Singer Corporation is an American manufacturer of domestic sewing machines, first established as I. M. Singer & Co. in 1851 by 🌐Isaac Merritt Singer [HK0006] with New York lawyer Edward Clark. Best known for its sewing machines, it was renamed Singer Manufacturing Company in 1865, then the Singer Company in 1963. It is based in La Vergne, Tennessee, near Nashville. Its first large factory for mass production was built in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1863.
History of Singer's sewing machines and its business
Old Singer logo
A Singer 1851 sewing machine
Singer Corporation's original design was the first practical sewing machine for general domestic use. It incorporated the basic eye-pointed needle and lock stitch developed by Elias Howe, who won a patent-infringement suit against Singer in 1854.
Patent No. 8294, of August 12, 1851, introduced one of the most useful machines, and one of the most remarkable men, that have figured in the development of the sewing machine. Isaac Merritt Singer, strolling player, theater manager, inventor, and millionaire, brought into the business a new machine and novel methods of exploitation, which gave a powerful impulse to the youthful industry. The Singer improvements met the demand of the tailoring, and leather industries for a heavier and more powerful machine.
Singer consolidated enough patents in the field to enable him to engage in mass production, and by 1860, his company was the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world. In 1885, Singer produced its first "vibrating shuttle" sewing machine, an improvement over contemporary transverse shuttle designs (see bobbin drivers). Singer began to market its machines internationally in 1855 and won first prize at the Paris World's Fair. The company demonstrated the first workable electric sewing machine at the Philadelphia electric exhibition in 1889 and began mass-producing domestic electric machines in 1910. Singer was also a marketing innovator and was a pioneer in promoting the use of installment payment plans.
Singer in Scotland
Workers leaving Singer Sewing Machine Factory on Clydebank
In 1867, the Singer Company decided that the demand for their sewing machines in the United Kingdom was sufficiently high to open a local factory in Glasgow on John Street. Singer Vice President George Ross McKenzie selected Glasgow because of its iron making industries, cheap labour, and shipping capabilities. Demand for sewing machines outstripped production at the new plant and by 1873, a new larger factory was completed on James Street, Bridgeton. By that point, Singer employed over 2,000 people in Scotland, but they still could not produce enough machines.
In 1882, McKenzie, by then President-elect of the Singer Manufacturing Company, undertook the ground breaking ceremony on 46 acres (19 ha) of farmland at Kilbowie, Clydebank. Originally, two main buildings were constructed, each 800-foot (240 m) long, 50-foot (15 m) wide and three storeys high. These were connected by three wings. Built above the middle wing was a 200-foot (61 m) tall clock tower with the "Singer" name clearly displayed for all to see for miles around. A total of 2.75 miles (4.43 km) of railway lines were laid throughout the factory to connect the different departments such as the boiler room, foundry, shipping and the lines to main railway stations. Sir Robert McAlpine was the building contractor and the factory was designed to be fire proof with water sprinklers, making it the most modern factory in Europe at that time.
With nearly a million square feet of space and almost 7,000 employees, it was possible to produce on average 13,000 machines a week, making it the largest sewing machine factory in the world. The Clydebank factory was so productive that in 1905, the U.S. Singer Company set up and registered the Singer Manufacturing Company Ltd. in the United Kingdom. Demand continued to exceed production, so each building was extended upwards to 6 storeys high. A railway station with the company name was established in 1907 with connections to adjoining towns and central Glasgow to assist in transporting the workforce to the facility.
In the First World War, sewing machine production gave way to munitions. The Singer Clydebank factory received over 5000 government contracts, and made 303 million artillery shells, shell components, fuses, and aeroplane parts, as well as grenades, rifle parts, and 361,000 horseshoes. Its labour force of 14,000 was about 70% female at war's end.
