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Wheeler & Wilson
Sewing Machines

A Brief History
By
Alex I Askaroff

  Main Index                           Skylark Country

 

 

                Alex I Askaroff        Books by Alex Askaroff

 

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.

 

 

See Alex Askaroff on Youtube

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Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

The Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut,

Manufacturers of the finest sewing machines in the world.


A rare cover now in my Sewalot Collection

Wheeler & Wilson are names we hardly hear today, but once they were the largest sewing machine manufacturers in the world. The massive factories in Bridgeport, Connecticut, covered acres of ground. The chimneys blackened the air with smoke from the forges working hot metal for the new era of invention.

This research is the accumulation of over 40 years in the sewing trade. It is the most comprehensive archive and comprehensively copied by enthusiasts around the world. Feel free to add to this history if you have any information drop me a line: alexsussex@aol.com


In its height Wheeler & Wilson had huge factories and employed thousands of workers. This is their plant which actually was not on Broadway as the article and building seems to imply. To my knowledge there were no W&W factories on Broadway, their main factory was actually in Bridgeport Connecticut and their sales and storage depots were at 505 & 625
Broadway, New York.

So how did it all happen? It all started way back in 1841 with Allen Benjamin Wilson, an inventive 18 year old. He tinkered with the idea of making his own sewing machine. An apprentice cabinet maker and journeyman (an apprentice that has completed his term as apprentice and paid a daily wage) in Pittsfield Massachusetts. He was a young man that yearned for something bigger and better out of life.

Plagued with poor health and a nervous disposition he would often have to stay at home. This gave him the time (during his illnesses) to build working models of his amazing ideas. Although by the age of 30 Allen B Wilson had pretty much finished with the sewing business, the 12 years he spent in them changed our world.

Allen Benjamin Wilson Oct 18, 1823 - April 29, 1888

His early life and family

Allen B Wilson was born in the village of Willet (Willette), NY on 18 October 1823. The village of Willet had been founded by six main men around 1806-7, one of them being Benjamin Willson, Allen's father (note the two ll's in Willson). Benjamin Willson had emigrated from England with his father and by the time of the War of Independence, (or revolution depending on your politics), he was a Tory fighting against the British. Benjamin Willson was a successful Founding Father and married Phebe who went on to have 14 children, one of which was Allen B Wilson, inventor and sewing machine pioneer.

In Willet, Benjamin Willson set up several enterprises which included a distillery, a gristmill, sawmill, ashery, Inn, store and blacksmiths. He was one of the important men of the area.

However when Allen was just a child his father was killed in a tragic accident at his own mill and when Allen was 13 his grandfather also died. There is little doubt that Allen would have grown up working around the various family businesses along with his mother and other siblings. This would have been the perfect grounding for an inventive mind, being surrounded by machinery of all shapes and sizes.

Somehow Allen turns up in Adrian, Michigan and at the age of 27 married Harriet Emeline Brooks from Massachusetts. For some reason Allen B Willson then dropped the extra 'l' in his name and became Allen Benjamin Wilson with one l.

Allen and Harriet had two daughters, Annah Bennette Wilson and Harriet Ethel Wilson. Harriet ended up in a poorhouse. Harriet's history is a tragic tale as she was never buried in the family plot, even though a space had been saved for her. How this came about is still a mystery.

Now back to the story of Allen B Wilson and his part in the history of the sewing machine.

The Seaming Lathe or  Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine


The Wheeler & Wilson No 9 advert 1902. A stitch in time saves nine!

Now Allen B Wilson's first sewing machine ideas were nothing like the machines we see today. His feed mechanism for tugging the work along was a bar that gripped and pulled the work. It was his later improvements that were so spectacular that many are still in use today.

In 1848 while Allen was working as a cabinetmaker in Pittsfield, Massachusetts the suddenly business closed. Allen did a deal with its owner, Amos Barnes, which allowed him to use his workshop, to work on an idea that had had to make a sewing engine. By the spring of 1849 Allen had perfected enough of the movement to secure an investor, one Joseph Chapin. Joseph invested $211 in Allen's invention which allowed him enough money to secure his first patents. By late 1849 (with his patent secured in England, 12752) the patent was applied for in America. Was this Allen's way of checking that his ideas were original or was he planning ahead?

So on 12 November 1850 (the year before Isaac Singer) Allen B Wilson had begun his long journey in the sewing machine field with patent 7776 for sewing machine improvements. It was still only the 15th American patent concerning sewing machines!

