturing industry, at the time employing over 5,000 men, women and children in his factories.
Amongst the many things William Thomas produced were corsets and umbrellas. Now that William Thomas had the patent rights for the Howe sewing machine and (as he thought) to its needle and shuttle all he had to do was get Elias to make it work on his products.
One problem William Thomas came across very quickly was patent infringement. John Fisher, mentioned right at the beginning of this story, had already patented a needle with the eye at the bottom end for lace embroidery. A furious Thomas had to publically issue a disclaimer and acknowledge Fisher as the patentee holder of the needle and shuttle for lace-making.
Once in England and set up in lodgings William Thomas paid Elias Howe to modify his sewing machine for the manufacturing of the fabric to be stitched to the umbrella rods and corset stays. This modification took Elias the best part of a year to do. If you look at the pictures of a normal Howe and his English version you will see a huge difference as Elias modified it to work on William's goods.
While he was busily working away Amasa Howe was of little use so he decided to return to America.
Slowly Elias Howe managed to perfect his machine for William's business. Now this is where historic versions alter.
During this period, away from home, missing his family, his work slowed to a snails pace and his weak constitution re-surfaced. The London air was damp and smog-filled, the streets were filthy and infested with vermin and disease. It was not a good place for someone of Elias's constitution.
Victorian London, as well as untold wealth, was the place of Charles Dickens, beggars and street hustlers .
It was William Thomas who saw Elias's work failing and came up with a cunning plan.
"Look here Elias my boy, why not let me bring your wife over, and your kids as well. I'll put them up for you. you would like that," said William placing a comforting hand on Elias's weak shoulder.
The plan worked and after his loving family joined him, Elias, filled with enthusiasm, managed to adapt the final part of his sewing machine for the corset and umbrella stays.
Remember this machine was hand built, unique in the history of the world, and extremely complex. Each modification could take days, even weeks, and then not work properly. It was the new territory of invention, of failure and ultimate success.
William Thomas was already a successful manufacturer employing thousands of workers if he could get the machine copied and into his factories (going on Elias's demonstrations) he could cut his work-force by over two thousand workers. However harsh, every business owner would find that appealing.
Once Elias was finally finished an over-confident William Thomas had no further use for him and his mood quickly changed from friend to foe. Far from being an asset Elias Howe was now a drain costing him £3 a week.
Thomas had everything he needed from Elias, his machine, ready to be copied, his patents, signed over to him and his agreements. All this had been paid for legitimately.
William Thomas made it so awkward at work that he eventually forced Elias to quit his well paid job. At the time Elias was receiving six times the average wage, plenty to keep Elias's family well fed and looked after.
However it all went wrong for William as after he disposed of Elias's services he could not get anyone to make the machine work efficiently. Did Elias sabotage it? Or was it exactly the same problem that had happened in America. After several failed attempts by other engineers Thomas never managed to adapt the machine properly for his business. The machine needed the touch of Elias himself.
So the factory machines never materialised. I have to wonder if there are a few funny looking wooden and metal prototype contraptions in London lofts slowly rotting away today worth a mint. Once again it was only Elias Howe who seemed capable of operating his machines effectively.
Although the machine was a great disappointment to William Thomas he still held the patent protection for important parts of the sewing machine. This was later to lead to massive patent and licence revenues when sewing machines started to appear in Britain.
They say that the initial investment from William Thomas of £250, and a years pay to Elias, and one sewing machine, paid back over one million pounds in royalties, licence and patent fees. Mummamia! That was the best investment ever.
A few years later, Elias, swore in the American courts that his friend went back to England to regain his patent rights. What is the truth? Now all this would be done by an instant phone call but in those days a court would not wait months for someone to sail across the world, collect information, and sail back again. What we do know is that Elias never got back his 1846 sewing machine from William Thomas.
In fact an interesting point is that in 1919 the son of William Thomas, also William, donated the very machine that Elias Howe had made and sold to his father in 1846 to the Science Museum. They still have it on display.
Back to poor old Elias. We now find Elias and his family out of a job and quickly running out of finances in London. Once again he has had the door of success slammed in his face. Is he ever going to strike it rich. You bet your life he is.
No job, no machine, no money and on the far side of the world away from all his friends and most of his family. What to do? While Elias thought what to do he came across Charles Inglis.
Luckily he befriended Charles Inglis who offered Elias the use his rooms and use of his workshop in Essex.
It was a life-saver for Elias who knew if he could make more machines and adapt them to special manufacturing applications he could earn excellent money. He had a taste of it with William Thomas and knew he could do it again.
He tried to make another sewing machine but lack of money for raw materials and not earning a wage and his wife's failing health proved too much. Charles Inglis helped out where he could but he was just a coach maker and of no fortune himself.
Nearly broke and disheartened Elias decided to use his last earnings and some borrowed money from Charles to get his frail wife and kids back home.
This is Charles Inglis actual account which is quite moving.
"Before Elias and his family left London they had borrowed money from me in the sums of five pounds and requested me to gain provisions. This I did. On the evening of Mrs Howe's and their children's departure the night was wet and stormy and her health being delicate she was unable to walk to the ship. Elias had no money to pay for a hansom cab and he borrowed a few shillings from me once again. I was only happy to help my old friend through such hardship. He later paid me back with some of his clothing.
As we were about to leave her laundry turned up with a washerwoman but as neither Elias or his wife had any funds to pay the woman she took them away. Elias managed to get his wife and children safely on board ship before returning. I believe it was the last time he saw her alive.
Elias was severely pinched and I lent him a shilling to buy food and later saw him eating beans in his own room where he had cooked them. He then set about in earnest finishing his sewing device."
All Alone in a foreign land
Elias Howe patent sewing machine of 1846
Elias was loathed to leave England himself as he had nearly finished his sewing machine number three. Yes in all this time he had only made three complete sewing machines. If he could complete this one his money worries would be over.
Finally, broke and living on hand-outs he managed, by hook and by crook, to get his machine finished and ready to sell. However he was now in such a desperate need for money just to live that he had to sell his sewing machine for a pittance. Elias was now a broken man and was so desperate to get home.
Elias pawned his precious machine for five pounds, a fraction of its worth.