From its opening in 1884 until 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. In 1913, the factory shipped 1.3 million machines. The late 1950s and 1960s saw a period of significant change at the Clydebank factory. In 1958, Singer reduced production at their main American plant and transferred 40% of this production to the Clydebank factory in a bid to reduce costs. Between 1961 and 1964, the Clydebank factory underwent a £4 million modernization program which saw the Clydebank factory cease the production of cast iron machines and focus on the production of aluminium machines for western markets. As part of this modernisation programme, the famous Singer Clock was demolished in 1963. At the height of its productiveness in the mid 1960s, Singer employed over 16,000 workers but by the end of that decade, compulsory redundancies were taking place and 10 years later the workforce was down to 5,000. Financial problems and lack of orders forced the world's largest sewing machine factory to close in June 1980, bringing to an end over 100 years of sewing machine production in Scotland. The complex of buildings was demolished in 1998.
Painted Singer Sewing sign in Kingston, N.Y.
The Singer sewing machine was the first complex standardized technology to be mass marketed. It was not the first sewing machine, and its patent in 1851 led to a patent battle with Elias Howe, inventor of the lockstitch machine. This eventually resulted in a patent sharing accord among the major firms. Marketing strategies included focusing on the manufacturing industry, gender identity, credit plans, and "hire purchases."
Singer's marketing emphasized the role of women and their relationship to the home, evoking ideals of virtue, modesty, and diligence. Though the sewing machine represented liberation from arduous hand sewing, it chiefly benefited those sewing for their families and themselves. Tradespeople relying on sewing as a livelihood still suffered from poor wages, which dropped further in response to the time savings gained by machine sewing. Singer offered credit purchases and rent-to-own arrangements, allowing people to rent a machine with the rental payments applied to the eventual purchase of the machine, and sold globally through the use of direct-sales door-to-door canvassers to demonstrate and sell the machines.
World War II
During World War II, the company suspended sewing machine production to take on government contracts for weapons manufacturing. Factories in the United States supplied the American forces with Norden bomb sights and M1 Carbine rifle receivers, while factories in Germany provided their armed forces with weapons.
In 1939, the company was given a production study by the government to draw plans and develop standard raw material sizes for building M1911A1 pistols. The following April 17, Singer was given an educational order of 500 units with serial numbers S800001 – S800500. The educational order was a program set up by the Ordnance Board in the U.S. to teach companies without gun-making experience to manufacture weapons.
After the 500 units were delivered to the U.S. government, the management decided to produce artillery and bomb sights. The pistol tooling and manufacturing machines were transferred to Remington Rand whilst some went to the Ithaca Gun Company. Approximately 1.75 million 1911A1 pistols were produced during World War II, making original Singer pistols relatively rare and collectable.
Post war and present
Singer resumed developing sewing machines in 1946. They introduced its first sewing machine with zigzag function in 1952, the Slant-o-Matic. 2011 marked their 160th anniversary. Currently, they manufacture computerized, heavy duty, embroidery, quilting, sergers, and mechanical sewing machines.
In 2017, they launched their new Singer Sewing Assistant App.
In the 1960s the company diversified, acquiring the Friden calculator company in 1965 and General Precision Equipment Corporation in 1968. GPE included Librascope, The Kearfott Company, Inc, and Link Flight Simulation. In 1968 also Singer bought out GPS Systems and added it to the Link Simulations Systems Division (LSSD). This unit produced nuclear power plant control center simulators in Silver Spring, Maryland and Columbia, Maryland while flight simulators were produced in Binghamton, New York.
In 1987, corporate raider Paul Alec Bilzerian (born 1950) made a "greenmail" run at Singer, and ended up owning the company when no "White Knight" rescuer appeared. To recover his money, Bilzerian sold off parts of the company. Kearfott was split, the Kearfott Guidance & Navigation Corporation was sold to the Astronautics Corporation of America in 1988 and the Electronic Systems Division was purchased by GEC-Marconi in 1990, renamed GEC-Marconi Electronic Systems (and later incorporated into BAE Systems). The four Link divisions developing and supporting industrial and flight simulation were sold to Canadian Avionics Electronics (CAE) and became CAE-Link. The nuclear power simulator division became S3 Technologies, and later GSE Systems, and relocated to Eldersburg, MD. The Sewing Machine Division was sold in 1989 to Semi-Tech Microelectronics, a publicly traded Toronto-based company.