November 12, 1850 Patent 7776

His shuttle was a weird double-pointed affair that produced two stitches with every back-and-forward movement. However from these early ideas he then produced several startling and innovative pieces of engineering and within 24 months he had produced a world-beating machine.

Patent 9041. Allen B Wilson called this machine his Improved Seaming Lathe! Note how within a few years his machine had gone from a very weird looking model to an obvious sewing machine. Was he influenced by all the other machines coming onto the market?


Allen Benjamin Wilson in his prime. Another 1st from Sewalot.


 This is another first for the Internet. Kindly supplied by Helen DeFoe the 3 x Great Niece of A B Wilson. Helen also provided some of the family history and the hotel picture further down the page (which has since been copied extensively). Thank you Helen, it is such a help when someone fills in gaps in these stories.

Unfortunately owners of the John Bradshaw shuttle patent quickly pounced on Wilson and Kline & Lee pulled of a cracker of a scam. They told Allen that his patent would infringe on theirs, leading to him being prosecuted! Allen Wilson was in no financial condition to take these patent holders to court, even if their patent was not that similar to his. Remember he had spent almost every penny of his $211 investment from Joseph Chapin on securing his patent. He had no choice but to sign over half his patent to A. P. Kline &  E. E. Lee. Interestingly he also went into business with them but it was an acrimonious arrangement built on distrust (and their possibly fraudulent claims over his patent).

However there was a silver lining on the horizon as Wilson struggled on with his patents because in 1850 he had the great fortune to bump into Nathaniel Wheeler, partner in the Warren, Wheeler & Woodruff Manufacturing Company of Watertown, Connecticut.

More of Nathaniel Wheeler in a moment but first let us look at some of Wilson's amazing ideas during his brief period in the sewing machine business.

June 16, 1852
To all whom it may concern.
 I, Allen B Wilson of Watertown, in the county of Litchfield and the state of Connecticut, have invented certain new and useful improvements in the machinery for sewing.

Allen B Wilson's best idea by far was the rotary hook mechanism. Simply, it went round and round and round, in smooth endless circles. On its travels a point picked up the top thread from the needle, twisted it with a thread from the bobbin and let it go. So simple and smooth that it would last a lifetime. In fact it ended up lasting forever because many machines today still use his simple mechanism.


The rotary hook of Allen B. Wilson, note the brilliant idea of a glass see-through foot. It was only with the invention of clear plastic sewing feet a century later that see-through sewing feet returned.

No sewing machine had used this idea and seeing as how humans had been trying for centuries to figure out a perfect stitch, this really was genius. If you turn a Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine it is so light, smooth and quiet you would be forgiven for thinking it was made recently, not back in the dawn of the great sewing machine age.

His second stroke of genius is more in dispute. He needed a better method of moving the cloth through the machine than his early bar method. At the time people were trying rows of pins and other silly ideas. He came up with a set of teeth that appeared, as if by magic, from under the work, moved the work forward and then disappeared again. People looked on in amazement at this black art. It turned out to be the FOUR MOTION FEED, no more than simple engineering brilliance, well ahead of its time. Or was it, read on my friends...

The A B Wilson patent of Dec 1854 No 12116

Allen B Wilson's 1854 patent improved machine was an elegant machine compared to Singer's of the same period.

To all whom it may concern. Be it known that I, Allen B Wilson of  Watertown, in the county of Litchfield and State of Connecticut, have invented certain new and useful improvements in sewing machines.

Coincidentally the Grover & Baker sewing machine used a very similar method of moving the work forward. So who was first? Allen B. Wilson had already been cheated out of one of his earlier patents when Kline & Lee conned him into believing that his double pointed shuttle was really a copy of their 1848 Bradshaw Patent. When Grover & Baker told him to cease and desist or be prosecuted, he angry and was ready for a fight.

1824-1888


In later life Allen B Wilson let his beard run wild. Hairy Mary! I wonder if he lost stuff in there?

Earlier, Wilson had given up without much of a fight allowing Kline & Lee to take half his patent rights for the shuttle. Eventually he relinquished full rights to the shuttle. Good riddance to bad rubbish he must have thought. Mind you he apparently did get $2,000 for it in 1850. A large sum by all accounts. It is possible that he used part of this money to later fight Grover & Baker in court.

The great idea of glass sewing feet to look through when sewing. It was another 100 years before other competitors made see-through feet.

