The name Singer became a household word in the 1800s, thanks to his part in developing a machine that was in general use in private homes by around 1867. Can you imagine living in a world where every stitch in every item of clothing had to be done by hand? If a woman was lucky, she had the help of servants or a dressmaker. But many women had to take all those stiches themselves. Seams and collars and buttons and buttonholes and hems and trim and … oh, my. What an amazing transformation it must have been to a woman’s workday to own a machine designed specifically for that all-consuming task.
One of my favorite old photographs features a treadle sewing machine standing out front of a general store in a small town in western Nebraska. “Town” is a generous description of the four buildings in view on little more than a wagon trail surrounded by treeless plains. Imagining how it felt for some homesteader’s wife to see that machine loaded into the wagon to be hauled home makes me smile.
In 1867, an Iowa farm wife wrote,“Didn’t this sewing machine help me long fast. I never mean to sew by hand any more if I can help it.” She went on to rave about the fact that it “only” took her forty-nine hours to make her husband a new suit, thanks to her sewing machine. “Only” forty-nine hours.
A woman who homesteaded near Lincoln, Nebraska remembered, “[in 1866] I had the first sewing machine on the creek and had to do lots for neighbors, who thought it a great treat to have a machine made dress. At one time in June I had 11 dresses to be made before the 4th of July.” Learning about the process of clothing construction inspired me to create Nora in Nora’s Ribbon of Memories, a character who works for a dressmaker in early Lincoln and who goes on to become a milliner.
Luna Kellie, who was living in a sod house in Adams County, Nebraska remembered, “J.T. had bought me a new Singer Machine and I made good use of it making all the clothes we all wore. I had done this before by hand only occasionally taking some long seams down to sew on Mrs. Strohls machine.” This anecdote inspired me to have Mikal, the hero in Karyn’s Memory Box, buy his wife the first sewing machine in the area. Mikal knew that the machine would draw the neighboring women, and his wife would be encouraged to learn to speak English.
And then there was the man who, when his wife wished for a sewing machine, said that he thought twenty dollars “a lot of money for a machine that does little more than lighten a woman’s work load.” Where do you suppose she buried him? LOL. That inspired a fun scene in Heart of the Sandhills, where the husband who says those words is “encouraged” to re-think his opinion. Let’s just say he learns that he doesn’t like sleeping under the kitchen table in their tiny, two-room cabin.
On a recent research trip to Kansas, I saw a very old machine that was brought west from Illinois. It’s owner acquired it in trade–a white horse for a sewing machine. Good trade? Well, my storyteller’s mind wondered if it was hard for the woman to part with the white horse. There’s a story in that trade somewhere, don’t you think?
What machine would you miss the most, if you had to do without it?
She writes historical fiction … and rides a motorcycle. Stephanie Grace Whitson has made a career out of playing with imaginary friends, and it all started in an abandoned pioneer cemetery. This one’s graves are scattered on a tiny corner of land near where the Whitson family lived in the 1990’s–mostly providing comic relief for the real country folk in the area. That cemetery provided not only a hands-on history lesson for Stephanie’s home schooled children but also a topic of personal study as she began to read about and be encouraged by the pioneer women who settled the American West.
Since writing had always been a favorite hobby, it was only natural for Stephanie to begin jotting down scenes in the life of a nameless woman crossing Nebraska on the Oregon Trail. Eventually that story took on a life of its own and Stephanie sent off a query letter–expecting instant rejection.
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