Shortly after, Elias Howe was selling the clothes of his back and his last laundry to buy a ticket home. He borrowed more money from his close friend, Charles, and booked passage. Interestingly Charles Inglis decided to accompany Elias and travelled to America with him.
Elias put all his belongings into a handcart and dragged it to the docks and took the cheapest tickets available, which were in steerage. This meant his last belongings would have to travel separately.
He bid farewell to unforgiving England and set sail. Little did he know a few years later the Howe Sewing Machine Company would have businesses in England and a factory in Scotland.
The man with the weak constitution but a heart of oak left the land he had hoped would make him rich. It was a long and dangerous journey, weeks at sea under sail blown by the temperamental winds.
April 1849 Elias arrives back in New York
Broke, Elias Howe arrived back in America with a single English coin in his pocket. Terrible news was waiting for him. Elizabeth, who had returned home on an earlier passage, was seriously ill. the journey had proved just too much for Elias's wife.
Elias was desperate and once again his dad came to the rescue sending $10 to Elias for the journey to his wife's bedside.
Elias made the mad rush to Cambridge and arrived to find his poor wife dying of consumption. She had held on for days but once she had touched her beloved husband she let go and slipped away to sleep the eternal sleep.
Heartbroken, Elias had to organise her funeral and had to go to church in borrowed clothes as his were in rags. Elias looked like an old man and then news reached him that the last remaining goods he owned were lost in a shipwreck of Cape Cod.
This was the lowest point in Elias's life and it could have been his end as well. However fortune was about to smile on the brave.
With the sad loss of his wife, Elias now had his three children to support and no living. All he had saved in the entire world was the English coin in his pocket. His invention had not been the winner he had hoped. In fact it had been just the opposite, so far...
Elias Howe's children at this point were Simon Ames Howe, Julia Maria Howe and Jane Robinson Howe.
1849. The year the tables turn for Elias Howe
Back home in America, to Elias Howe's utter astonishment, the sewing machine industry was flourishing. Like the computer industry, a year can be a long time and Elias Howe had been gone two years. While he was away no one bothered to even check if they were infringing any patents and Elias was on the other side of the world. While the cats away the mice do play!
Isaac Singer and several others had all entered the sewing machines industry in his absence. Now, while none of the machines on the market looked exactly like Elias's machine they had all infringed on his patents. Singer had his needle and his machine also used a shuttle which Elias had patents for.
"Sweet Lord, the sewing machines are even being used as family attractions for ten cents a time like tattooed ladies at the circus. I simply cannot believe my eyes, and if that is not bad enough they are all using my ideas."
Elias was now on the boil, enough was enough. People were getting rich of his hard work.
Come and see the
The Howe family were now in battle-station mode. Elias went back as a journeyman machinist to earn money for the children while Elias's father re-mortgaged the family farm so that Elias Howe could pursue his rights in court.
Elias found Anson Burlingame who was gong to London. He agreed to track down Elias's last machine that he had sold for a few pounds and to grab back any paperwork he could find.
Elias later stated that it was the actual patent machine Burlingame had acquired but we know that was probably not true as William Thomas still had it. No court was going to hold up proceedings for a year to send someone across the world to find out.
The Honourable Ansom Burlingame was the man of the hour. In the autumn of 1849 he arrived back from England with Elias's machine.
By 1850 Elias and his three children, Jane Robinson Howe, Simon Ames Howe and Julia Maria Howe, were living with his sister, Fanny, in Roxbury, Norfolk, Mass. From here he planned his attack.
The great patent battle begins
Elias served papers on all the sewing machine manufacturers demanding fees. Actually many of them looked at his patent protection and decided to pay up. However, in strides the arrogant Isaac Singer and throws a huge spanner into the works. He talked the manufacturers into fighting Elias in the courts. It was to be a bloody battle.
sewing machine of our time can be made without embodying my principles."
Elias tried to get George Fisher (who still owned half his American patents) back on board but he had already lost so much money to Elias that he was more than reluctant.
However in 1851 he did sell his half to three entrepreneurs, Daniel Johnson, William Whiting and George Jackson but they soon ran out of money funding Elias's court proceedings. In 1852 the half-share in Elias's patent was bought up by George W Bliss of Massachusetts.
Bliss also helped with the law suits on condition that he held a second mortgage on Elias's fathers farm. Boy did that dad have faith in his son. Time after time he has bailed him out and encouraged his son. What a dad.
Things were not easy. Singer had a great lawyer in his partner Clark and the weeks turned into months then years. The whole family held their breath as the lawyers fought out a bitter and contracted battle, much of it was reported in the papers.
Elias demanded money from all the sewing machine manufacturers that were infringing on his patents. They in turn helped finance Elias Howe's destruction in the courts.
For five years Elias Howe battled in the courts. Some cases he won some then some lost. The courts se-sawed back and forth. For example in 1850 Elias decided to have his machine made and he ordered 14 sewing machines from a manufactory in Gold Street, New York. All was fine until everyone found out the machines were pretty useless. Like William Thomas and Bradshaw had found out, the machines had to be made by Elias himself if they were to work.
To compound this, both Singer and Elias Howe advertised extensively trying to persuade the public of their just causes. All this time Walter Hunt (an earlier inventor) was being paid by Isaac Singer to break Howe's patent claims.
In the year 1853, Walter Hunt applied for a patent upon his sewing machine invention, but was refused on the ground of abandonment. This is fascinating reading…
Judge Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, May, 1854
claims priority upon the ground that he invented the
Judge Charles Mason then went on to attack Elias Howe…
Elias Howe, Jr, acquired the power, by
the invention lay dormant in his hands. He held control
Walter Hunt amazingly testifies, under oath, as follows…
Howe has several times stated to me that he was
Eventually, Walter Hunt's earlier designs proved that he had in fact invented some sort of lock stitch machine. Pity he never proved it in 1834, kept proper records, drawings, or bothered to patented it. Just like Isaac Singer who apparently lost the piece of paper containing the drawing of his sewing machine inventions.
Isaac Singer did his best to prove his case for his own inventive genius with all his acting ability. Remember not only was Isaac Singer a professional actor but at one point he even had his own theatre company.