Allen B Wilson, having his fingers burnt in his first patent engagement, had made him determined not to lose again. When he came up against Grover & Baker, and the fight for his rights to the four-motion-feed, he was prepared and ready to struggle to the death.

After a ferocious scuffle (over several years with Grover & Bakerís formidable legal team, headed by their future president, Orlando B. Potter) he eventually won. This protected his four-motion-feed for many years against any patent infringements and stamped his name in history. Well sewing machine history anyway!


The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine. The silver plated beauty of 1871 was similar to Wilson's 1854 patent. Known as the box base No1W1. You can just see the curved needle.

Nathaniel Wheeler

Fate always plays a hand in history and Wilson's journey, as one of the great sewing machine pioneers, may have been very different if he had never met Nathaniel Wheeler. They eventually formed one the most successful sewing machine companies of the 19th Century.

On a business trip to New York in 1850 Nathaniel Wheeler, a keen investor in new ideas, was introduced to the 26 year old inventor, Wilson, (interestingly as fate had it, via his horrible old partners in the double pointed shuttle, Kline & Lee). Maybe the $2,000 he got from them had sweetened his earlier distrust? Some say he never received this payment and it was money from Wheeler that fought G&B in court.

E. E. Lee & Co
(Kline & Lee)
128 Fulton Street
New York

Nathaniel Wheeler was an investor working as manager in the Warren, Wheeler & Woodruff Co in Watertown, Connecticut and looking for new ideas to expand.

It became obvious to Wheeler that Allen Wilson was the brains behind the troublesome partnership and after placing an order for 500 machines with Wilson, Kline & Lee he quietly persuaded Wilson into coming back to Watertown in Connecticut and forming a new business.

Wilson showed Wheeler his new rotary hook system and Wheeler saw its immediate potential. Off the pair went to write history.

 

Wheeler dropped the old shuttle mechanism from Wilsonís former partners and got Wilson to spend all his efforts on preparing a patent model for the rotary hook.

Just to be sure no one had any idea what he was up to Wilson kept up a bluff with a traditional shuttle and in November of 1850 he patented an improved double-pointed shuttle which allowed the shuttle to pick up the needle stitch on its forward and backward movements with elasticity! This was a clever move as all onlookers had no idea that his next invention would shake the sewing world.

He never followed up with his elastic shuttle as his rotary hook would take off like a prairie fire.


The Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine model No1 with different tops and thicknesses, one slab, one box base. Circa 1866.

 

On the 12th of August 1851 he was granted his improved patent and the beginnings of a great company was forming.

Both Wheeler & Wilson strung Kline & Lee along offering them titbits to sell. Lee even placed adverts for their machines.

By August of 1851 rights and agents were being sold and sought in various papers around America for Wilson's new sewing machines.

 

 

When Wilson was working in Fulton Street, New York, he also worked with two skilled men from Wheeler's stable, George P Woodruff & Alanson Warren and the first of Wilson's sewing machines sold by Kline & Lee and Lee & Co, were possibly put together by the combined team of Lee, Kline, Woodruff, Wilson & Warren.

Nathaniel Wheeler was happy to get the best men behind Wilson and to form a new business to produce quality sewing machines for the masses.

We have to stop for breath for a moment and look at the situation.

The 1850's was the most explosive time in sewing machine history. Giants were rising from the rubble as men of huge character like Isaac Singer and Elias Howe attacked all comers, leading to the largest litigation in American legal history.

Amongst all this cut-throat dealing poor Allen B Wilson trying to kick start his own sewing machine industry. It was only with the arrival of the powerhouse of Nathaniel Wheeler that his dream could come true, he was the saviour of the day. What Allen B Wilson had in amazing ideas Nathaniel Wheeler had in enthusiasm and energy. For a few short years the two men worked hand in hand to build a business that would last beyond both their lives.

Warren, Wheeler & Wilson Co
 Watertown. Connecticut

The first company was Warren, Wheeler & Wilson. To avoid any further litigation Wilson had secretly designed a completely new form of sewing machine that contained three superb ideas. The four-motion-feed, the rotary hook, and the stationary bobbin, inside the hook.

Patent No 8296
12th August 1851
Rotary Hook sewing machine with Reciprocating bobbin-
Granted to
A. B. Wilson

******
Patent 9041
15th June 1852
Rotary hook sewing machine with stationary bobbin
Granted to
A. B. Wilson

Shortly after patents were applied for all over Europe and several granted. The company then became the Wheeler, Wilson & Co and then...

