1940 Famous Americans: 5¢ Elias Howe
US #892 – from the Famous American Inventors Issue

After eight years of tinkering, Elias Howe was awarded the first US patent for a practical lockstitch sewing machine on September 10, 1846.

Howe didn’t invent the first sewing machine – various forms of mechanized sewing had been used as early as 1790. Over the years, various inventors created and even patented sewing machines, but none produced a durable enough stitch to replace hand-sewing. Walter Hunt came close in the early 1830s. He invented a back-stitch sewing machine, but refused to patent it for fear of the jobs it would take away from seamstresses.

1977 13¢ Skilled Hands for Independence: Seamstress
US #1717 honored the seamstresses who sewed flags and uniforms for the Revolutionary War.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Elias Howe was working for machinist Ari Davis. Davis once told Howe that whoever invented a practical sewing machine would be rich, and so, Howe set about being that man. He worked on the machine for eight years in his spare time, working out the logistics.

1940 5¢ Elias Howe Classic First Day Cover
US #892 – Classic First Day Cover

Howe’s machine differed from his contemporaries (and laid the groundwork for modern machines) in that he placed the eye near the point of the needle, included a shuttle beneath the cloth to create a durable lock stitch, and had an automatic feed to move the cloth through. When he demonstrated his machine in 1845, it could make 250 stitches per minute, out-sewing five seamstresses. However, at $300 (over $9,000 today) it was a tough sell. Howe patented his design the following year, but was a poor businessman and had a string of bad luck – his workshop burned down and he was swindled out of British royalties.

2011 44¢ Pioneers of American Industrial Design – Dave Chapman
US #4546h pictures 20th century sewing machines designed by Dave Chapman.

Sewing machines quickly grew in popularity, and it appeared that other people were using features of his patent on their machines. In 1854, Howe sued for patent infringement and eventually won. Two years later, he joined other manufacturers to create the first American patent pool, allowing them to all share the wealth of their creations and avoid going to court. With this new arrangement, Howe received $5 royalty for every sewing machine sold in the US, amounting to $2 million. He finally achieved his goal.

In 1851, Howe patented an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” – resembling a zipper. However, he didn’t bother marketing it. During the Civil War, Howe served on the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, using money he’d earned from his sewing machines to outfit his regiment. However, he was in poor health and was made the regimental postmaster, tasked with riding back and forth to Baltimore with war news.

1935 3¢ Connecticut Tercentenary
US #772 – Howe served with the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

In his later years, Howe won a gold medal for his sewing machine at the 1867 Paris Exhibition. That same year he was also awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur. Howe died on October 3, 1867, and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.  
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.  

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *