December 19: A Stitch in Time Pays Off for Connecticut Inventor

 

While the Industrial Revolution forever changed the way Americans manufactured, bought, and sold everyday goods, fewer inventions had a larger impact on home life for American families than the sewing machine. While there had been several experimental and industrial models of sewing machines in existence since the earliest years of the 19th century, smaller domestic models didn’t hit the American market in earnest until the 1840s and 1850s — thanks largely to improvements by Connecticut innovators who collectively had a huge impact on the sewing machine industry.

One of many late 19th-century Wheeler & Wilson ads, marketing their sewing machines as “family friendly.”

Nathaniel Wheeler and Allen B. Wilson, whose patented sewing machines dominated the global market during the latter half of the 19th century, were one such set of innovators. Nathaniel Wheeler, born in Watertown, Connecticut in 1820, was a businessman who jumped at the chance to partner with inventor Allen Wilson after he had seen one of Wilson’s unique sewing machines on display in New York City in 1851. Two years later, they established the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company in Watertown, where they began mass-producing Wilson’s patented sewing machines and marketing them, with remarkable success, to middle-class American men and women.

The mechanically-gifted Wilson acquired a number of significant sewing machine design patents. None were more impactful than the patent awarded to him on December 19, 1854 for a “four-motion cloth-feeding sewing machine.” This implemented a method of automatically feeding fabric into the sewing machine that allowed for curved stitching — a method so revolutionary that Wheeler & Wilson’s competitors scrambled to implement similar techniques in their machines. Wilson’s automatic-feeding method remains virtually unchanged to this day, even in modern-day electronic sewing machines.

An illustration of the Wheeler & Wilson manufacturing complex in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1863, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Wheeler & Wilson’s marketing campaigns — advertising the ease, speed, and “family friendliness” of their sewing machines — were so successful that the company soon outgrew their Watertown headquarters. In 1856, Wheeler & Wilson set up shop in Bridgeport in what would eventually become  a massive, sprawling, 15-acre campus of manufacturing buildings. By 1870, the company had won several international awards for the design and ease-of-use of its sewing machines, and was selling over 100,000 of them annually, making Wheeler and Wilson millionaires. Not long after the deaths of the company’s innovative founders in 1888 and 1893, however, the Wheeler & Wilson company was bought out by its biggest rival, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. By the earliest years of the 20th century, the Wheeler & Wilson brand name had vanished from American store shelves — but not before the two Connecticut men had changed the sewing machine industry forever.

Further Reading

Wheeler & Wilson: A Stitchy Situation in Watertown,” connecticuthistory.org