5 October 1853.

 Wheeler, Wilson and Co becomes the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company with a capital stock of $160,000.

Officers include,

Allen Benjamin Wilson, inventor.

Alanson Warren, President.

George P Woodruff, Secretary and treasurer.

Nathaniel Wheeler, General Manager.

Incidentally Wilson's amazing four-motion-feed would not be fully protected with patent protection until the end of 1854 when he was finally victorious against Grover & Baker. These legal dealing terribly weakened the already frail Wilson who suffered terrible from stress and constant ill health.

Patent 12116
19th December 1854
Four-motion feed for a sewing machine
Granted to
A. B. Wilson

Nathaniel Wheeler took up the position of General Manager but in 1855 he rose to the position of President of the W&W Co (after Warren resigned) a position which he held until his death on 31 December 1893.

Wheeler & Wilson Mnfg Co.
Offices and premises at Union Square and 625 Broadway, New York

However the company still had to make sure that Elias Howe, (the main litigator of new sewing machine companies) was happy before proceeding. They had temporarily fallen out with Elias Howe after Isaac Singer had talked them into resisting him, but paying Elias was a small price to pay to allow the growth of their business.

As all the litigation came to a head the antagonists formed the now infamous Sewing Machine Combination along with Elias Howe and Isaac Singer. Instead of suing each other and spending all their time and money in court they would get together and attack all other sewing machine manufacturers (unless they paid them patent royalties and fees). This illegal combination was eventually destroyed, but it crippled mass competition for years.

All Watertown machines were marked A. B. Wilson, Watertown, Connecticut.

The Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine woodcut model No1. Circa 1856. Notice how you sewed on the side, unlike today.

Their first machine, the No1, grew into 11 different styles and cabinets and looked suspiciously similar to the Grover & Baker machines even down to the curved needle patented by Elias Howe in his weird Indian dream. You will have to read his story, I have a dream...

The Wheeler & Wilson Model 4 heavy duty

Back to production now. In 1852 the first of 200 sewing machines were made even though the patent had not been issued for the stationary bobbin until June 15th. With Howeís fees, each new machine sold for $125, a years wage! Boy that was expensive. Each machine cost the price of a new car today.


The early Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines incorporated the Howe 1846 patent.

Wilson oversaw each machine to make sure they were perfect and by the end of 1852, 500 machines a year were being built. Wilson was working too hard and too long and the pressure on his body was telling. Every machine was hand built and perfected before leaving the factory.

 

 

 

Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model 5 long-arm treadle for specialised heavy sewing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine N06, heavy flatbed circa 1870

 

 

 

 

 

 

1865, 0ver 50,000 sewing machines sold by Wheeler & Wilson in 12 months.

 


Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines (No 8) on a steam driven shaft assembly for factory use, circa 1888

1856-59 Wheeler &Wilson move to Bridgeport

Business was booming and sales soared. In 1856 new premises were needed and the company slowly moved production down the road to Bridgeport which had better transport links and a railway. The former clockmakers of Jerome & Co had the perfect factory which W&W snapped up and enlarged, year after year, until it looked like a small town employing thousands of highly skilled workers.

By 1858/59 over 18,000 machines had been produced and various new models would soon be appearing in all shapes and sizes, from lightweight machines for silk to heavy industrial machines for horse blankets and leather.


Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model 6 cylinder arm Circa 1870. Perfect for harness and leather work. Note how the operator can slip right into the machine and become almost part of it.

During the boom years of the 1850ís and 1860ís the Wheeler & Wilson Company was fast becoming the most successful sewing machine company in America.

Fast on their heels was the Singer Co and in 1865 Singerís brought out the fabulous Singer 12k which was an instant best-seller.

This advert appeared in Punch in 1866.

 

 

 

"A most wonderful invention indeed ladies! The sewing machine executes the work so efficiently that upon my word I think there will be nothing left for women to do but improve their intellect."

Could you imagine saying that today!

 

 

 

 

 

Civil War

It is an interesting point to make that during the American Civil War, sewing machine sales boomed for some manufacturers.

For example in 1863 Wheeler & Wilson produced over 30,000 sewing machines and each following year business expanded at a massive rate. It was the start of a glorious few years for the Wheeler & Wilson Company.

Their best year was probably 1875 with the all-new model 8, when nearly 300,000 machines were produced in a 12 month period. The Wheeler & Wilson Company became the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world. Mind you Singer's were still hot on their tails and expanding globally at a phenomenal rate.


