Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Woodworking and sewing machines

My wife just picked up her first treadle sewing machine, she was looking for a Red eye No 66 or 201 but found this gorgeous parlor cabinet, so..... you know it HAD to came home. And there goes another hole in my tool budget, happy birthday dear :-)

Lately, she has been missing out on a couple ones she wanted so when this one shown up on her radar, she was very excited ... even more so when she got it.
A happy woman makes a man happy, an excited woman makes... well never mind :-)

You get the picture :-)

Her new machine. Pic from Kijiji ad.

A short history of the Singer Manufacturing Company (SIMANCO) and cabinetmaking
(compiled from various on line sources)

Isaac M. Singer established his Singer Company in 1851 in Boston. In 1853 he moved his operations to New York City.  In 1872 the main plants were moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Apparently at this time Singer sewing machine cabinets were not built by Singer, but on contract with other manufacturers. 

Because South Bend Indiana was the center of black walnut production it was an excellent location for furniture making. 
Several South Bend furniture makers such as: B.F. Price, Smith & Rilling, and Montgomery, were approached for bids on 5,000 to 10,000 cabinets per month. This would include tables, box covers, and drawers. All those approached refused to bid; they did not want such small work...
By the mid 1860's Singer realized that in order to massively expand their sewing
machine production they would need to be able to source vast quantities of
hardwood timber with which to make cabinets.
The company made the strategic decision to open a massive purpose built factory in South Bend for the mass production of furniture, taking advantage of the large area of hardwood trees to make cabinet cases for their sewing machines. This started production in 1868.

Other companies had started to use lathes with a special blade to shave off a thin layer from the surface of the log (rotary cut veneer) so that the resulting veneers could be stuck together in layers to make a board of any desired size and thickness. In an early piece of industrial espionage, Singer "borrowed" this technique and developed it themselves. By layering the grain in alternate directions the finished board had greater strength and stability. The company soon realized that bulk of the layers could be made from cheap softwood and it was only necessary to apply the expensive walnut, oak etc. to the outside layer to give the illusion of a solid hardwood cabinet. This drastically reduced the requirements of expensive hardwoods and provided very significant cost savings. A significant step in developing the product we know today as plywood was the use of steam heated drying plates to speed up the process to a practical level, enabling true mass production.

At first they settled along the river in the East Race area, between Madison and St. Joseph Streets, and Niles Avenue. But in 1901 they moved to the western part of the city, between Western Avenue and the railroad tracks, Walnut Street and Olive Street. At that time they had the largest cabinet factory in the world and employed over 3000 people.

Singer cabinetry factory in South Bend Indiana

By 1907, 10,000 sewing machine cabinet sets were manufactured per day. Only part of these were completely finished, many sets were shipped to Scotland “in part white,” that is, unfinished and unassembled. Of the finished sets, half were sent to Elizabeth, New Jersey to have the machines installed and be shipped to the U.S. seaboard, South America, and Asia. Machines were sent from Elizabeth to be installed at South Bend and the completed sewing machine distributed from here. The cabinet work was done on very close tolerances in order to make parts interchangeable, no matter where they were shipped. The year of 1914 was the peak year for production in South Bend. At that time there were about 3,000 employees working in the Division Street plant. In the early years of the 20th century, about 50 million feet of hardwood lumber for cabinets, 20 million feet of softwood lumber for packing boxes, and 10 million feet of walnut, oak, gum for veneer were used in the South Bend plant per year. This was all stockpiled in the huge 20 acre lumber yards adjoining the factory. David Pollack, a Singer researcher, estimated that three-quarters of all sewing machine cases and cabinets in the world at that time were made in South Bend, with a year output of 2,000,000 cabinets.

The company continued to make cabinets in South Bend until increased competition and old factory buildings created financial troubles. In 1954 the company left South Bend and in the 1960's after a fire, several of the buildings were torn down for urban renewal projects.

Mean while the Kilbowie, Clydebank plant in Scotland would eventually surpass US production. From its opening in 1884 to 1943, the Kilbowie factory produced approximately 36,000,000 sewing machines. Singer was the world leader and sold more machines than all the other makers added together.

Here in Canada, Singer opened its first Canadian plant in Montreal in 1883 and in 1906 it moved to a larger facility in its new factory in St-Jean sur Richelieu Quebec (South shore of Montreal, near where I grew up) It is often referred in English as St-John's and often mistaken for St-John's Nfld.

The Singer sewing machine factory in St-Jean Quebec, was established in 1904 at a cost of $1,000,000 and remained in operation until it was closed in 1986.

This integrated manufacturing plant produced sewing machinery together with its associated wooden furniture. At one time only the needles were not manufactured in St-Jean and had to be imported. Machines made in St-Jean were sold in Canada and also exported to the Philippines and Congo.

Singer St-Jean factory.
Unlike the US factories, it was self-sufficient, 
everything was made; machines and cabinetry 

In 1922 the Singer company decided to purchase a license to cut timber and to establish a Canadian sawmill to feed its cabinet plant in St-Jean. In 1923 the company purchased an area of approximately 500 square miles of primarily mixed hardwood forest which had its southern boundary around 25 miles north of Thurso, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa river, 30 miles east of Ottawa (our nation capital)

The timber limits north of Turso comprised mainly a mixed forest and the dominant species were yellow birch, hard maple, hemlock and spruce, with varying amount of beech, basswood and balsam. From Singer point of view, the yellow birch was the most important, which was not that common in Canada.

To transport the timber to Thurso it was necessary to construct a railway line
(The Thurso & National Valley Railway). Initially this ran for a distance of 34 miles roughly due north of Thurso, but over the next 20 years it was gradually extended a further 22 miles into the forest as cutting progressed further northwards.