"I was in the process of demonstrating my wood carving machine to Orson Phelps in his Boston shop when he showed me machines made for sewing garments that were faulty and often in for repair being of inferior design. Mr Phelps assured me that if the machines could be improved to do a greater variety of work that it would be a good thing and that if I could do this thing I would make a lot more money than from my carving machine, for which I gained the sum of $50.
Within the night I produced a drawing of my machine which contain three improvements contained in my Singer machines today. I set bout working day and night with little rest or food and the machine was completed on the eleventh day. So I so swear."
Isaac Merritt Singer
Great story. Elias Howe and Isaac Singer were now bitter enemies and several times they nearly came to blows. In fact I think one time Isaac physically booted Elias out of a demonstration he was doing when Elias walked in during it, demanding to speak to Isaac. Remember Isaac Singer was bigger tougher and rougher than Elias.
Fable has it that Elias was walking along a street when he peered into a shop window only to find the excellent actor and promoter, Isaac Singer, hard at work demonstrating his sewing machine. A furious Elias rushed in and confronted the larger more powerful Singer. He had sent Singer several demands for money and had constantly tried to stop him selling any sewing machines. A far bigger and physically stronger Isaac Singer stopped his demonstration, grabbed the shouting Elias and physically booted him out of the shop. Embarrassing or what! I can just imagine how furious Elias was now.
The final decision
May 1854 Judge Sprague, Massachusetts.
"There is no evidence in this case that leaves a shadow of a doubt that for all the benefits conferred by the introduction of the sewing machine the public are indebted to Elias Howe Jr."
Finally in 1854, eight years after Elias patented his sewing machine, the Supreme Court's decision is announced. Elias Howe had won. Wow, what a relief! He must have jumped for joy that day.I can see the whole family hugging and kissing in the court as Isaac Singer fumes out in a rage.
From this point in history it meant that everyone infringing on Elias's patents had to pay him. For the first time in his turbulent life Elias would be in the money. And people who had been using his patent would have to pay him money they had already earned from its use! The courts hoped that Elias would be a compassionate benefactor and help his fellow sewing machine manufacturers. Not on your nelly! After being nearly destroyed by them he was going to get every penny he deserved.
A woodcut from 1854 showing Elias victorious in court
Did Howe copy someone else's design?
Now let's step back and think about this. Many people, some experts in the sewing field, say Elias Howe merely copied Walter Hunt's and others designs. Walter hunt had produced two lock-stitch machines many years earlier but it is unlikely that these Blodgett & Lerow machines ever crossed the path of Elias Howe.
The facts are that even the best lawyers in the land could not remove his patent right. Every archive in every country, including China, were searched, in vain, to try and find a previous lock-stitch sewing machine.
The best lawyers that money could hire were hired and every nasty trick in the book was tried but they all failed. The courts heard the testimonies, saw the look on the faces of the men. Looked into the eyes of the people in the dock. Saw the sweat on the brows. Fake testimonials and sewing machines were discarded, one by one, until only Elias was left standing.
Put yourself for a moment in Elias Howe's shoes. He arrived back from England penniless and in ill health. His poor young wife succumbs after years of hardship and dies. Elias is left with a young family to support and no income. He finds that the only thing that he has ever done that is really worth anything is being copied, making other men rich.
You must ask yourself, would you really go and get your father to mortgage the family farm? Would you really risk the only security you have left for yourself, your children and your parents? Would you risk all and go against what seemed to be the whole world if you did not believe one hundred percent that you were right?
They say that history belongs to the victors and although elsewhere on my site I put the opposing argument, on this page, Elias Howe is the winner. He comes out of court triumphant. How great he must have felt on that day walking down the court steps, victorious.
My reasons for believing in Elias? Basically, like a cake mixture he had all the right ingredients.
Firstly, he had spent time working in the textile industry. He would have been very familiar with looms and the age old method of passing a bobbin through the cloth. Secondly, while ill, he had spent time watching his pretty young wife hand sew, knowing that if he could speed up her sewing they could make more money for the family. He was an accomplished sewer himself. There were no health benefits in those days, just poverty and starvation. Thirdly he had worked on countless sewing machines as a repairer-come-journeyman for Ari Davies. He was used to nearly every mechanism of the day that produced a stitch. Finally he was the son of a farmer and inventive relatives. If I have learnt one thing on my travels, farmers can make just about anything. They are the most pioneering self-sufficient breed on God's earth.
Put all these ingredients together and you have the perfect mix for the necessity of invention. This is why I believe Elias Howe was the first real inventor of a successful lock-stitch sewing machine. Of course he was inspired by other mechanical operations he had seen. Human evolution rarely jumps, it evolves, no monkey is going to design a space ship! Elias was the man who did it and patented it first. Today they are thousands of engineers who could design a sewing machine but only because of the knowledge they have gained. I am rambling now so I will stop.
The dream comes true for the curly-haired inventor
Anyway, Elias Howe was now victorious in court and although his enemies spent endless hours trying to tarnish his reputation, it was all in vain.
In 1854, some eight years after his original patent, Elias Howe was rolling in cash. Isaac Singer had to fork out over fifteen thousand dollars in back payments as did several other infringers. I bet that hurt!
This was more money than Elias Howe could ever have dreamed, and there was more to come. He paid off all his debts and father's mortgage on his farm.
1854 was possibly the best year of Elias Howe's life.
A very early rare picture of a Howe sewing machine shop circa 1856
Every sewing machine made in America that used Elias Howe's patents had to pay him royalties, five dollars for every machine sold in the USA and another dollar for everyone sold abroad. Elias had hit the big time. In a few years millions rolled in. He became one of the wealthiest men in the world, a Bill Gates of yesteryear. They say he was receiving $75,000 a year just in patent royalties. Elias had also bought back the rights to the other half of his patent and was soon earning around $1,000 a day! The price of a new house every day...Can you imagine that sort of wealth. It was like winning the lottery everyday.
699 Broadway New York
In 1854, Amasa Howe, Elias Howe's brother set up a sewing machine factory to start producing sewing machines. A dream had come true. One of the funny things with inventors is that they often spend more time in court than on their inventions. This was true of the Wright brothers and Rudolf Diesel of the diesel engine. They both spent more time in court than in the workshop.