For several years in the 1970s, Singer set up a national sales force for CAT phototypesetting machines (of UNIX troff fame) made by another Massachusetts company, Graphic Systems Inc. This division was purchased by Wang Laboratories in 1978.
The Singer Corporation produces a range of consumer products, including electronic sewing machines. It is now part of SVP Worldwide, which also owns the Pfaff and Husqvarna Viking brands, which is in turn owned by Kohlberg & Company, which bought Singer in 2004.
Singer was heavily involved in Manhattan real estate in the 1800s through Edward Clark, a founder of the company. Clark had built The Dakota apartments and other Manhattan buildings in the 1880s. In 1900, the Singer company retained Ernest Flagg to build a 12-story loft building at Broadway and Prince Street in Lower Manhattan. The building is now considered architecturally notable, and has been restored.
The 47-story Singer Building, completed in 1908, was also designed by Flagg, who designed two landmark residences for Bourne. Constructed during Bourne's tenure, the Singer Building (demolished in 1968) was then the tallest building in the world and was the tallest building to be intentionally demolished until the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in the September 11 attacks.
At their Clydebank factory Singer built a 200 feet (61 m) clock tower which stood over the central wing and had the reputation of being the largest four-faced clock in the world. Each face weighed five tons and it took four men fifteen minutes twice a week to keep it wound. The tower was demolished after the factory closed in 1980 and now site of Clydebank Business Park. Singer railway station, built to serve the factory, is still in operation.
The famous Singer House, designed by architect Pavel Suzor, was built in 1902–1904 at Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg for headquarters of the Russian branch of the company. This modern style building (situated just opposite to the Kazan Cathedral) is officially recognized as an object of Russian historical-cultural heritage.
In 2018, a large factory fire destroyed a Singer distribution office and warehouse in Seven Hills, Sydney. Singer had manufactured sewing machines in Australia at a purpose-built plant in the western Sydney suburb of Penrith, from 1959 until 1967.
List of company presidents
- 🌐Isaac Merritt Singer [HK0006] (1851–1863)
- Inslee Hopper (1863–1875)
- Edward C. Clark (1875–1882)
- George Ross McKenzie (1882–1889)
- Frederick Gilbert Bourne (1889–1905)
- Sir Douglas Alexander (1905–1949)
- Milton C. Lightner (1949–1958)
- Donald P. Kircher (1958–1975)
- Joseph Bernard Flavin (born 1928) (1975–1987)
- Paul Alec Bilzerian (born 1950) (1987–1989)
- Iftikhar Ahmed (1989–1997)
- Stephen H. Goodman (1998–2004)
The Singer Company N.V. is the number one maker and seller of consumer and industrial sewing machines in the world, not to mention the oldest. With distribution into more than 150 countries worldwide and ownership of 1,500 retail outlets, Singer boasts of having one of the best-known brand names in the world. Throughout the late 20th century, however, Singer has struggled to maintain profitability, and the original sewing operations have weathered several incarnations as a private and a public company.
Isaac Merritt Singer was born in Pittstown, New York, in 1811, and ran away from his immigrant parents at the age of 12 to join a troupe of traveling actors. Singer remained an actor until 1835. During the following years he worked at various jobs while he invented things on the side. By 1850, Singer had gone to Boston with a patented device for carving wood-block type he hoped to sell to type manufacturers.
In Boston, Singer became interested in a prospective client's sewing machine repair business. The first patent for a sewing machine had been granted in England in 1790, but because of their unreliability none of the machines since then had been commercially successful. The first sewing machine with an eye-pointed needle, invented in 1846 by Elias Howe, seemed on the verge of capturing the public interest, but it, too, required frequent repairs. Singer quickly set to work to invent a reliable machine.
Singer finished his machine in 1850 and was granted a patent for it in 1851, the same year he established I.M. Singer and Company. The machine was an immediate success, prompting Howe to file suit against Singer for patent infringement. In 1854 Singer hired a young lawyer named Edward Clark to defend him; Clark agreed to take the case in exchange for a third of Singer's business, and eventually the two men became equal partners in the company, Singer running the manufacturing side and Clark the financial and sales side.
