M18999 | Sewing machine

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Sewing machine
Wheeler & Wilson
1871, 19th century
61 x 41 x 85 cm
Gift of Mrs. L.Dean
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Sewing machine (1)
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Keys to History

The serial number of this machine, which permits us to date it 1871, tells us it was the 563,552th of its kind since the beginning of production.

Developed in the middle of the 19th century, the sewing machine quickly became popular and so was mass-produced. Its use was largely connected to the clothing industry, which employed a fifth of the Montreal manufacturing labour force in 1871. Women and children occupied close to 80% of the jobs in this sector.

The manufacture of clothing was then based on a system of work at home, the so-called "sweating system." Characterized by abundant, cheap and mainly rural female labour, the sewing was paid as piecework. In the 1890s, a seamstress earned about $2.50 a week for 60 hours of work. This contribution was often essential to the survival of working-class families, but the investment in a sewing machine was risky when wages were not steady.

  • What

    The mechanism of this compact machine was very simple: four moving parts were driven by a pedal mechanism and a system of belts.

  • Where

    Produced in the United States, the Wheeler & Wilson brand was until the 1860s the biggest seller on the market.

  • When

    This type of machine cost more than US$100 in the 1850s. By the 1870s, models at a third of that price were available.

  • Who

    This advertisement from Wheeler & Wilson clearly targeted its clientele: "Many Montreal families owe them their daily bread. We sell them to the working class on very easy conditions."