The sewing machine wars
However a big problem arose. To make a great sewing machine, Elias and Amasa Howe had to use principles that were protected by his enemies! The company went ahead and wow did that cause a problem. As soon as the machines hit the streets the lawyers hit the courts. Elias now found himself battling against Singer and Wilson and all the rest of the 'big boys' and this time he could lose.
The periodicals had a field-day allowing each party to slag each other off in the blaze of the media.
The solution was obvious, instead of sewing machine wars why not get together and make some money. The only people getting rich were the lawyers. So that is what they did, and at last, late in 1854 a proper Howe sewing machine came onto the market that could be used by anyone.
In 1855 Amasa Howe sewing machines were pricey and beautiful. Each one took a team of engineers a week to build, yes one sewing machine a week, and only 50 a year. Some were ornately decorated in gold and pearl with inlaid cabinets.
Combining several patents they also sewed like a dream. At the New York American Institute exhibition the Howe machines beat all on-comers knocking Willcox & Gibbs into fourth place and Grover & Baker into third.
The Howe sewing machines took first and second place for elasticity, permanence and beauty of stitch and machine. To begin with these early sewing machines cost around $300, over a years wage but eventually, through, mass-production, the price fell to $59.
The Howe Machine
The Sewing Machine Cartel
The following year, in 1856,war broke out between the big boys Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, Grover & Baker, each accusing the other of infringements of some sort. They were to be tried at Albany and each combatant could look forward to months of litigation. But something most unusual took place.
"By a lucky chance one member of this feuding family had not entirely lost his temper and was in some degree capable of using his intellect. It occurred to this wise head that no matter who invented, first or second there were assembled at Albany the men who held the patents which controlled the whole sewing machine business and that it would be far better for them to combine and control rather than fight and destroy. After some talk of financial matters all came to the same opinion and the Sewing Machine Cartel was formed."
The Sewing Machine Cartel or combination was a mixture of all the big boys who held most of the patents covering the new fangled machines. Once they had combined they soon started suing and charging everyone making sewing machines for using their patents. Elias Howe was one of the men who reluctantly shook hands with the devil himself and went into business with his arch enemy Isaac Singer attacking any new manufacturer of sewing machines.
Isaac Singer immediately stopped all court proceedings against Elias Howe.
One of the agreements of the Sewing Machine Cartel was for Elias Howe to keep out of sewing machine manufacturing for 10 years. Although he had quietly helped Amasa, he kept to his agreement and for years he carefully planned his great new factory with the help of his daughters husbands, the Stockwell Brothers. Although not directly involved on paper his input, both financial and practical was priceless.
Of course, the Sewing Machine Cartel was really little more than an illegal monopoly and the law was eventually changed to dismantle it.
That took 20 years by which time most of the early sewing machine patents had run out anyway!
The deal is struck
With payments coming in from every sewing machine made, Elias Howe rose meteorically to one of the richest men in the America. He then hired writers to re-write his version of events and tried to make sure history remembered him as the man who truly invented the sewing machine. It did not work. Some of the biographies are a bit silly, (born a cripple but leads charges in the Civil War!). These re-writes probably did him more harm than good. He was in the American Civil War and I will tell you a little about that later.
The 1860 census of free inhabitants of Fairfield, Bridgeport, lists Elias, with his second English wife, Rose Halladay, and his three children by his first wife, Elizabeth (who was also English), all living there. His estate in Fairfield was valued at $150,000 with another $50,000 in personal assets.
Also in 1860, 14 years after his initial patent, Elias Howe managed to yet again extend/renew his patent rights for another seven years. There was talk of greasing the wheels to get this extension and he must have known the right people in the right places as there was little or no justification for the extension. He cheekily tried it again just before his death in 1867 but failed.
However from 1860, instead of the $5 he was getting, he only received $1 for every sewing machine made by any manufacturer in the US.
Elias backs the Union Army
When the American Civil War raged Elias Howe used some of his enormous wealth (now the third richest man in America) to equip much of the 17th cavalry regiment of Connecticut volunteers, then enlisted himself, as a private in Company D. He could have commissioned a much higher position. This showed the modesty of the man that many fault today.
For for such a weak man to go to war and serve as a private from 1862 is amazing. The hardships alone would kill a strong able bodied man. Then again he may have been in his prime and willing to fight in what he believed. I would never blame a man for that, nor should any.
The Waterloo Courier
After Elias Howe had enlisted, his coachman, an Irishman named Michael Cahill, rushed forward and cried out “Put my name down as well. I can’t bear to have the old man go alone.” Michael Cahill’s name was duly put down next to Elias Howe’s. The room filled with laughter and cheers in equal proportions.
The most famous man to do the same as Elias was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most feared cavalry officer of the entire war. Nathan Forrest enlisted as a private in 1861, however he was a self made man and not used to taking orders at the bottom of the pile. He decided to quit and then he raised an entire cavalry battalion with his own funds. His superb leadership and battle tactics saw him eventually promoted to lieutenant general. Forrest was the only man on either side of the conflict to rise to such a high a position from such a humble start (his father was an blacksmith). His fearless action under fire saw 30 horses killed under him, though he chillingly boasted that he killed more men in hand-to-hand combat than he lost horses!
Now back to Elias. Legend goes that after equipping much of his regiment he presented every officer with a fine war horse. For this he was offered the position of regiment colonel but once more humbly declined. There is no doubt that his regiment was in financial trouble.
The Waterloo Courier
For four months after the 17th Connecticut entered the field, the government was so pressed for money that no payments to the troops could be made. One day a private soldier came quietly into the Paymaster’s Office in Washington. There were already several officers waiting to be attended to so he took a chair in the corner and waited his turn. Colonel Walker eventually turned to him and said, “Now my man, what can I do for you?”
“I have called,” said the solider, “to see about the payment of the 17th Connecticut.”
The paymaster, a little irritated, explained to him bluntly that a Paymaster could do nothing without money and until the government could furnish some, it was useless for soldiers to come bothering him about payment! “I know,” said the soldier, “Government is in straits, and I have called to find out how much money it will take to give my regiment two months’ pay, and if you will tell me I am ready to furnish the amount.”
The officer stared at the private in astonishment and asked his name. It turned out to be no other than the famous Elias Howe. On referring to his books Colonel Walker found that the sum required was $31,000. Upon hearing this information Elias Howe wrote a draft for the sum and received in return a memorandum certifying the advance, promising refurbishment when the Government could afford it.
