Willcox &Gibbs Sewing Machine: A Revolutionary Machine
The March Artifact of the Month is a Willcox and Gibbs sewing machine, dating from the late 1880s. A marvel of Victorian engineering, the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine is a vivid example of a finely crafted, precision-made 19th century machine.
Most people would not think of a sewing machine as a revolutionary machine but revolutionary it was. As one of the inventions that played an integral part in the Industrial Revolution, this useful piece of equipment forever changed the way people made clothing, shoes and much more.
The Industrial Revolution, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. It was an intense period of modernization and invention. Sewing machines for home use and commercial use were one of the major innovations of the age.
Before the invention of the sewing machine, all sewing was done by hand, either in the home or by a local tailor or seamstress. On average, it took about 14 hours to make a man's dress shirt and at least 10 for a simple dress. For women, several days a month would be spent making and mending family clothes.
Sewing machines changed sewing forever and revolutionized home life. This appliance offered women a relief from the countless hours and tedium of hand sewing. With a sewing machine, sewing was cut into a fraction of time, with most women spending much less time per garment, about a 1-1/4 hour for a shirt and one hour for a simple dress.
The sewing machine was the first of many laborsaving devices for the home invented during the Industrial Revolution. Also invented during this time were the washing machine and vacuum cleaner. All of these devices made housekeeping easier and cut down work time. Women welcomed the relief from performing arduous chores. The sewing machine and other appliances freed up time to pursue other activities.
Beyond the revolutionary use of the sewing machine by women in the home, the use of sewing machines in factories, beginning in the 1850s, revolutionized the mass production of shoes and clothing. Production of garments and footwear moved from homes and small shops into large manufacturing plants. The sewing machine led to the growth of huge clothing factories associated with the textile mills and shoe factories in New England. The negative side of the mechanization was that it also led to the formation of sweatshops and the utilization of child labor to run the machines.
James Edward Allen Gibbs invented the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine in 1855. A farmer from Virginia, Gibbs was an inventor and tinkerer on the side. The ingenious Gibbs, created a machine that was different from other sewing machines of the time. His single-thread, chain-stitch machine was unique because it had a mechanism that had a lower revolving hook to catch the top thread and twist it into a loop to lock it into the fabric. This was a new method of sewing and became known as the chain stitch.
To manufacture his unique sewing machine, Gibbs went into partnership with James and Charles Willcox, father and son manufacturers. Starting in 1858, the Willcox and Gibbs, known as the “W&G” was produced in Providence, Rhode Island, by the company of Brown and Sharpe. At this time, this factory was making clocks and measuring instruments. Their experience in fine-tooling mechanisms enabled them to manufacture a superior sewing machine.
Overnight, the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine was an instant success and became hugely popular. Lighter, and running more smoothly than the competition, it was half the price, half the size and used half as much thread, as other machines.
At a time when other sewing machines cost about $100, the Willcox & Gibbs sold for around $50. Even this was a considerable sum in the 1850s when the average wage was $4 a week – it would make the machine the equivalent of $3,000 in today’s money.
Early sewing machines were either hand-cranked or powered by a treadle. A treadle is a foot pedal that powers a wheel linked to the machine by a leather belt. The foot action powers the wheel, which makes the needle go up and down. Many people are familiar with antique sewing machines sitting atop intricately designed cast iron treadle stands with the foot pedal on the floor.
The Willcox & Gibbs machine on display is a hand-crank model. The person sewing would have to turn the crank on the right side with their right hand, while their left hand fed the cloth under the needle. Requiring coordination and patience, this method of sewing might seem laborious, but compared to hand sewing, it was quick and efficient. Not until 1889 was the first electric sewing machine introduced, leading to the eventual demise of non-electric models.
Made completely of metal, measuring ten inches high and 12 ¼ inches long and six inches wide, the museums' Willcox and Gibbs tabletop model is compact and portable. When looking at the back of this model, the outline of the machine resembles a letter “G”. When initially designing the machine, Gibbs purposefully made the shape of the machine this way so the user would always recognize the machine as a “W&G”.
Prominently displayed in a golden circular plate in the front of the machine is the logo of the company: the letter “W” made out of crossed needles over the profile of the machine, the letter, “G” for Willcox & Gibbs.
Valued for their precision engineering and superior stitching, Willcox & Gibbs machines are one of the most collected of all the sewing machines.
This sewing machine can serve as reminder that the women of Western Illinois benefited from the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this sewing machine made possible for a 19th century McDonough County woman to pursue other interests and made her life a little easier.
From an essay by Heather Munro