This advert appeared in the Engineer publication in 1868 showing a method of adjusting the feed length. The knurled knob adjusted the height and length of the feed but never caught on.

Over 12 models and dozens of options of Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were now available. They became one of the best sewing machines money could buy.


Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine N06 D6W, heavy flatbed circa 1870, you can see the start of the model 8 which was only a few years away but it is far removed from the similarly named No6 above..

Mike Anderson from Wolfegangs Collectibles added this bit on useful information

There were 3 model W&W 6 treadles made.
1. The cylinder bed machine
2. The flat bed machine with fly wheel on the LEFT-HAND treadle leg.

3. The flat bed machine with the flywheel at the back-side of the treadle... similar to a Grover & Baker set-up or early "WILSON" treadle set up.


The real deal, a Wheeler & Wilson model 6.

However by the late 1870's all the patents had been extended and exhausted. For the first time in history this allowed any sewing machine business to compete on a level playing field, without having to pay royalties.

There was a boom in small independent sewing machine makers, undercutting the big companies. True mass production in sewing machines had arrived and every industrial country in the world started producing the 'must have' machine of the age. The sewing machine went on to be crowned one of the most useful inventions of the 19th Century.


A general purpose tailoring machine, semi industrial
.

The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine No 10 a modern miracle in 1886

However the result of mass production from unlimited suppliers would mean that in a few years production would start to fall dramatically at W&W (as competition from new manufacturers increased). It was the beginning of a slow decline for the Wheeler & Wilson business.

Though sales would soon drop, the company never let its quality slip. The Wheeler & Wilson machines were super smooth, some even had ball bearings.

Ill health had forced Allen B Wilson out of the sewing machine business as early as 1853. As so many patents were in his name and most of the advertising had been as Wheeler & Wilson (or previously as Wilson) the company had decided to continue with his name on their sewing machines.

Still only a young man, Allen B Wilson had started to look into property and land as a way out of the sewing machine business which, although still expanding, was constantly under threat from new competitors.

Maybe he saw the writing on the wall and had seen how well Isaac Singer had done retiring and spending his money. By 1863 Wilson was a well respected land owning, property developer.

1870 was the peak for Allen Benjamin Wilson who's estate was now considerable (compared to me). Aged 47 he had a personal estate of $130,000 plus another $150,000 in land. This represents over $100,000,000 today.

 


A postcard from 1866 showing a travelling journeyman and his young assistant who repaired and sold Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines

Wilson, still at a comparatively young age, had taken the opportunity to remove himself from the sewing machine business on grounds of ill health.

Though Wilson would no longer be directly involved with the running of the business he never lost his inventive mind. He also received a salary and patent royalties (now thatís what I call early retirement).

The young fella did all right. Certainly by todayís standards he was a multi-millionaire. Oh how I would have loved the opportunity to retire early! I have the feeling I will pop my clogs hovering over a sewing machine in some old ladyís house when I'm a 103.

History judges Wilson poorly in the context of the huge wealth amassed by other pioneers like Howe and Singer but the lad did brilliantly. In 12 short years he changed the way the world sewed. I have never found out much about his other siblings. I wonder how well they fared?

Allen B Wilson built Wilson Hall, completed in 1866. It was a 4 storey hotel in North Adams Massachusetts which had a department store, pharmacy, theatre, lawyers and tailors department. Wilson Hall was destroyed by fire in 1912.

Wilson Hall, North Adams, Massachusetts 1865

You can see here the hotel nearly finished and Allen Wilson's own specially designed central heating pipes ready for fitting.

Allen also had a beautiful home just outside Waterbury Connecticut entered by the long drive, passed the Gate Lodge. The house had all the latest inventions including his own designed central heating. The back of the house had sweeping views down through the orchards to the Naugatuck River and the town of Waterbury.


Another first for the Internet, now widely copied.

The Wilson home on the Naugatuck near Waterbury Connecticut was later purchased by the city and used as community hospital. Note the hat of the photographer by the tree. Both Wilson and his wife were keen early amateur photographers. Once again this great picture, sent in to me by the family has been widely copied all over the world.

Now back once more to the sewing machines.

1873
Prices from £6 or terms at 2s 6d a week.
 Boot makers machines also available on terms from £9

Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines are simply superb and won an amazing amount of medals all over the world.