Clark stymied the lawsuits brought against Singer and then brought the manufacturers together to pool their patents by creating the Singer Machine Combination, the first patent pool in the United States. The combination, which lasted until 1877, when the last patent ran out, licensed 24 sewing machine manufacturers to make the machines for $15 a machine, with Singer and Howe receiving $5 each for every machine sold domestically.
Expansion in the 19th Century
With Clark supervising the day-to-day operations, I.M. Singer and Company began to grow rapidly. Until the late 1850s the price of a sewing machine limited its market to commercial interests like professional tailors and harness manufacturers. But at that time, Clark introduced the first consumer installment payment plan. This plan, combined with an aggressive marketing strategy, enabled the young company to survive the business panic of 1857 and gave Singer the decisive lead in sewing machines for more than a century.
In 1863 Clark and Singer dissolved their partnership and the company was incorporated as Singer Manufacturing Company after Singer's rather sordid personal life (which eventually resulted in 24 children by four women) came to light. Both Clark and Singer retained some stock in the company but sold the rest to their employees. Clark continued as president of the company until his death in 1882; Isaac Singer, who had fled to Europe, died in England in 1875.
For the next 70 years, the business was led by three men: F.G. Bourne, who was president from 1873 to 1905; Douglas Alexander, who led the company from 1906 to 1949; and Milton Lightner, who served from 1949 to 1958. These men increased Singer's role as the United States' first multinational company. Singer had begun manufacturing in Scotland in 1867 and in Canada in 1873. By the 1880s, the company's extensive European operations were exporting sewing machines to Africa and soon after the turn of the century Singer was selling its product in the South Pacific. The one setback during this growth and expansion occurred in 1917, when the company's Russian holdings were seized during the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918 Singer acquired the Diehl Manufacturing Company to make sewing machine motors.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Singer's profits rose steadily as it convinced more and more people around the world that a Singer sewing machine was indispensable. By the end of World War II, however, the sewing machine market had matured in the United States. To make matters worse, within a few years European manufacturers were offering zig-zag machines (which Singer had decided in the 1930s would not find a market in the United States) and, suddenly, highly competitive Japanese manufacturers began to flood the market. In the United States alone, Singer's market share had halved, to only one-third, by the late 1950s.
Singer had hired a lawyer, Donald P. Kircher, to supervise the company's legal affairs in 1948. In 1955 Kircher was appointed Lightner's assistant, and in 1958 he was made president. Hired to help turn Singer around, Kircher began a complete reorganization of the company: plants were modernized, manufacturing procedures automated, products upgraded, and merchandising improved. By 1963 Singer's share in the U.S. sewing machine market had increased to 40 percent.
Diversification in the 1950s and 1960s
Under Kircher's direction, Singer also began an ambitious overseas construction program. Besides spending large amounts of money to revamp company facilities in Scotland, Brazil, France, West Germany, and Italy, Kircher also started building new factories in Australia, Mexico, and the Philippines. In addition, Kircher reaffirmed the strategy of looking toward underdeveloped regions of the world for the company's largest markets.
Kircher also began a domestic diversification program. One of his first decisions was to purchase Haller, Raymond & Brown, Inc., a leading electronics research firm and Singer's first step into the electronics industry. He also bought three companies in 1960 and 1961: two knitting-machine makers and a carpet-tufting-machinery maker. Initially, this diversification strategy was also successful. Between 1958 and 1963, Singer's sales almost doubled, to $1.2 billion (between 1952 and 1956 sales had risen only 12 percent, from $325 million to $364 million). In 1963 Singer dropped the "Manufacturing" from its name to better reflect the nature of its business.
Kircher's plan also included a more aggressive acquisition and diversification policy. The first important purchase, in 1963, was of Friden, Inc., a manufacturer of office equipment and calculators. The second one, of General Precision Equipment Corporation (GPE), was made in 1968. General Precision gave Singer access to three markets: industrial products (such as gas meters), defense electronics, and aerospace. But GPE and Friden were only part of Kircher's grand plan. Altogether, Kircher bought 22 manufacturing firms with products ranging from audio to aerospace equipment.
