Making and Selling Singer Sewing Machines: A Local History of a Global Commodity
Making and Selling Singer Sewing Machines: A Local History of a Global Commodity
The University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities, in partnership with West Dunbartonshire Council Libraries and Cultural Services, offered TWO three-year PhD Studentships under the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) Scheme from 1 October 2014. The awards cover Home/EU tuition fees and provide a maintenance award of at least £13,726 per annum, and some research and training expenses, for three years. The Research Project
The Singer factory was established in Clydebank near Glasgow in 1884 and rapidly grew to one of the largest manufacturers in the region; from its opening through its peak in the 1940s, Singer produced approximately 36,000,000 sewing machines, and employed as many as 16,000 workers at one time. Singer was the world’s first multi-national conglomerate, occupying a central place in the history of technology, business, industrial design, mass production, and labour relations. This project seeks to connect the local history of Clydebank to the global contexts of gendered work patterns, industrial design, and marketing practices encapsulated by Singer.
After the factory’s closure in 1980, a remarkable collection of both sewing machine production models and corporate records was preserved and is now held by the Libraries and Cultural Services Department of the West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC). The Sewing Machine Collection & Singer Archive (SMCSA) is the largest public collection of its kind in Europe. The holdings have two major components:
- the comprehensive Sewing Machine Collection, 803 production models manufactured for both industrial and domestic use from the earliest machines of the 1850s through the 1970s, supported by a collection of approximately 30,000 annotated parts cards and ornamental transfers (used to decorate the machines) and
- the Singer Archive, which contains approximately 5000 items of business records, machine manuals, correspondence, in-house publications, and photographs of factory communities. Thus, the archive has two predominant facets: first, a wealth of information relating to the sewing machines themselves, providing a material timeline of industrial design and technology; and second, an extensive collection of material relating to the operation of the company both commercially and socially.
The research will draw upon the sources and methods of social, cultural, business, and material culture history to:
- assess the role of Singer as an employer; chart the firm's use of innovative design as both technological progress and sales technique; and explore the relationship between Singer as a producer of sewing machines and the sewing machine as perhaps the most significant piece of domestic technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- contribute to both scholarship and public understanding of: the nature of industrial relations in the west of Scotland; the role of Singer in women's working patterns locally, nationally and globally; the role of design and branding in the success of this industrial manufacturer.
- to apply the knowledge and the lessons gleaned from the heritage of Singer by: promoting the ways in which local heritage can foster economic regeneration in an area blighted by deindustrialisation; empowering the local community of Clydebank through awareness of their contribution to Scotland's industrial heritage; educating a range of interest groups, from life-long learning initiatives to the countless owners of historic machines worldwide.
There is considerable scope for the CDA researchers to shape the projects according to their scholarly interests and academic background but the following two broad themes are proposed for the two studentship projects:
A: Singer Sewing Machines and the Making of the Woman Worker
The sewing machine was a quintessentially female technology: not only predominantly used by women, often in their own homes, but also made by women in the factory in Clydebank. This research project will focus on Singer’s role in conceptualising and re-making the image of the woman worker. Producing sewing machines for both industrial and domestic contexts, Singer shaped women’s work in its own factories, in the putting out system of the textile industry, and increasingly in factory settings making ready-to-wear clothing. Importantly, at each layer of the production and use of sewing machines, women were both producers and consumers. Because of Singer’s massive international distribution, the collections can be used to demonstrate the image of women’s work well beyond the most often studied contexts of Western Europe and North America. This project will seek to link the very local histories of production in Clydebank with this global reach of the gendered technology.
Specific research questions may include:
- What role did women play in the manufacturing process at Singer’s Clydebank factory?
- How did women's participation in the Singer workforce affect the community of Clydebank, and what model of women’s work did this provide to other industrial communities?
- How did Singer represent both the producers and consumers of its sewing machines, and how did these women represent themselves?
- What does the sewing machine as an industrial product made by women and as a technology used by women workers tell us about women's relationship to work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
B: Singer Sewing Machines and the Origins of Industrial Design
Singer’s continual refinements of industrial production processes, the function of the sewing machines for producers, consumer education through manuals, as well as their recognizable approach to the aesthetic ornament of the machines through applied transfers on a black background were nineteenth-century precursors to a later codification of industrial design practices. Although the term itself can be found in engineering literature as early as the mid-nineteenth century, industrial design as a discrete profession is usually considered a twentieth-century development, when large-scale corporations sought to employ new workers whose role was to mediate between factory workers, managers, marketers, sales teams, and consumers in order to improve the function, appearance, and value of industrial products. This project will utilise the remarkable collection of sewing machine production models, parts cards, and manuals, as well as ornamental transfer books and consumer marketing, to chart the emerging field of industrial design from its pre-history to its flourishing in the mid-twentieth century.
Specific research questions include:
- Who was responsible for design decisions in the history of Singer’s Clydebank factory?
- To what extent were these decisions autonomous in the Scottish plant or negotiated with its American owners?
- What influenced the design of Singer sewing machines, in both mechanical and aesthetic terms?
- To what extent did Singer market the design of its machines, and how was this conveyed to different market sectors?
West Dunbartonshire Council Libraries and Cultural Services incorporates Clydebank Museum and the Singer Archive and Sewing Machine Collection which has Recognised Collection of National Significance status. WDC's cultural and economic strategy incorporates the development of its museum collections and cultural services as part of its overall aims to highlight the significance of the area in the industrial history of the UK and global economies, restore pride in the people of West Dunbartonshire in their heritage, and foster social and economic regeneration through the reputation of the Clydebank Museum and Art Gallery and other cultural heritage projects. Research into the history of the factory, its relationship with the community, its business practices, technological and design innovations, and its position in a global industry, will enable WDC to significantly enhance its cultural provision in a community that has suffered from the effects of de-industrialisation. Working with WDC will enable the CDA students to contribute to the enhancement of the collection by engaging in archival and material culture research and by working with the community of Clydebank.
Within the University of Glasgow, the CDA student will be welcomed into a range of dynamic research communities across the School of Humanities and the College of Arts including the postgraduate led Hufton Reading Group attached to the Centre for Gender History.
- Academic supervisors:
- West Dumbartonshire Council supervisor:
- Laura MacCalman, curator, Museums and Libraries
For further details about relevant research communities at the University of Glasgow:
Further details about West Dumbartonshire Museums