Some Wheeler & Wilson Medals

Paris 1861

London 1862

Vienna Exhibition 1873, Imperial order of Francis Joseph, Grand medal of Progress and Medal of Merit.

American Institute of New York, Gold medal of Honour.

Maryland Institute Gold and silver Medal.

Georgia State Fair, Nov 1873 silver medal in leather stitching.

July 1874 Silver Cup at the United East Lothian Agricultural Society First Prize.

Aug 1874 First Prize Bury Agricultural Show.

Manchester & Liverpool Agricultural Show 1874, Silver Medal W&W No 6 for Excellence in Manufacture.

September 1874 Cheshire Agricultural Show First Prize.

Wheeler & Wilson model No 7 flatbed heavy duty machine for leather work. Circa 1876

Once all the main patents ran out and the competitors sprung up everywhere sales slowly dropped.

Allen B Wilson died in 1888 and Nathaniel Wheeler five years later in 1893.

The company rumbled on with new models such as the impressive No 8 and the silky smooth No 9.

By the turn of the century the company was just a shell of its former self (while Singer was still expanding at its phenomenal rate).

As most sewing machines were now reliable, some being offered with lifetime guarantees (like the German Pfaff) it was all about price and promotion. Both of which the Wheeler & Wilson company were not brilliant at.

In 1904 discussions were held between Singerís and Wheeler & Wilson. Singer's were pleased to grab an opportunity to use the huge Bridgeport factory that Wheeler & Wilson had at their disposal.

By buying Wheeler & Wilson Singer's could carry on expanding and remove its main competitor in one swoop. Perfect business.

 

Medals galore for the fabulous W&W machines

 

 

Also Wheeler & Wilson had agents, stores, departments and depots all over the world including 26 in Britain.

 

 

 

 

 


A sweet advert for a toy Wheeler & Wilson machine. I have never seen one. Do any exist today?

By 1905 contracts were exchanged and Singer took over the huge Wheeler & Wilson factory. Here they carried on with the superb model No 9 along and a couple of other models, industrials and parts for their own machines.


A very special appointment. The Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, was a keen sewer and supported several manufacturers including her favourite Jones Company in Manchester.

Amazingly the perfect Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model No 9 continued in Singer clothes up until the outbreak of World War Two. I have a Singer/ Wheeler in my Sewalot collection. It has all the Singer marking and decals but still the Wheeler & Wilson brass badge in the bed.

There is some dispute amongst collectors exactly how long the enormous factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut did stay open. Some say the sprawling fifteen and a half acre site was demolished after the First World War, some say part of it carried on for decades making Singer parts. I am sure more information will come to light.

The Wheeler & Wilson No 8

Details of one of the finest machines


The
Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine No 8 circa 1876. This machine should have been a huge success but its industrial looks and huge price led to less sales than expected. It sewed like a dream and even today they are great sewing machines.

March 28th 1876 Patent 175463

The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model No8 woodcut circa 1876

Let's go back a second and look at the decline of Wheeler & Wilson. Although by the early 1870's W&W were losing ground to their competitors, their temporary saviour was their in-house research and design guru J A House. He basically took the best ideas from the early W&W machines and put them into an all-new all singing and dancing model, the Wheeler & Wilson No8.


The amazing Wheeler & Wilson No 8 with hand wheel was just too late to save the company from its cheaper competitors. The downturn had begun!

The No8 was a great success as a sewing machine and put Wheeler & Wilson back amongst the top players in the sewing machine field. It's rotary hook, straight needle, solid take-up lever mechanism and positive feed mechanism brought the Wheeler & Wilson into the modern world. 

Boston announcement due to expansion

Wheeler & Wilson New England Agency

 will be moving from

 Tremont Street to

594 Washington Street

(immediately adjoining The Globe Theatre)

With over a million Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines made, every collector should have at least one model in their collection. I know a few collectors that have dozens. If you do come across an early model it may be silver plated or even have Mother of Pearl inlay.


The Wheeler & Wilson No 8 in treadle form.

Some patent models still exist but they are in rare collections. The early model No 1 is my personal weakness. It was made for decades with only minor changes and is still one of the finest looking and best early sewing machine for actually sewing with. The machines were superb pieces of engineering and won countless awards.

The best sewing machine in the world


A rare woodcut of the iron base model 9

The astounding Wheeler & Wilson model 9, D9 or W9 was launched in 1887. It was a huge success in terms of engineering, though far too expensive to produce. It ran right up until the 1930's, though from 1905 it was dressed in Singer apparel.

