Isaac Merritt Singer
Town of Pittstown

One of the most colourful industrialists of the 19th century was born in Pittstown, Rensselaer County, NY. He was Isaac Merritt
Singer (1811-1875), inventor of the Singer sewing machine. This biography was written and submitted by Lin Van Buren.

Isaac Merritt Singer is most famous now for his invention of the Singer sewing machine - yet many had patented sewing machines before him. The reason his sewing machine achieved more fame than the others is that it was more practical, it could be adapted to home use and it could be bought on hire-purchase. For a down payment of just $5.00, a purchaser could take the machine home and start sewing on it the same day. The Singer sewing machine became the first home appliance, and the Singer company became one of the first American multinationals. Even so, during his lifetime, the flamboyant Singer was as well known for his unconventional lifestyle as for his sewing machines.

Isaac Merritt Singer was born in the hamlet of Johnsonville, in the town of Pittstown, Rensselaer County, NY, on 27 October 1811. He was the youngest son of Adam Singer and his first wife. Adam Singer was a German immigrant whose birth name was Adam REISINGER. It is not known how many children Adam Singer and his two wives had, but there were at least two sons and a daughter; the daughter's name was Elizabeth Singer (see below). When Isaac Singer was 10 years old, his parents divorced. After Adam Singer remarried, Isaac Singer did not get along well with his stepmother, Ruth Benson, so when he was 12, he went to live with his elder brother in Oswego, NY.

Isaac Singer's elder brother had a machine shop, and Isaac went to work there. It was there that Isaac grew to his full height of 6 feet 4 inches and where he first learned the machinist trade that would become the basis of his fame and fortune. However, at this stage, Isaac did not realise this, and he would look for fame and fortune in another profession: acting.

In 1830, Isaac Singer married for the first time. His bride was Catharine Maria Haley. The couple moved to New York City, possibly in 1831; they are said to have lived with her parents. However, by the summer of 1833, Isaac Singer was in Otsego County, NY, where he was working at a machine shop owned by George Pomeroy. This machine shop was located one mile south of the village of Fly Creek, which is a few miles west of Cooperstown, Otsego County, NY. Isaac Singer was also receiving mail at the post office in Cooperstown. It is here that Isaac Singer perhaps first made the acquaintance of Edward Clark, his legal counsel and eventual business partner.*

Isaac Singer and Catharine Maria Haley had two children: William Singer, born in 1834, and Lillian Singer, born in 1837.

By 1836, Isaac Singer had been bitten by the acting bug, and he joined a troupe of travelling players. When the troupe performed in Baltimore, Singer, now 25, met 18-year-old Mary Ann Sponsler. The following year, 1837, Singer fathered two children: the daughter Lillian (mentioned above) by his wife Catharine and a son Isaac by Mary Ann Sponsler. The marriage of Isaac and Catharine was effectively over after that, although the couple did not divorce until 1860.

In 1839, Singer received his first patent. It was for a rock-drilling machine, and it earned him $2,000. Singer used this money to found his own acting troupe, the "Merritt Players", with Mary Ann Sponsler. Singer, not free to remarry legally, entered into a common-law marriage with Sponsler, who went on to bear him 10 children. With the Merritt Players, Singer performed under the name Isaac Merritt, and Sponsler performed under the name "Mrs Merritt". The Merritt Players toured the country until the money finally ran out. They happened to be in Fredericksburg, Ohio, when the troupe disbanded, and Singer had to take a job in a local print shop, where he conceived the idea of a machine to cut wood blocks for printing images. After a short stint there, he also worked in Pittsburgh and then in New York City. In New York City, the prototype of Singer's cutting machine was at the machine shop of A. B. Taylor & Co., but when the boiler blew up at A. B. Taylor's, Singer's prototype was destroyed. However, Orson C. Phelps, who had a machine shop in Boston, had heard about this cutting machine and invited Singer to recreate it in his shop, where, coincidentally, Phelps also had some Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines.

Sewing machines were far from new. The British inventor Thomas Saint had received the world's first patent for a sewing machine in 1790, before Singer was even born. French tailor Barthelemy Thimmonier invented a more practical sewing machine in 1829. It is generally recognised that US inventor Walter HUNT invented the first American sewing machine in about 1833, but because he failed to patent it at the time, he had trouble staking his claim. US inventor Elias Howe (1819-1867) patented his sewing machine on 10 September 1846. Isaac Singer's cutting machine was not a success, but while he was at Phelps's shop in Boston, Singer conceived a way to improve the Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines and make them much more practical. Isaac Singer received his sewing-machine patent, number 8294, on 12 August 1851. With financing from George B. Zieber, Singer went into partnership with Zieber and Phelps to found the "Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company", named after Stockholm-born soprano Jennie Lind (1820-1887), known as the "Swedish Nightingale", who had a highly successful tour of the US in 1850-1852. The company was soon renamed I. M. Singer & Co. The venture was a huge financial success, and it made Isaac Singer a wealthy man.

Singer lived in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City with his "wife" Mary Ann Sponsler and their children in the 1850s and the early 1860s. He had finally been divorced from his first wife Catharine in 1860, having accused HER of adultery with one Stephen Kent. But all was not as it seemed, for Isaac Singer was again leading a double - in fact, triple - life. Singer had a "third" family with Mary Eastwood Walters, who bore him a daughter, Alice Eastwood. And Singer also had a "fourth" family with Mary McGonigalL, an employee at his company's factory. She had already borne Singer five children and had set up a household with him as the Matthews family, when one day Mary Ann Sponsler saw her husband driving in a carriage with Mary openly. This embarrassment was too much for her, and Sponsler had Singer arrested for bigamy. He was released on bail, but his reputation was ruined, and in 1862, Singer and Mary McGonigal sailed for Europe, where Singer would remain for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Sponsler lost no time in marrying John E. Foster in Boston in 1862.

Singer and Mary McGonigal lived first in London, but soon Singer went to Paris, where he met Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Summerville. He married her on 13 June 1865, and this marriage endured for the rest of his life.

The couple settled in Paignton, Devon, England, near Torquay, in the West Country, in an area known as the "English Riviera". They bought an estate there and began to build a 115-room house known as Oldway Mansion, seen in the photograph, left. Several of Singer's children by earlier liaisons came to live with him there. They moved into this mansion as soon as it was habitable, and Singer's daughter Alice was married there in 1875.

Singer established a sewing-machine factory in Scotland in 1867. It was located at Clydebank, near Glasgow. He also set up factories in France, near Paris, and in Brazil, at Rio de Janeiro, making the Singer company one of the first American multinationals.

Singer died in Paignton on 23 July 1875, age 63 years. He was buried in Torquay. After his death, his many children fought over his estate. By his five "wives", Singer fathered 24 children, of whom two had died young. In his will, Singer acknowledged 22 children.

Isaac Singer's son Paris Singer redesigned Oldway Mansion in Versailles-like splendour. Paris Singer fathered a son by US modern dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), but this son was killed in a car crash in 1913 while still a child.

Elizabeth Singer Colby (1801-1872)

Isaac Singer had an elder sister named Elizabeth Singer, who was born 16 July 1801 in Germany and died on 18 August 1872 in Oswego, NY. When she was a toddler, she emigrated to the USA in 1803 with her parents. On 4 December 1819 in Granby, Oswego County, NY, she married Daniel D. Colby. They had 13 children. She is buried in Union Rural Cemetery in Oswego.

* Thanks to Tom Heitz, Otsego Town Historian, for sharing this additional information about Isaac Singer's whereabouts in the summer of 1833.

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