Notes on collections at the RIHS
This small, precisely engineered, beautiful example of Victorian engineering is a Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine. As an object its elegant, arched lines, gilt embellishment and black lacquer finish seem almost modern, each element minimally designed for function with a grace of form. Compared to the plastic sewing machines of today, it is rather sexy. As a machine, it was to effect sweeping changes to the daily lives of many worldwide.
This particular machine was invented by James Edward Allen Gibbs (1829-1902), a farmer in Virginia, in the mid 1850’s and finally patented by him in 1857. Gibbs partnered with James Wilcox and his son Charles, forming Wilcox & Gibbs, a highly successful sewing machine company based in Virginia and England.
In 1858 Wilcox & Gibbs engaged Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing to manufacture their sewing machines. Brown & Sharpe manufactured them in Providence, Rhode Island until 1948. Our sewing machine, manufactured ca. 1858 was donated to us by Brown & Sharpe’s successor Hexagon Metrology in 2006. Later models had exciting attachments, like the ‘ruffler’ which allowed the sewing of ruffles using the sewing machine. Many ruffles manufactured today are sewn with the chain stitch.
James Edward Allen Gibbs’ machine was unique in that it was a single thread sewing machine– it didn’t have a bobbin, that used a mechanism to pull down the upper thread, twist it into a loop, and ready it for the next stitch to pass through it. This created an entirely new machine stitch called a chain stitch, which was less likely to unravel than other stitch forms, that embroiders had been doing by hand since before the Middle Ages.
The invention of the sewing machine had far reaching effects on the lives of women, agriculture and the economy. Before the sewing machine, women (and professional tailors) would spend many hours making and mending clothing for their families or customers. To sew a plain man’s shirt by hand took over fourteen hours. Having sewn one by hand a few years ago, I can attest that only the experienced and uninterrupted could finish a plain shirt in close to fourteen hours.
With a sewing machine powered by a foot pedal one could machine sew a plain man’s shirt in just over an hour. This new efficiency in a task that consumed so much time previously made it possible for women to join the expanding workforce. It also became profitable to manufacture clothing of all types in factories, creating more jobs and a new economy for ready-made clothing. This boom in manufacturing created an increased demand for cotton forcing farmers to grow more.
Many sewing professionals still use Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machines today and many more machines are in private collections.
~Dana Signe K. Munroe, Registrar