In 1958, 90 percent of Singer's total sales came from sewing machines; by 1970, this portion was reduced to 35 percent, and Kircher's diversification strategy seemed to work. Singer's sales exceeded $1.9 billion, 40 percent from business abroad.
Losses in the 1970s
But Kircher, described by subordinates as autocratic and imperious, had overreached himself. Although the company reported $2.6 billion in sales for 1974, one Wall Street analyst estimated that Singer's debt had reached $1.1 billion--a staggering price for its acquisition program. Combined with a collapse in the aerospace market and a glut in office equipment in the late 1960s, it is not surprising that Singer reported a $10.1 million loss in 1974. The single bright spot that year was Singer's original sewing machine operation, which accounted for 54 percent of company sales.
While Kircher was confined to a hospital bed in 1975, the board of directors looked for someone to replace him. They hired Joseph Bernard Flavin (born 1928) , who had worked at IBM and at Xerox, where he was an executive vice-president. Forty-seven years old when he became Singer's president, Flavin immediately took a $411 million write-off to eliminate the company's money-losing ventures, including a home-building concern, a printing operation, a telecommunications firm, an Italian household appliance plant, and a West German mail-order house. This write-off was the largest of its time and reduced Singer's book value by 50 percent. Flavin then planned to revitalize the company's sewing machine operation and develop its power tool and aerospace businesses.
Over the next few years, Singer also concentrated on developing high-technology electric components, including air conditioning and heating systems, gas meters, thermostats, electrical switches, dishwashers, and auto dashboards. The company made the guidance system for the Trident missile and navigation equipment for airplanes and ships, and Singer electrical instruments played an important role in NASA's Apollo lunar modules.
Flavin managed to reduce the company's $1.1 billion debt by 55 percent after he became president, but in 1979 he took a $130 million write-off on the sewing machine business, which in North America and Europe had fallen off drastically. This move involved the restructuring of Singer's North American and European operations; its oldest factory in Europe, near Clydebank, Scotland, was one of the casualties. Flavin also replaced 80 of his top 200 managers. All these changes were made in the middle of a headquarters move from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut.
In 1980 Singer's aerospace and marine divisions' operating profits increased by 34 percent, to $36 million, due in large part to Singer's role as the nation's leading manufacturer of aircraft simulators, including the one used to train space shuttle astronauts. In addition, this division won a large contract for helicopters from the Defense Department in 1981. Encouraged by these results, management decided to create SimuFlite, a new venture that provided ground school and flight simulation training for corporate pilots.
Continued Problems in the 1980s
Foreign manufacturers like Bernina, Pfaff, and Viking, along with inexpensive imports from Japan, began to cut deeply into what little was left of Singer's sewing machine market during the early 1980s. That and the belief among top officials at Singer that the sewing industry in the United States was finally drying up led the company to abandon its century-old core business. In 1986 Singer spun off its sewing machine division as a separate company called SSMC Inc. Singer also got rid of all 1,600 company-owned stores and service centers, either by closing them or making them independent.
Although Singer had become a $2 billion-a-year defense conglomerate, it was beset by endless problems and an enormous debt. Its stock price was driven down by the announcement of a $20 million loss in July 1987, which it attributed to development costs for several new aerospace products. Then, that fall, Chairman Joseph Flavin died unexpectedly. Therefore, to no one's surprise, Singer became a prime takeover candidate. The buyer was a surprise, however: Paul Alec Bilzerian (born 1950) , a somewhat obscure corporate raider best known as a greenmailer. For $50 a share--some $15 below what Singer's investment banker, Goldman Sachs, had expected it to sell for--Bilzerian walked away with Singer.
Despite a staggering debt load, Bilzerian at first promised not to strip Singer of its most productive assets, planning only to sell off its defense electronics business. But only months later, prime assets began to go. Between July and October 1988 Bilzerian sold eight of Singer's 12 divisions, for about $2 billion, which tidily covered his debt.
