Isaac Merritt Singer

Who would have thought that the first international business to operate outside of the US was that of Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine Company – and to cap it all the man himself, along with his family, would settle in little old Paignton, described as a ‘watering place’ in his time.

But without the genius of the man who had started from scratch, earning very little as an apprentice machine shop lad in his early teens, the huge popularity of the sewing machine may never have taken off in a way which made it all the rage, easy to operate and affordable.

He patiently worked on a method to render the sewing machine more practical.

I wonder why a Hollywood blockbuster has never been made of him. Perhaps the subject matter was considered not to be popular among the film going fraternity – but the flamboyant and very amorous life of the man would make for large audiences I feel certain, judging by present day standards. He is described to be one of the most forceful, flamboyant and unscrupulous tycoons in American history.

I remember as a boy thinking how clever a man it was who found a way to machine sew. What a revolution that must have been – after years of hand stitching – all the material needed for example, to make up those beautiful full and flowing dresses and designs of the Tudors through to the early nineteenth century. How ever did they manage!

But Isaac Merritt was the first to admit he never invented the sewing machine, indeed that was accredited to a British inventor, Thomas Saint who patented it in 1790, before Singer was born.

Isaac Merritt Singer, of Jewish ancestry, was born in the hamlet of Johnsonville, in the town of Pittstown, Rensselaer County, NY, on 27 October 1811.

In 1830, he married for the first time. His bride was Catharine Maria Haley. He died in Paignton on 23 July 1875, age 63, after fathering at least 19 children by his five known “wives”: Catherine bore him a son, William – and a daughter, Lillian.

Mary Ann Sponseler bore him 10 including a son, Isaac. He had five more by Mary McGonigal, a daughter called Alice by Mary Eastwood and at least one, Paris Eugene Singer – by his French lover, Isobelle Boyce.

He was a devout womaniser and probably sired at least several more children as well.

He was a tall man for the time, 6ft 4 inches which seemed to match his charisma and genius.

Years after his passing living children, wives and countless lovers were engaged in expensive litigation. He certainly left his mark but none of his descendants lived up to his genius.

In the 1940’s – when it paid to repair clothes and linens and make them too as did my mother, I remember making simple handkerchiefs from partly worn sheets, just by sowing seams along each side of a square. Lot’s of women took to making clothes and repairs for money to supplement the low wage of the bread winner in those austere days, in Isaac Singer’s time too – before electricity and by investing in one of the latest Singer treadle sewing machines , it was the practical thing to do.

The original machine, built without the treadle was fine for the occasional repair, but to be more efficient and productive a treadle was a must, giving the operator the freedom to be able to work with both hands free. Although expensive for the low earners his company made it possible it was possible to purchase a new machine with their newly introduced easy payments hire purchase scheme and a down payment of five dollars (about 25 shillings ) – which proved to be a Godsend at a time when benefit hand out’s had not got off the ground.

I wonder what Isaac would have thought about current plans to convert his former mansion, bought by Paignton Urban District Council in 1946 and used as their offices – into a hotel and transform some of the grounds into a building estate.

But of course the world is so different now. Isaac certainly lived life to the full starting from humble beginnings and to say he was a womaniser is probably an understatement. He simply adored women and of course had the influence and the money to pamper them to their heart’s content.

There are all sorts of anomalies regarding his private life, like his chauffer saying he used to get him to drive around looking for prostitutes in New York. In order to be recognised the girls advertising for business carried school bags which apparently got him into a lot of trouble with the local police.

And when he lived in Paignton, he employed a man who looked very much like him, what was all that about? The mind boggles. Imagine how the Sunday papers would respond now – bad enough then but not many were as literate in those days.

Isaac left an estate of about 13 million dollars in two wills. When he had Oldway Mansion built in the French style it was because of his latest French wife’s persuasion. Isabella was a beautiful woman to behold and although France had become his adopted country he chose to flee when the Prussian war threatened their lives, and he moved with his new young family to safer London.

One of his early vocations was acting but he had an enquiring mind – keen on trying out new inventions, learning the hard way like many a famous author with a drawer full of rejections. His first real success came when he obtained a patent for a machine to drill rock, selling it for 2000 dollars – more money than he had ever had before. He then opted to return to acting for a five year tour of the US forming a group known as the ‘Merritt Players’ calling himself Isaac Merritt.

