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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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.
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 and the chimneys blackened the air with smoke from the forges which were working the hot metal for the new era of invention.
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 around Pittsfield Massachusetts he yearned for something bigger and better.
Plagued with poor health and a nervous disposition he would often have to stay at home rather than journey around the various factories and mills fixing machinery. He had the spare time during his illnesses to build working models of his ideas.
Allen Benjamin Wilson 1823-1888
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. Benjamin Willson had emigrated from England with his father and by the time of the War of Independence, (or revolution depending on your politics), was a Tory fighting against the British. Benjamin Willson (two ll's) was a successful Founding Father and married Phebe who went on to have 14 children, one of which was Allen.
In Willet, Benjamin 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 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. He and Harriet had two daughters, Annah Bennette Wilson and Harriet Ethel Wilson who somehow ended up in a poorhouse.
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
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.
By November of 1850 (a year before Isaac Singer) he had gained the first of many patents for his sewing machine improvements.
November 12, 1850
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 very weird to an obvious sewing machine. Was he influenced by all the other machines coming onto the market?
June 16, 1852
Allen B Wilson's best idea by far was the rotary hook mechanism. Simply, it went round and round and round, in smooth never- ending circles. On its travels it picked up the top thread from the needle with a little point, twisted 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 most machines today still use his simple mechanism.
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. 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 no more than simple engineering brilliance, well ahead of its time. Or was it!
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? No one would back down so it all ended up in court. Now 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.
In that legal case, Wilson gave up without much of a fight and allowed 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 did get $2,000 for it in 1850. A large sum by all accounts.
Allen B Wilson, having his fingers burnt in that engagement made him determined not to lose again. When he came up against Grover & Baker and the fight for the rights to the four-motion-feed he was prepared and ready to fight to the death. He also had the money for his day in court.
After a ferocious scuffle with Grover & Bakerís formidable legal team headed by their future president, Orlando B. Potter, he 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!
Had history been different Wilson may never have met Wheeler and the most successful sewing machine company of the middle Victorian period would never have existed.
However 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 via his old partners in the double pointed shuttle, Kline & Lee.
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 Wilson was the brains and after placing an order with Kline & Lee for some of their sewing machines he talked Wilson into coming back to Watertown in Connecticut. Wilson showed Wheeler his new rotary hook system and Wheeler saw its immediate potential. 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 Wilson kept up with traditional shuttle thinking and in November of 1850 patented a shuttle with points at both ends. This would allow the shuttle to pick up the needle stitch on its forward and backward movements! An idea he never followed up as his rotary hook took of like a prairie fire.
On the 12th of August 1851 he was granted his improved patent and the beginnings of a great company was forming.
When Wilson was working in Fulton Street, New York, he worked with two partners, George P Woodruff & Alanson Warren. Nathaniel Wheeler was happy for the men behind the ideas to come with Wilson and form a new business to produce sewing machines for the masses.
Wheeler, Wilson & Co, Watertown. Connecticut
And so the Wheeler, Wilson & Company was formed. To avoid any further litigation Wilson 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.
5 October 1853.
Wheeler, Wilson and Co becomes the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company with a capital stock of $160,000.
Allen Benjamin Wilson, inventor.
Alanson Warren, President.
George P Woodruff, Secretary and treasurer.
Nathaniel Wheeler, General Manager.
Wilson's amazing four-motion-feed would not be protected with a patent until the end of 1854.
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) which he held until his death 31 December 1893.
Wheeler & Wilson
However the company still made sure that Elias Howe, the main litigator of new sewing machine companies, was happy before proceeding. They had temporarily fallen out with Elias after Isaac Singer had talked them into resisting him but paying Elias was a small price to allow the growth of the business.
As all the litigation came to a head they formed the now infamous Sewing Machine Combination along with Elias Howe and Isaac Singer. Instead of suing each other they would now attack all other sewing machine manufacturers unless they paid them patent royalties and fees.
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
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!
Wilson oversaw each machine to make sure they were perfect. He 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.
1856 Wheeler &Wilson move to Bridgeport
Back to the company. Soon business was booming and sales soared. In 1856 new premises were needed and the company moved 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 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.
During the boom years of the 1850ís and 1860ís the Wheeler & Wilson Company was the most successful sewing machine company in the world.
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!
It is an interesting point to make that during the American Civil War sewing machine sales boomed.
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.
Over 12 models and dozens of options of Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were available. They became one of the best sewing machines money could buy.
Mike Anderson from Wolfegangs Collectibles added this bit on useful information
There were 3 model W&W 6 treadles
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.
However by the late 1870's all the patents had been extended and exhausted. For the first time this allowed any sewing machine business to compete on a level playing field without having to pay royalties.
The result would be that in a few years production would start to fall dramatically 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 are super smooth, some with ball bearings.
1870 was the peak for Allen Benjamin Wilson who's estate was now considerable compared to you and me. Aged 47 he had a personal estate of $130,000 plus another $150,000 in land.
In 1863 he had started to look into property and land as a way out of the sewing machine business which although was still expanding was 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.
Wilson, still a comparatively young man, took this opportunity to partially remove himself from the 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 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 repair in some old ladyís house.
History judges Wilson poorly in the context of the huge wealth amassed by other pioneers like Howe and Singer but the lad did brilliantly. I wonder how well all his other siblings fared?
Allen 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.
The Wilson home on the Naugatuck near Waterbury Connecticut. later purchased by 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.
Now back once more to the sewing machines.
Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines are simply superb and won an amazing amount of medals all over the world.
Some Wheeler & Wilson Medals
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.
Once all the main patents ran out and competitors spring up everywhere sales slowly dropped. Allen died in 1888 and 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 a 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.
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 plus parts for their own models.
The 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 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
March 28th 1876 Patent 175463
The Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine model No8 woodcut circa 1876
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 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.
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 earliest 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
The astounding Wheeler & Wilson model 9, D9 or W9 was launched in 1887. It was a huge success in terms of engineering though 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.
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.
Monthly part payments were possible for this superb machine but it was just too much which explains why so few W&W model D9'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.
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 model W9 or D9, later to become the Singer W9
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 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.
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
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.
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.
1880 daughter Annah (Bennette) with mum Harriet Emeline Brooks (Wilson) and youngest daughter Harriet Ethel Wilson
Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work.
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All Alex's books are now on a dedicated website: www.crowsbooks.com
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I just read your article on Wheeler and Wilson and I enjoyed it very
Alex, I love your site and the store and info
you gathered. Thank You Diane in Maine
Hello Mr. Askaroff
The huge Wheeler & Wilson factory which became Singer after the takeover in 1905
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.
Many thanks for getting back to me Alex - the tension discs make
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