A few weeks later, at Fairfax Court House, the 17th Connecticut Regiment queued up for their payment. When Elias Howe’s name was called he stepped forward and received $28 of his own money.
Owing to his poor health Elias carried out light duties as a private. He often took the post by buggy to the local postal station. One day Elias was sitting in his buggy when he overheard two men conversing about the war. The conversation made him laugh out loud.
"Yes sir the whole shenanigans was thought up for the purpose of giving fat contracts to the abolitionists like that Elias Howe. I hear they have done given him the contract to run mail for the army. And him being worth millions."
"Yer don't say," said the other in astonishment.
"T'is a fact I saw old Howe himself riding in one of the mail carts only yesterday."
Elias, riding by in the mail buggy, burst out laughing.
We know that as Elias's health faltered he settled for staying as a private and regimental postmaster serving out his time riding to and from Baltimore with war news. Interestingly in years to come one of Elias Howe's relatives, Timothy Otis Howe, a United States senator, became Post Master general. More about him later.
The Waterloo Courier
Private Elias Howe Jr later reluctantly asked for a discharge as he was in no physical condition to continue in his position. He said to his comrades, “I have to leave you boy’s; I’m of no use here; but never mind; when your time is over come and see me at Bridgeport. I am building a large sewing machine factory there and I will have plenty of work for any of you that want it.”
It is said that many of his comrades-in-arms did take up his offer and went to work at the new Bridgeport factory.
As the Civil War ended there were many scars to heal. After the war some of the angry young men carried on, like the James brothers, Jesse and Frank, who joined with the Younger's to form the James-Younger Gang.
In 1866 in Liberty, Missouri, the gang made off with over $60,000 from the first American bank robbery. It was to be the start of many.
Elias Howe Master Engineer
In 1867 Elias was at the top of his game. One of the richest men in the world, showered with honours and hailed as a celebrity where ever he went. Elias was now an established inventor, mechanical pioneer and Master Engineer. He had built his own factory, run by his son's-in-law, the Stockwell brothers, and was held by the profession and the world in general as a man to be reckoned with.
He is at his pinnacle, no more home-made suits for Elias!
However, unlike Singer's, from 1867 the name of Elias Howe slowly fades into history.
The Howe Pavilion
In 1867 Elias Howe, still only 48, was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition and decorated by Napoleon III with the Cross or Legion D'Honor for his contribution to fellow man.
This European trip, once again, left our man exhausted and he returned home to convalesce.
By 1867 Elias Howe had been awarded over $2,000,000 in patent and licence fees. Elias had also apparently amassed a fortune of over $10,000,000. Publicly he was said to have become one of the richest men of his day!
3rd October 1867, Death of a pioneer
Unfortunately, the one thing that all Elias Howe's money could not buy was good health. In October of 1867,at his home in Washington Avenue, New York, two years after the bloody Civil War finally came to a close, poor Elias bites the dust. Elias had been suffering severely from gout and even visited a clairvoyant but a bout of cold weather brought on a fit of illness which left him bedridden. He died shortly after from a massive blood clot. He was 48.
Strangely enough it was the same year as he claimed amazing success and world-wide awards, also the year that his patents finally ran out. Was all the stress, good and bad, just to much for Elias?
And so the legend dies. Papers around the world were full of testimonials to the great man.
The Funeral of Elias Howe
Elias was laid in state in a magnificent rosewood coffin lined in satin and gold. The New York Times stated that the burial service was read by the Reverend Greenwood of Malden standing over the remains of Elias Howe as he laid in his coffin at the First Universalist Church of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. The church was crammed full as people tried to pay their last respects and hear the service. A great man was departing.
Reverend Greenwood praised Elias's generosity and paid him the highest tributes especially for his work and benefits to the poor. The funeral was attended by all the most important men in his field including Elias's feuding family.
I wonder what went through Isaac Singer's mind when he heard that the great man was dead? His enemy, then business partner, Elias and Isaac had come to blows more than once but did they grow to respect each other? I doubt it. I bet Isaac Singer had a drink when he heard the news. Elias had cost Isaac a fortune and every dollar was a bitter pill to swallow.
In the same year Elias Howe Senior also died. The following year his elder brother Amasa Howe died.
1876. The United States Government exhibits the Howe sewing machine as one of the most notable inventions of the period.
1876, the Centennial Independence fair
Elias Howe left a second wife, Rose Halladay. I am not sure if she had any children with Elias though census from 1870 onward show her living in Brooklyn and then a plush apartment at 330 Clinton Avenue, New York, firstly on her own but then some years later with two children? She was listed as having no profession and a wealth of $115,000.
Please could someone out there in Cyberspace fill me in of Elias's second wife and possible children as there is no further information that I have managed to gather on her, besides her death in 1890. email@example.com
Elias Howe & Rose Halladay/Howe (died 10th October 1890) are buried together at Greenwood Cemetery in New York. They have a magnificent memorial just a few yards from Walter Hunt's, the man who invented the safety pin and who had tried to destroy him.
In his short life Elias Howe had been part of the inventive genius that would change the world forever. In a home-made suit he had fought with giants and won.
His eldest daughter (married to Levi Stockwell) inherited Elias's first hand-made sewing machine.
Where did the money go?
Now this is an interesting end to the pioneers life. Elias had fallen out with many of his relatives over his short and tempestuous life. On his death his estate was supposedly around the amount of $13 million dollars. A sum of unbelievably proportions.
However, hardly any of his close family members inherited his huge wealth. Legend tells that his executors were forced to re-value his estate after post-mortem discovery of debts. His heirs were astonished to find that the new sum of his estate was around $600,000 in total. Just a fraction of his supposed wealth. So where did his money go?
There is a possibility that much of Elias's wealth had gone to Senator Timothy Otis Howe, his distant cousin. And in turn on his death in 1883, to his daughter, Mary Howe. It is said that Timothy Howe may have inherited millions from Elias, in fact the bulk of his estate.
Timothy Otis Howe's daughter married Enoch Totten. In 1884 Enoch and Mary started building a grand summer home in Boyds, Maryland. It was an area of outstanding beauty that Enoch Totten had seen before while working with the railway.