Construction of the railway was started in early 1925. It became operational in late 1926 at the same time that the new sawmill and drying kilns were opened in Thurso.

In 1942 a veneer mill was added on the Thurso site to produce birch veneer for sewing machine cabinets and to avoid the need to import veneer from the United States.

By the 1950s the forest, which had been logged of their softwood before being purchased by Singer, were again ready for softwood logging. In 1958 the Thurso Pulp and Paper Company opened a pulp mill (which made Thurso famous for that plant stench :-) As well as pulping the softwood logs it also used the previously wasted branches of hardwood logs harvested for veneer and timber.

In 1959 Singer moved the complete manufacture, assembly and finishing of sewing machine cabinets from St-Jean to Thurso.  However this was a period of declining sewing machine sales and the increasing use of plastic for machine cases. In 1964 Singer sold the Thurso facility to the James MacLaren Company

Every sewing machine sold either came with a portable case or in a cabinet.
Because they were primarily sold to housewifes, they had to "fit" the decor :-)
And as taste in furniture changed thru the years, their cabinets changed along to reflect changing tastes.   

The earliest treadle machines simply stayed on top of the cabinet and were covered by a removable cover case. Often referred to as sewing machine tables.

Next came a variety of mechanism to stored the machine inside the cabinet when not in use.
A 7 drawers cabinet, 3 on each sides, one in the middle.

The Drawing room or Parlor cabinets were considered the top of the line cabinet.
As such they were fully enclosing the sewing machine and all the treadle parts.

These cabinets are very ingenious, everything is fully enclosed, yet easily accessible by opening any of 8 doors! 
Then there is the folding leaf on top and 5 drawers.

The machine raising/lowering mechanism is spring loaded, it pack tremendous energy and you must hold on the top of the machine when pushing the release button. Once stored down, there is a simple safety mechanism, two pieces of wood pivoting to lock it down. Simple but effective. 

The next big change in sewing machine cabinet would come with the switch from treadle to electric power, requiring less complicated mechanism to lower the machine, the previous complication being to accommodate the drive belt to the treadle mechanism. Some treadle cabinets moved the machine straight up and down for storage, whereas the later machines were able to to be fold down for storage.

So there you have it, cabinetmaking on the largest industrial scale, set up in various countries. The perfecting of slicing veneer process, enabling the "invention" of what we know today as plywood, which in turn enables them to used lower grade veneer core and reserved their most beautiful hardwood veneers on the outside. Walnut and oak veneers were the most employed but some mahogany as well.
To decorate their cabinets they also employed a process they called embossing which simulated elaborate carving on a mass production scale.  Essentially an machine made, applique method.

Drawers bank on left is missing its "applique" 
around the knobs and on its side.

They also perfected the process invented for gun making, the interchangeability of precisely machined parts, which was even extended to their cabinetmaking process. Which means you can easily swap parts like drawers doors etc and they would fit. 

Rather long post, but by now you should have an idea of the numerous contributions to the woodworking processes and cabinetmaking on an industrial scale, brought to us by Singer and their ubiquitous sewing machines.

Bob, who is learning a lot on sewing machines lately...


  1. I couldn't believe that that many sewing machines could be produced and sold per year. My grandmother's singer sewing machine cabinet looked a lot like the 7 drawer one. It had a treadle but it also had an electric motor.

  2. Yes, truly amazing isn't it? And the vast majority of thees were produced before they invented planned obsolescence, they bugger are built like tanks and last forever. I'm just going over the cabinet, truly an amazing thing, found two more doors I didn't knew about :-) It reminded me of that time at the Inn were we went over every inch of the furniture's we found :-)

    1. You share an excellent thought. I like your comment .

  3. And oh yah, most of these machines were convertible to electric or hand crank operation. Once electricity was well established, you could buy kit to electrify your old treadle machine. Built to last and kept up with the time, both in function and style, truly a long lasting dynasty.

  4. The one with the cover case looks like the one my grand mother owned. I have never see her or my mother use it. I have used it a few time. It has been sold when my parents died. My wife rely on me for adjusting her jeans leg length with a cheap Toyota sewing machine.

  5. Beautiful. Nothing like the treadles that I learned to sew on many years ago!!! What a treasure. Living room storage???

  6. Why am I not surprised that Toyota made sewing machine ? LOL
    May had been cheap in price, but those early (40s to 60s) Japanese sewing machines are pretty good copies of... you guessed it, Singers

  7. HI Patty, yes that one is gonna reside in the living room, or should I say : In the drawing room darling :-)

  8. Sylvain
    Check out this blog entry on Japanese Singer's copies

  9. My wife just picked up her first treadle sewing machine, she was looking for a Red eye No 66 or 201 but found this gorgeous parlor cabinet, ... csewingmachine.blogspot.com

  10. Hi everyone I really like antiques! just like this post I appreciate it!
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  11. Wow, your wife is so lucky to have you! My grandmother has (and still have!) Singer and it is so sturdy she was able to pass it on to my Mom. It's such a shame they don't do these machines that way anymore, though.

  12. Hi Kristine
    Yes these old cast iron lady are pretty well bullet proof. A good cleaning and oil is often all that they required. They sure dont make them like that anymore....

    Cheers Bob

  13. Hi, I was wondering how to go about selling a cabinet and machine . I believe the machine is 1910 either a 27 or 28 model. Missing a belt.

  14. I have a Singer built in 1918 looks a little sad but still works.
    Also have an old machine called
    "The Valley AG" does anyone know about these.


  15. A quick Google search did not turned up anything on Valley AG sewing machines.
    AG may stood for American Girl, especially if on a sewing machine??
    Is it a full fledge machine or more like a youngster machine?