Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.
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The Grover & Baker Sewing
The Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Co of Boston Massachusetts was founded by two of the pioneers in sewing machine history, William O. Grover and William E. Baker. Both were Boston tailors.
Often considered the Holy Grail to collectors, when the revolutionary Grover & Baker machines came out they were in a world of their own, let me tell you why.
William Grover was fascinated by the early sewing machines and being a tailor knew what benefit a good sewing machine would make to his industry. During the 1840’s he continually experimented with sewing machines while he was not busy making a living as a tailor.
Of course the huge wealth he would acquire if he could make a reliable sewing machine would have been a great driving force and a stark contrast to the meagre living he could make hand-sewing clothes for other people.
His genius was to prove the foundation of one of the most successful early sewing machine companies.
William Grover concentrated on the lower thread mechanism and by May 8th 1849 was granted his first patent. Spurred on by his partner more patents quickly followed in 1850, 1851 and 1852.
Some G&B patents
Some of their machine also incorporated the Elias Howe 1846 patent.
During the life of the G&B Co many more patents were to come most would make them rich men but one in particular was to cause them a huge amount of trouble.
William managed to figure out how to use a complete reel of sewing thread as the lower thread. This was a brilliant idea as it eliminated the need for a bobbin or bobbin winder. By the use of a lower looper, still used in over lock machines today, he produced a double-elastic chainstitch with a clever twisted double lower thread interlinking the upper thread. Hey it sounds tricky but it sewed like a dream.
The stitch was strong and had excellent elasticity for fabrics and woollens. On top of this there was no bobbin. They were onto a winner. Think about it today wouldn't it be great to simply place a complete reel of thread under the sewing machine.
By 1851 the business was up and running with a couple of investors/helpers-come-partners. One was a skilled mechanic brought in to help in the manufacture, Jacob Weatherill. The other was the shrewd lawyer Orlando B. Potter who was to guide the company through many stormy litigation's and eventually rise to president. No, not of America… Of Grover & Baker.
Orlando Potter was from Charlemont in Massachusetts. He was the son of a farmer who left the family hill-farm and at the age of 17 to better himself and find his fortune. Orlando Potter became a very wealthy man and his maiden daughter, Blanche, saved many of his letters for prosperity.
Orlando was soon put to work when one of the G&B patents was attacked. A B. Wilson had invented a very similar feed mechanism, though it was unclear if he had actually patented it properly. Basically it was a set of teeth that moved the work forward then dropped out of the way and repeated the process for each stitch. Wilson called it the four-motion feed. The problem was that machines were already being sold with very similar feeds, even in Europe. Both companies Wheeler & Wilson and G&B ended up in court.
Another big problem was that both the Wheeler & Wilson machines and the Grover & Baker machine looked similar, right down to the curved needle. The W&W model did have a unique rotary hook which I tell you more about on their own page. There was no doubt that someone had copied, even if it was subconsciously.
Orlando was doing well until Wilson produced a slightly earlier, very vague, patent for the four-motion feed mechanism. Rats! The case was lost and compensation had to be made. It is still in doubt who really invented the feed and Wilson, a nervous man, never made the huge gains he had hoped from it.
Grover & Baker Patent 25730 Oct 1859
United States Patent Office
Grover, Baker & Co of Boston, Massachusetts
Patents are funny things, Singer never patented his treadle-come-packing-case even though he was using it daily in exhibitions and Willcox & Gibbs failed to patent their unique hook for a long time. However good old William O Grover did design and patent his first fully portable hand crank case.
On the 27 of May 1856 William O Grover was granted patent No 14956 for his wooden case enclosing his sewing machine.
Be it known that I, William O Grover of Boston, in the county of Suffolk and State of Massachusetts, have invented a new and useful improvement in Cases for Sewing Machines.
Back to our four-motion-feed. There are two main types of feed mechanisms that are still in use today, the walking foot used by heavier industrial machines and the four-motion feed of Wilson's. Isaac Singer tried and patented a similar feed mechanism in 1855 but it never caught on as Wilson's feed was pretty near perfect which is why it is still used today.
All this legal stuff was holding up production and sales. Something had to be done. Elias Howe was suing Isaac Singer and just about everyone else. Singer was suing everyone and chasing women in equal amounts. Grover & Baker were getting stuck in the middle of it all.
As Mr Howe has devoted years of his life to the invention and development of the sewing machine, the public have compensated him at the rate of seventy-five thousand dollars a year. It has cost him, however, immense sums to defend his rights, and he is now very far from being the richest of the sewing machine kings. In one of the suits which Messrs Grover & Baker have had to sustain against Mr Howe we see that the testimony in that single case fills 3,575 pages.
Then came a brainwave of outstanding proportion. Later on in our history it became quite illegal, though apparently it took an act of Congress to change the law first!
Grover & Baker, Broadway, New York.
By the 1850's just about every design of any importance in the manufacture of sewing machines had been patented by just a handful of men. Don't forget it costs money for patents. Even Elias Howe's dad had to mortgage the family farm.