But, in December 1988, Bilzerian was indicted--for non-Singer-related activities--and in May 1989 he was convicted of nine counts of securities and tax violations. More troublesome for the company itself, however, was the multitude of suits filed against it after mid-1988 by former employees regarding pension benefits; stockholders disillusioned by Bilzerian's dealings; buyers of divisions who claimed they were overcharged; and the federal government, which sought treble damages of $231 million for Defense Department overcharges dating back to 1980. Renamed the Bicoastal Corporation in 1989, the company agreed to pay $55 million to the federal government in 1992 to settle the fraud charges.
Rebounding: Early 1990s
Meanwhile, SSMC, the original sewing machine business, defied predictions and managed to stay in business. In 1989 Semi-Tech Global purchased SSMC and began to turn the company around. SSMC reclaimed its heritage by renaming itself The Singer Company. Then, in 1991, the company offered shares to the public on the New York Stock Exchange. Semi-Tech Global retained control of the company with ownership of 50 percent of the shares. Two years later, Semi-Tech Global sold its interest in Singer to Semi-Tech Corp., owner of 43 percent of Semi-Tech Global.
Also in 1993, Semi-Tech Global acquired G.M. Pfaff AG, the second largest sewing machine manufacturer in the world. Founded in 1862 in Germany, the company had a history almost as long as Singer's and had built a comparable international reputation. Although Pfaff sold its machines mostly through its own retail stores in Germany, its international sales were handled through mass merchants, independent dealers, and distributors.
In the early 1990s Pfaff was operating at a loss, and Semi-Tech Global purchased 72 percent of the company's shares, thus gaining control of the company. Semi-Tech cut staff, outsourced and relocated much of the company's manufacturing, and sought growth primarily in developing countries. In addition, Semi-Tech Global hired Singer to manage the company. Within the next few years, Singer and Pfaff were cross-sourcing each other's products and had created efficiencies in research and development by working together to design new products.
In the mid-1990s Singer began selling other consumer durable products, hoping to cash in on widespread respect and awareness of its brand. New products included televisions, videocassette recorders, and home appliances. The company focused its sale of this new line in developing countries, where it had established distribution networks and, unlike most manufacturers and retailers in these countries, offered credit plans. For example, Singer met with a great deal of success in Mexico, where it focused its efforts on working-class consumers unused to the idea of credit but unable to buy a major appliance like a sewing machine without it. Singer's sales in Mexico quintupled between 1988 and 1993 and showed no signs of diminishing. It also held its repossession rate to about two percent.
Despite success in such developing countries as Mexico, Singer was reporting losses by the late 1990s. Although the company could still claim profits of $29 million in 1996, in 1997 Singer lost $238 million on revenues of $1.1 billion. Revenues had declined 19 percent from the previous year, stemming from the economic crisis in Asia, an economic slowdown in Brazil, and weak sales in the United States. A new president and chief executive officer, Stephen H. Goodman, took charge in early 1998.
In an effort to eliminate redundancies and thus reduce costs, Singer acquired Pfaff in 1997 for $157.5 million. Thus Singer's management of Pfaff became permanent when it purchased Semi-Tech Global's 80.5 percent interest in the company. Singer consolidated the two companies' marketing and distribution operations, shared their manufacturing plants, and reduced their combined overheads. As part of this reorganization, Singer eliminated almost 6,000 jobs, cutting 5,531 from manufacturing and 437 from marketing. The company projected this 28 percent cut would result in savings of $104 million a year.
Although revenues were up in 1998, to $1.26 billion, Singer still reported a loss of $207 million. The continued economic downturns in Asia and Brazil affected the company's performance, as did a decline in the industrial sewing market. Singer initiated a restructuring program in 1998 that included projected property sales of approximately $260 million. That year the company sold $37 million worth of property. In 1999 Singer continued with the program by selling its Taiwan operations for $58.6 million. On September 13, 1999, Singer announced that it was voluntarily filing for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The company's stock continued to trade on the New York Stock Exchange at the NYSE's discretion.