The D9 was packed with so many state-of-the-art modifications, features and patents that no machine could come close to the perfection it attained in stitching. The narrow high-arm allowed full sized quilts to be sewn with ease and it could handle any fabric from silk to sack-cloth. Once again Singer's biggest competitor had snatched the advantage. It was only by the take over of the W&W business that Singer's managed to get their hands on the model No9.

By 1892 the multi-award winning Wheeler & Wilson model No9 cost around $60. This was far too much with cheaper machines appearing on the market almost daily. Some sewing machines were retailing for just $2.

The price of the model 9 was the companies downfall and added one more nail in the coffin of the giant firm.


A Wheeler & Wilson agency circa 1870.

Monthly part payments were possible for this superb machine but it was just too much, which explains why so few W&W model No9's turn up today.

The average wage in that period was a few dollars a week so $60 was an enormous sum. However if you could afford one of these beauties it was bullet proof. A 100 year old W&W will still sew like new.


I love this cabinet that was made to fit into a library complete with fake books.

Some of the cabinets that the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines came in are of unrivalled quality looking more like Chippendale furniture. They must have had some very highly skilled craftsmen at their factory just on the cabinet making side.


The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were beautiful and practical and led the world of sewing machines with elegance and style. Note how you sew sideways on the Wheeler & Wilson from left to right.

The Wheeler & Wilson model W9 or D9, later to become the Singer W9


The Wheeler & Wilson Company had at least 12 models in their range in the early 1890's but as demand reduced so did the range. By 1894 Wheeler & Wilson had removed models 5, 7, 8 and 10. The glass foot on the models was removed and replaced with cheaper steel feet. W&W even made a short bed model 9 the 9H4, which has become quite rare today. Almost identical except about half the size.


The half-size half-pint Wheeler & Wilson 9H

The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model W9 was continually modified, improved and made up until Singer bought the business in 1905 when it still continued to be manufactured but under the Singer name. To my knowledge it was one of the few models in the W&W range that Singer carried on with for any time.


The perfect scene. A ladies parlour with a Wheeler & Wilson No 9 waiting for alterations. How the other half live eh! Oh to have staff...

The end of an era

After purchasing the Wheeler & Wilson business, its great rivals Singer's, systematically destroyed the Wheeler & Wilson brand, eliminating one of its main competitors. Various models up to W12 were manufactured for a while at the Bridgeport factory and badged as Singer's but were all just earlier W&W models with slight modifications.


The Wheeler & Wilson Singer, identical in all but name.


The Singer W9, just a Wheeler & Wilson model 9 with Singer Sphinx decals circa 1912. Note it still has the W&W brass badge in the bed.

Singer's did continue to manufacture and improve the model 9 for a number of years under its own brand name and even used several of its features on their models. It was a near perfect machine and so light to use it nearly sewed by itself. Even today the machine makes a perfect stitch, but needles are hard to come by.

Wheeler & Wilson
Chief European Offices
11-21 Paul Street, Finsbury
London


What a parrot has to do with sewing is anyone's guess?

Eventually the factory was pulled down and the model D9 was moved to Elizabethport for continued manufacture until the 1930's.

Some W&W model D9's had both singer markings and the brass W&W badge on the bed, these are great collectors items showing the merger of two giants. The Elizabethport machines were sold as W9's.

1905 was really the end of W&W and one of the most successful early pioneering sewing machine companies of the Victorian era had gone.

 
The Wheeler & Wilson No 9. All the advertising in the world and loads of awards could not save the company from Singer's takeover in 1905
 


Bear rug! I love it. I would worry about the fleas...

And so ends the Wheeler & Wilson story, once the largest sewing machine business in the world. Now little more than a small footnote in our history.

However at one time Nathaniel Wheeler and Allen B. Wilson were giants amongst the few. They were the sewing machine kings.


The longest running production machine of the Victorian era was the Wheeler & Wilson model 1. From the 1860's up to 1905 when it was re-named the Singer 1W1 and still carried on for a few years.

1880 daughter Annah (Bennette) with mum Harriet Emeline Brooks (Wilson) and youngest daughter Harriet Ethel Wilson

 


Wilson's wife Harriet and daughter Annah with a relative Sarah Brooks on their porch circa 1865

 

Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

 

 
  Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work. I spend countless hours, collecting, researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought: alexsussex@aol.com

 

Books by Alex Askaroff

News Flash!