They named it Winder-bourne in memory of Elias Howe who had apparently said that his first sewing machine looked like a huge bobbin winder. They built the beautiful wooden summer home deep in the forest, overlooking Little Seneca Lake and Ten Mile Creek. It was packed with every luxury and still stands today, though looking very neglected.
Whatever people tell you Elias Howe will go down in history as the first man to patent a lock stitch sewing machine..., well done mate.
The strangest twist to this tale is that most youngsters today will have only heard of Elias Howe because of the Beatles!
At the end of the Beatles film Help there is a little dedication...To Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine! How weird.
Elias Howe Junior, inventor and maker of sewing machines
Time to talk about the Howe sewing machines
Brothers at war
There were actually two factories making Howe sewing machines and both run by relatives keen to capitalise on Elias Howe's patented inventions and protections.Things get a little confusing here but imagine a powerful family, like the family at South Fork in Dallas squabbling, it helps.
The two Howe sewing machine companies were...
The Howe Sewing Machine Company
the Howe Machine Company
In 1853-4 Amasa Howe had set up the first Howe sewing machine manufacturing business in New York with the help of his brother Elias and a nephew. However a bitter falling out left Amasa written out of Elias's will.
Much later, in 1865, the Stockwell brothers in Connecticut, helped along by Elias himself opened the Howe Machine Company. Alden B Stockwell married Julia Maria Howe and his brother, Levi Stockwell married Elias's other daughter, Jane Robinson Howe. The Howe Machine Company was a family business which Elias sunk much of his wealth into. He also employed many men from his old regiment.
The Stockwell brothers were Elias's son's-in-laws. They opened a factory at Bridgeport Connecticut. The factory was being built and set-up while Elias was away fighting in the army but was actually opened by Elias Howe in 1865 just at the end of the American Civil War.
Because of litigation, Elias Howe, could not legally enter the sewing machine business himself so he invested heavily in his sons-in-law and helped them any way he could with ideas and promotion.
Although he had little to do with the factory physically, he allowed his in-laws to use his brass image on every machine and later took the position of Chairman.
These machines were marked as 'original Howe machines'. The factory eventually closed around 1885-6.
If you have a Howe sewing machine and it has a brass badge on it with the image of Elias Howe (see below) then you will have one of the Stockwell Brothers machines made between 1865 and 1886.
No machine genuine without the medallion and trademark of Elias Howe
Amasa's factory in New York produced around 100,000 machines before being taken over by the Stockwell's. In Amasa's first few years the factory only produced about 50 machines a year, one a week but by its take-over in 1871-2 it was producing over 20,000 machines a year.
B Howe sewing machine serial numbers
Amasa took Elias to court over the use of the Howe name on sewing machines. Amasa Howe had been using the Howe name for many years before Elias Howe decided to set up, with his sons-in-law, the Howe Sewing Machine Company. Of course confusion followed. You cannot have two businesses using the same name.
1865 proved a difficult year for the Howe family, not with money problems but the use of the now famous Howe name. Eventually the courts allowed Amasa the rights to use the "Sewing" name in his business. From then on, much to Elias's disgust, he could not call his sewing machine company the Howe Sewing Machine Co but just the Howe Machine Co. However to annoy Amasa he called his main factory in Bridgeport Manufactory of Howe Sewing Machines. And his Broadway buildings, in New York, were plastered with Depot of Howe Sewing Machines. All tiny irregularities that he could use without breaking the law but he could never put on his sewing machines, Howe Sewing Machines, as Amasa had the rights.
Simplicity, Durability and Lightness in Running.
The Amasa Howe Sewing Machine Factory in New York and had opened in 1853-4, around 11 years earlier than the Stockwell Brothers. They made super machines that won many medals and great respect.
Amasa Howe sewing machines models are marked A, B, C and so-on whereas the Stockwell Brothers and Elias Howe were firstly numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on, but also later changed to letters just to confuse us.
The grand and pompous opening by Elias Howe of the Stockwell brothers factory in 1865 was a great affair. Elias had pumped a small fortune into the factory.
In court Elias had said that iinitially his new factory was set up to supply the demand that Amasa could not handle.
The two companies reluctantly agreed to a peace pact and may have temporarily joined (in 1865) but Amasa soon split away from the Stockwell brothers as soon as he saw that they were having teething and quality problems with their new machines which reflected on his sales.
Amasa was being tarred with the same brush and sales were falling. Remember Amasa Howe machines had been made for years and were fit for royalty, they were the pinnacle of sewing machine excellence and cost a kings ransom.
It was an acrimonious split and litigation followed over the naming of both the factories machines. From that point on Elias and Amasa fell out and hardly talked again. The elder brother who had seen Elias through so many hardships had been caught up in the race for riches. How many families today still squabble over money? Yes mine too.
The Stockwell Brothers factory soon sorted out their quality and production problems and started winning awards for excellence.
No examples of finer stitching have ever been shown, exhibited or have equalled the excellence of the Howe sewing machines. Much of the work appears to have more in common with the artist brush.
Elias later denied any previous involvement in the Amasa Howe business and distanced himself from Amasa. It must have niggled Elias immensely not to have been allowed to use the word "sewing" in his Howe Machine business.
and Stockwell Brothers serial numbers
the company was already producing 35,000 machines a year. However they
possibly did not start with number 1.
A massive decline in sales followed from 1876 as all the patents expired and cheaper mass-produced machines undercut the Howe machines.
Now back to our Howe factories...
Toward the end of his life Elias Howe was stuck in the middle of feuding relations and his untimely death brought no conclusion.
All machines from Amasa's factory were marked A. B. Howe. The factory closed in the early 1870's after Amasa's son (Benjamin Porter Howe) sold the factory to the Stockwell Brothers, who later shut it down. One way to stop confusion I suppose!
Free History of the sewing machine with every order
1871 Howe sewing machine advert
The Stockwell brothers also had dealings with Sharpe and Willcox from the Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company. These dealings came to a head in 1874 when Alden Stockwell tried to enforce his claim to 1,500 shares of the W&G company, which would have given him control of the W&G company. It all ended up in Supreme Court Chambers with judge Lawrence presiding. It appears that it was an aggressive take over bid to which Sharpe and Willcox sought an injunction on the grounds that the purchasing of the shares had not proceeded clearly or correctly. They were successful with their claim and W&G continued trading under Sharpe and Willcox.