Orlando Potter suggested that if all the main patent holders got together rather than squabbling all day they could form a cartel. This in turn would effectively have a stranglehold on the new sewing machine business. They could charge loads of dosh for licences for anyone who wanted to make sewing machines and share the money out between themselves.
All agreed and the Sewing Machine Cartel was formed. How they must have all laughed. I can see them now, enemies united in a common lust for wealth. Pass out the cigars boys...
Before long Grover & Baker machines were being sold all over the world. You can see below the offices in London and Liverpool.
Back to our two Boston tailors. Production at their plant produced a whopper of a machine much like the first Singer model but with their unique double elastic stitch. Their first machines were big and bulky. Not the sort of machine you could take shopping or even move without the help of some strapping builder. Something had to be done and it was done in style. Another patent followed and the world was about to see another Grover & baker first.
Grover & Baker patented the very first small portable sewing machine. It is the machine, which many collectors recognise today. This became a best-seller and dominated the 1850’s with some 500,000 being made over a period of 20 years. Various models came out some with fancy silver-plating and mother-of-pearl but besides a curved needle and cosmetic changes they were principally the same machine.
These light running portable machines were the stuff of dreams, every household wanted one. People would travel miles to see this magical box that could be opened on a table and join any kind of fabric in seconds. It was the future. Hard to believe now but it helped shape the world we live in today.
During and after the American Civil War Grover & Baker were on a boom. They used the hire purchase schemes devised by Edward Clark, Isaac Singer's partner, which allowed ordinary folk like us to buy their dream machines and pay for them over a period of years. Edward Clark was the genius behind the power that help build Singer's into the giant that it was fast becoming.
It was to be their glory years for G&B and the height of their production. Between 1865 and 1870 the business flourished and some years over 50,000 machines were produced. A thousand sewing machines hand built every week. That was the peek of the industrial revolution at the time. Tours were often organised to show fascinated customers around the plants.
Now it was not all sunshine and roses. The machine produced a superb stitch but it had drawbacks. One was that it was bulky underneath and pretty useless in fine garment seams. This was not a problem when the competition was producing poor sewing machines but as they improved Grover & Baker stuck with their bulky stitches. It was to be their undoing. I made little sewing joke there… Okay I won't do anymore.
The other problem was that the lower thread system, unique to Grover & Baker, was using up to three times the amount of thread that a normal sewing machine used. Thread was expensive with a single reel costing several days wages. Have you ever come across a reel of thread that has lots of loose ends wound round it? The reason is that thread was so dear not a length was wasted. Garments were often carefully unpicked and if enough of a length was saved it would be wound back onto a reel for future use.
Once again in the 1850’s people put up with the drawbacks of the Grover & Baker but by 1870 with the new Singer 12k and many other machines making a good Lockstitch. The days of Grover & Baker’s old-fashioned machines were numbered. High prices and old technology spelt the beginning of the end for the two Boston tailors.
Now, I expect you are thinking why did they not simply not make a lockstitch machine to compete? Well they did, several in fact in lots of shapes and designs. But Orlando Potter, now in charge, was so wrapped up in doggedly promoting the old machine on which the business was founded that the company slid down and down against its competitors and along with it the profits dropped.
Had the company moved on and concentrated all their efforts on their lockstitch machines they well have been the household name Singer is today. Research and development was the key area in which they failed to invest.
Heavy thread use, bulky seams, curved needles. It was all outdated by 1870 and more bad news was to come. The Sewing Machine Cartel had been broken up so no more license fees. The patents were all running out so no more protection. By 1874 things were looking bleak for the Company and sales were at rock-bottom. Cheap new competitors machines outsold Grover & Baker by 10 to1. A recession in North America proved the final nail in the coffin for the old company.
However, cunning old Orlando was not silly, he had one final trick up his sleeve. When the Domestic Sewing Machine Co were looking to expand he made Grover & Baker look like an ideal prospect. When The Domestic Sewing Machine Co made an offer for Grover & Baker he bite their hands off and took it, all the directors benefited from the merger.
From 1875 the two businesses amalgamated but within a very short time all the Grover & baker machines were stopped. Outdated production and old tooling made the factory unviable.
From cutting-edge technology Grover & Baker sewing machines had become dinosaurs in their own time.
And so the names Grover & Baker fade into history, more casualties amongst the sewing machine pioneers. Law suits rumbled on right up until the 1890's but the business was long gone.
Today Grover & Baker machines are no more than whispers from the past and sought after by all keen collectors. I have one, a model 13, in my collection. I often look at it and sometimes get it out to clean and oil it. The machine still makes a super stitch and I can see in my minds-eye the two Boston tailors peering over my shoulder with satisfied smiles.
Grover & Baker may not have modernised like other competitors but they did produce some of the most luxuriously decorated sewing machines. The one below is more like the ceiling in the Vatican!
William O. Grover and William E. Baker were once giants amongst the pioneers of the sewing machine trade. Say what you like but the quality of there machines seem to defy time itself.
Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work.
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All Alex's books are available at:
Both Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
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Grover & Baker 18 Summer Street, Boston. 730 Chestnut Street Philadelphia.
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