In 1884 he took a job in a print shop in Fredericksburg Ohio but soon moved to Pittsburgh two years later, he wanted to make something of himself, had several ideas and notions and aimed to put them into practice. He set up a workshop for producing wood type and signage where he developed and patented a machine for carving wood and metal.

When he was thirty eight years old he moved on to New York with his two wives and eight children and then to Boston. His fortune was soon about to materialise. He had various problems in funding new patents but an eminent lawyer, Edward Clark saw fit to secure his patents and advance a substantial cash advance He also befriended Orson Phelps, a fellow machine enthusiast. Orson was constructing Leron and Bludgett sewing machines. Feeling a little down when, after inventing a new wood cutting machine in New York, the steam boiler blew up destroyed the prototype, his new friend inadvertently came to his rescue when he asked Isaac to look at the sewing machines.

“They are difficult to use and produce,” Phelps complained, “have you any ideas?”

After close scrutiny and head scratching and miss stitching various thickness’ of material. Isaac saw the problem. The present system was clumsy with the shuttle operating in a circle. He figured a way for the shuttle to operate in a straight line. Isaac was able to obtain patent number 8294 on August 12th 1851 and I.M.Singer & Co. was in business and the rest is history. His first machine was ultimately known as the angle thread chain-stitch machine. Like Hoover was to the vacuum cleaner Singer was to the sewing machine.

His business was accumulating in wealth and success but his personal life and his reputation as a bigamist, least his other relationships – did not go down well in the US. The papers were full of the scandal associated with him and he fled to France in 1860 – and then in 1871, after a spell in London, moved to South Devon with his wife Isabella and their young family.

Isaac purchased the Farnham estate in Paignton in1872 which consisted of two villas, Little Oldway and Fernham, The Rising Sun , some cottages and a large area of parkland – all demolished to make way for Oldway Mansion. He appointed a local architect, George Bridgman to build a home, a building with French design By 1814 Bridgman, following implicitly Isaacs instructions, created the outstanding mansion containing kitchens, offices, servants hall, wine cellars, many fine rooms and a theatre resembling a French villa.

Sadly Isaac died before the mansion and the adjacent ‘wigwam’, the superb circular dance hall was completed.

But Paris Singer, his son by Isabella, was responsible for redesigning Oldway Mansion in the French/Italian Versailles-like splendour. Paris had an affair with Isadora Duncan, the US ‘modern’ dancer and had a son by her who was killed as a child in a car crash. He foolishly spent most of his money on gambling.

Little is known of the silent film studio there situated just beyond the archway near the main entrance.

At Winston Churchill’s prompting, Paris offered his residence at Oldway for use as a fully equipped 250-bed hospital for wounded servicemen. Another son, Washington Singer, was the main donor of the University College of the South West of England which later became the Universes of Exeter and one of the buildings is named in his honour.

The American influence had certainly well and truly made its mark in South Devon and I guess we should be privileged that Isaac Singer chose to be buried in Torquay cemetery. He wanted Paignton but the soil was not deep enough for a white marble mausoleum. His funeral entourage consisted of several black horse drawn coaches and his hearse was pulled by 12 of his black stallions. The funeral possession was led by his three eldest sons, Paris, Washington and Mortimer.

I wonder how many women were there with whom he had been with. There are rumours that he ‘entertained’ several Paignton girls. But never confirmed. It was highly probable because of Isaac’s reputation. When he lived in New York he was often seen riding through Central Park in his yellow coach with his mistresses.

It is said he had been kind and had given many local folk employment ,and many were sad to witness his final journey to the cemetery.

His son Paris had a home built for him adjacent to Paignton Green now transformed into the Palace Hotel and for Mortimer, another son, the building now known as the Inn on the Green.

And the company is still producing the latest in sewing machines under the Singer label.

In 2007 Isaac Singer’s great granddaughter, Rhodanthe Selous attended a historic reunion at the Palace Hotel, Paignton attracting descendents from all over the world.

And in Paignton itself we have the Old Singer Tea Shop and the Witherspoon Isaac Merrit pub/restaurant.