The Stockwell brothers factory finally closed in 1886.
And so the Howe name moves out of the sewing machine business.
Simon Howe, Son of Elias, spent many years in Paris representing the Howe Company in Europe. His daughter, May Elizabeth Howe, grew up in Paris. She died in 1958 aged 89. She married Duncan C Carson a locomobile salesman who died in 1931. She lived in her apartment with her daughter Eleanor Howe Carson. Due to Elias's will and financial problems after his death Mary, his grand daughter, was not a wealthy woman but lived in comfort with the help of several beneficiaries from the Day Family.
Amasa Howe Sewing Machine Co. No. 4 Sixth Street, Pittsburgh, PA
Back to our Howe sewing machines. Some machines were marked such as...Howe Model-B manufactured in New York and sold by the Amasa Howe Sewing Machine Co. No. 4 Sixth Street Pittsburgh, PA.
By 1885 the Stockwell Brothers had a made a large range of sewing machines with the brass Howe badge on them from industrials to a copy of the Singer 12k fiddlebase. In England a popular Howe sewing machine was the Swift & Sure model, a streamlined early sewing machine which was very pretty to look at.
The Little Howe sewing machine
Howe Express sewing machine
It is said that as many as a million Howe machines were produced from both companies and abroad. Amazing when you think how few turn up today. By 1876 the Howe sewing machines were at their zenith, they had agents and offices in almost every country in the world and were producing thousands of machines each week.
Howe sewing machines in England
23 Ludgate Hill London
The rarest Howe sewing machines are the early Amasa Howe Howe hand models (most were treadle machines). By 1863 the machines came out of just the one depot of 8 Ludgate Street, St Paul's London. Later in England the distributors ran out of Holborn Viaduct in London and elsewhere with principle offices at 64 Regents Street. I have little information on them. Above is one of their Howe imports.
Nahum Salamon was a Londoner and some say the founder of the British sewing machine industry for it was he that first shipped Howe sewing machines across from America. Well, that is what some historians tell you but in fact although Nahum Salamon was instrumental in the early British sewing machine history along with pioneers like Newton Wilson it could be Luke McKernan who is our forgotten first man off the blocks in Britain in 1859.
By 1860 Nahum Salamon was the patent agent for Howe sewing machines made by Amasa Howe. Did they meet years earlier on Elias & Amasa Howe's ill-fated journey to Britain to sell their new fangled invention? Why did the Luke McKernan/Howe partnership last only a few months?
Just five years after Amasa Howe had started making machines in 1854 he appointed his London and European agent as Luke McKernan. Luke McKernan had premises at 142 High Holborn, London before moving to Cheapside, London. However within the year Amasa Howe opened his own depot at No 8 Ludgate Street and appointed Nahum Salamon as his manager come agent come importer come distributor. Basically giving him full reign over Howe machines also possibly in Europe including Paris where Moses and Joseph Mayer were appointed agents for Rome and Berlin. By 1870 Chevalier was the French agent. See the bottom of the page for many more agents and suppliers.
There is some evidence that the Howe/Salamon/Mckernan split was acrimonious as Howe had to take a court order out against Mckernan to stop him trading under the Howe name.
The best machine in the world for shoe and leather work in 1876. The Howe Model D
So now let's go to January 1862 London. Nahum Salamon was set up, importing and selling Howe machines. Don't forget sewing machines were new at this point in history and the Howe factory in America was having trouble supplying demand. They were still only producing around 1,500 machines a year.
Nahum Salamon was on the move, as well as his London empire he was looking to the heartland of British manufacturing for regular, cheaper supplies. Nahum Salamon became an investor, company director and then Chairman of the Coventry Machinists Company.
Although Nahum Salamon was the British distributor, manager and agent for Amasa Howe sewing machines (which he held until 1867) he was also looking to manufacture himself.
It may have been because of the success of the Howe sewing machine at the 1862 London Exhibition where the machine won gold that he decided he was onto a good thing and kept in with Howe or it may have been as he had paid William Thomas for his using his Howe patents. You have to remember that Amasa Howe had been making sewing machines since 1854 and by now had perfected his machines. The Stockwell Brothers had not even stared until 1865.
British & European Howe Models
Howe sewing machine models in 1863 were alphabetical, Models, A, B, C, D and E, ranging from ten pounds ten shillings to an staggering twenty eight pounds for the Howe model E cylinder arm. Twenty eight pounds would have been the best part of a years wages in 1863. Then there were models 1-10. Many were similar with different cabinets, inlays or embellishments.
Model's A & D were the family machines (the D had a cylinder arm for shirt sleeves), B was the professionals machine, larger and tougher. Model C was the big-boy for leather work.
There was also the Swiftsure, Little Howe and the Howe Express models.
In the early days of Nahum Salamon's fledging company all sales of Howe sewing machines paid for by cheque had to have the cheque made out to Nahum Salamon personally. this showed that he was the boss.
Nahum Salamon had possibly helped set up the Coventry sewing machine business to make and sell sewing machines under the Howe licence rather than spend the huge amount of time ordering machines from across the other side of the world and waiting ages for the ships to arrive. This would make sense. Also in Britain there was a preference to hand machines whereas in America they preferred treadle machines. Making his own machines he could simply do away with the Howe treadle.
You will have to jump to my history of James Starley as he is entwined with Nahum Salamon in Coventry, all very confusing I must say, but luckily it changes.
Nahum Salamon eventually turned his eye to bicycles as well as sewing machines up in Coventry. Actually they used to call them velocipedes which sounds like a prehistoric animal. Nahum Salamon had so many dealing with so many people involved in the early sewing machine trade that he became one of the very first experts on the British sewing machine trade.
In 1863 Nahum Salamon wrote and published a book on the history of the sewing machine, one of the first books on the subject. He went back as far as 1750 and wrote a somewhat glowing and biased testimonial to Elias Howe in it. Of course he would do wouldn't he. I mean if he upset the great man he would have upset the apple-cart as well.
By 1873 the Coventry Machinist's Co were doing so well with velocipedes that they discontinued sewing machine manufacture and concentrated on bikes. Their popular European sewing machine was now being farmed out and made in Manchester. And so we can leave Howe machines who stopped manufacture of sewing machines around 1885.