All Alex's books are now on a dedicated website: www.crowsbooks.com

Both Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
 are now available instantly on Kindle and iPad.

      

Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires


Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.

 

 Skylark Country

 

Alex,
I was fascinated with the website history and applaud your efforts to share that information.
Thanks for a truly great history of Wheeler & Wilson,
Cordially,
Tom Field

Alex

I just read your article on Wheeler and Wilson and I enjoyed it very
much.  It is interesting to see how things we take for granted in
everyday life really got started.  Thanks for all the hard work you
did in writing the article.

James Darsey USA

Hi Alex
I really enjoyed your site on the history of Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machines and you did a wonderful job in creating it.

Have a great day.

Mark Simmons
North Carolina

Dear Alex, 
I have learned more about WW's on your page than anywhere else. No one else seems to know much of anything about them.
Jan Smith
Texas

Hi Alex,
 
I am the proud owner of a Wheeler and Wilson treadle sewing machine. I am enjoying learning about its history.  Your website provided me with wonderful information about the machine.  
Thanks so much for helping me in my quest!
 
Janette Norris

Hello Alex,

Your site it absolutely amazing! Thanks so much for your help, and also for your fascinating and 
beautifully presented website.

Sincerely,
Margaret Ruhl

Hi Alex
What a beautifully written and illustrated history of the Wheeler & Wilson Company.  My 87 year-old friend, James, recently bought the #9 and asked me to see what I could find on the internet about the company that made his machine.  Neither of us had ever heard of Wheeler & Wilson.  You have educated us.  Thank you so much!    
Becky Mays North Carolina.

Alex, I love your site and the store and info you gathered.    Thank You      Diane in Maine
 

Hi Alex
I want to thank you for having this site and explaining the history of this machine.  for me its lots more interesting when you know the history of something.
Sincerely   juan a. garcia

Hi Alex,

I've just completed reading your terrific on-line work about the Wheeler and Wilson company.  Thanks for working so hard to put so much info out there for us.

Best wishes,

Helen DeFoe

Hello ,
I have just come across your very informative web site on Wheeler and Wilson. Thank you so much for your time and effort.
J H.

Hello Mr. Askaroff
My wife and I are metal detecting enthusiasts and enjoy recovering artifacts from old sites here in Florida. We have been on your amazing, and  incredibly comprehensive website, to research Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing.
Thanks
Chris Striby Florida USA

Alex,
Your writings on Wheeler & Wilson have been invaluable to me.
I operate a small-scale bespoke leather artisan shop in Upstate New York State and recently acquired a Wheeler and Wilson No. 8 which I use mostly for elk and deerskin garment work.
Your articles have been of inestimable help...thank you very much!
Geoffrey Hopkins

The huge Wheeler & Wilson factory which became Singer after the takeover in 1905

 

See Alex Askaroff on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mJYS44Vc8c&list=UL

Alex,
Just read your fascinating article on the history of Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines. My wife and I have proudly displayed her Great Grandmother's No. 9 machine in our living room for many years. Thanks to your work we now have an even deeper appreciation for this wonderful piece.
Thanks so very much,
Mike W. Pennsylvania

Hi Alex

I recently acquired a Wheeler & Wilson No. 9 and knew nothing about it. Thank you for providing a great history of the Wheeler & Wilson company. I learned so much.

Kara Beihn

Hi Alex
I loved your blog-entry about the W&W machines.  Thanks for all the great info.
Nancy Lea

Hi Alex,
 
I never enjoyed learning history as a child but now I find it fascinating. Thank you so much for all the information you wrote on Wheeler & Wilson. 
You did an AWESOME job!
 
Tanya

Wow, the best page on Wheeler & Wilson. I can't help noticing Alex, several other sites have copied your photos and your writing style is so unique it pops out of the page whoever copies it!

Louise B M, Canada

Many thanks for getting back to me Alex - the tension discs make sense 
now and marital harmony has been restored!!  Your write up about 
Wheeler  & Wilson sewing machines is amazing.
best wishes,
Dorothy (Hollamby)

 

Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

 

Hello Alex,
My name is Jennifer and I wanted to send you an email to say THANK YOU!!!! I loved, loved, loved reading your article on Wheeler and Wilson's sewing machine dynasty!!! Fascinating story with so much history and relevant information!!!

Your article helped me narrow down my model to probably be somewhere from circa 1870-1896. I appreciate all your efforts in researching and composing a collection of photos and information.

Jennifer
Palmdale, California

 

 

 

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