Nahum Salamon had retired from Coventry business around 1881 and died in November 1900. Blimey I bet that has given you a headache! Interestingly Salamon retired the year that James Starley died. Did he see the death of workaholic James Starley as a warning to retire and enjoy himself first?
The last Howe model.
Elias how made many men rich and many lawyers retired wealthy men from his constant litigations.
All serious collectors should have a Howe machine or two in their collections, well I have only one but I'm not serious enough!
In 2004 Elias Howe was inducted into the prestigious United States National Inventors Hall of fame.
A little laugh sent in by Scott.
Apparently there was a statue of Elias Howe in Seaside Park, Bridgeport.
At the local high school one of the chat-up lines used by the young lads was..."Come down to Seaside Park and I'll show you Howe!"
Well I thought it was funny...
Principle offices of the Howe Machine Company & Branch Offices in 1876
Also Dublin, 33 lower Sackville Street, Manchester, 22 Oldham Street, Newcastle, 35 Pilgrim Street.
Elias Howe Junior
Elias Howe was one of eight children below are his siblings.
AMASA BEMIS HOWE, born November 3, 1817, and died Jan. 15, 1868. He married Sarah Fry Caldwell and had: Cornelia M. and Benjamin P. Howe.
ELIAS HOWE, JR., born July 09, 1819 and died Oct 3, 1867
MARY HOWE, born March 13, 1821 and died 1890. She married Issacher Greene and had: Mary Adelaide, Eldridge Andrew and Albert Taylor Greene.
HORACE SMITH HOWE, born May 10, 1823. Horace joined the Massachusetts First Regiment of Foot as Captain Horace S. Howe. They were volunteer forces mustered into the service of the United States under the Act of May 13, 1846. He died in California May 10, 1852.
ELIZA HOWE, born Dec 22, 1824 and died Oct 27, 1887. She married Samuel Teel and had: Edward, Frank, Charled, Melia, and Jennie.
JULIETT HOWE, born Nov 20, 1826 and died Sept 22, 1879. She married Hiram Tucker and had: Horace, Hiram and Elias Tucker.
CORINTHA HOWE, born Oct 11, 1828 and died Nov 24, 1887. She married William H. Plummer.
FANNIE HOWE, born Nov 26, 1831. She married Thomas Barri and had: Thomas, John, Fanny and Alice.
SYLVESTER HOWE, born and died in 1835.
A brief history of Elias
I do hope you like this little chapter in sewing machine history. I have spent over 30 years collecting data and endless hours researching and writing this page for your interest. Mind blowing or what!
Thank you to so many of you who had added extra information and helped make this article so fascinating, especially the many distant relatives of the great man. Also The Smithsonian, my old friends at ISMACS, also amongst the many are Walter Howe, William Howe, George Olinger, Jerry Olinger, James Parton and Warren Faubion.
I love to know what you think, also if you spot any mistakes do mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
News Flash! All Alex's book are now on a dedicated website: www.crowsbooks.com
Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
If you have a spare second for a good read click below. It is the true story about a young girl growing up during the Second World War in England, gripping stuff:
TIffany B USA
I am writing in regards to your history of Elias Howe. I found it fascinating and precise.
Mr. Howe is my Great, Great, Great, Uncle. His sister Mary married Issacher Greene, who's son Eldridge Andrew is my dad's Great Great Grandfather.
Thank you for the wonderful read and helping me to complete the family tree.
Shawn Howe Greene
Sir, I wanted to applaud you for your extensive coverage of Howe sewing machines.
Until I reached your sight, I had no idea there was such an information base available, Your coverage
of Elias Howe was inspirational and informative.
Thank you for your time and concern sir, and for helping me understand, perhaps why my history beyond two generations was shrouded. What an amazing adventure and wonderful search I have been able to see. My smile was enchanted as I slowly uncovered it all, the bobbin, The eye of the needle at the wrong end! All the stories of Elias Howe I heard as being my great great uncle. My mother telling me to look into it someday. Now sir, I have.
This is a marvellous piece by Warren Fabion. Many thanks Warren.
Elias Howe’s wealth from Warren Faubion
You asked where Elias Howe’s wealth went. I would like to imagine Elias Howe's wealth became the foundation of America as he helped finance the Union Army. I suppose the sad part was the Civil War pitted brother against brother, as did the Revolutionary War against England. Elias descended from William Howe, (the lazy general).
William Howe was in charge of the British Army and appointed by George III he married George's half sister. I've read it purported previously that Howe was a grandson of George 1st. So we can trace the blood of royal England through Britain the Union Army and through the South to the Louisiana Purchase and the blood of its own fighting against itself.
William Howe was not considered a great general being censured even in
England when he returned. I think he was one of the greatest generals
that ever lived for standing down and being reluctant after Bunker Hill
to needlessly waste more lives. Perhaps British History should rewrite
After his return from Cuba he Left Opelousas Louisiana to come to Houston Texas. Mary, Amanda Howe's daughter is buried here in Houston (died 1926).
So I can tell you my friend, the real wealth of the Howe family it lies deep in a heart as big as the Louisiana Purchase. My family’s closest neighbor at that time was Jim Bowie. I can trace Howe blood to heroes of every American war since then to the present.
You asked where Elias Howe’s wealth went. Look now at America! See the wealth! Look at your sewing machines, there it is.
Warren Faubion (Relation of Elias Howe)
My name is Deborah Bassett--I am the daughter of Mary Elizabeth HOWE Carson and wanted to reach out to you regarding your in depth research on my great, great, great Grandfather---the great Elias Howe!
Wow, I was really impressed by your website and thoroughly enjoyed reading up on Elias. Members of our family, myself included, have done personal research in the past and visited the monument in Spencer, Mass, however this is by far the most thorough site that I have come across. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for all this information. Great work!
Many thanks to al the people who have sent in pictures and information to help complete this page.
Good afternoon Alex
I enjoyed reading your biography of Elias Howe. Family lore has it that one of our ancestors, James Allen Lowe, assisted Elias in the design/patent struggle.
Lowe was an inventor himself. Supposedly there is some sort of bowl with all the parts of the sewing machine cast into it stashed somewhere in the Smithsonian.