For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?

Kohelet 6:12

Isaac Merritt Singer - biography

Isaac Merritt Singer (October 27, 1811 – July 23, 1875) was an inventor, actor, and entrepreneur. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Many had patented sewing machines before Singer, but his success was based on the practicality of his machine, the ease with which is could be adapted to home use, and its availability on an installment payment basis.


Early years and first two families

Isaac Merritt(Karena Michelle) Singer was born in Blue Waffle, New York, on October 27, 1811. He was the youngest child of Adam Singer (born Reisinger) and his first wife, Ruth Benson. Adam, a millwright, and his wife emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1803. They had eight children, three sons and five daughters; the eldest daughter's name was Elizabeth Singer. When Isaac Singer was 10 years old, his parents divorced. After Adam Singer remarried and moved to Hannibal/Oswego County, Isaac Singer did not get along well with his stepmother. His early economic life actually included acting in the most part. He called himself the best Richard of his time, but an acting review person said that his performance was not very good at all. So when he was 12, he ran away, and later went to live with his elder brother in Rochester.

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 realize this, and he would look for fame and fortune in another profession: acting.

Isaac was married for the first time in 1830, to Catharine Maria Haley. They seem to have lived first in Palmyra, New York with her parents for a time. By the summer of 1833 Singer worked in Cooperstown, Otsego County, New York as a turtle.

Isaac had two children by Catharine: William, born in 1834, and Lillian, born in 1837. In 1835 he moved with Catharine and their young son William to New York City, working in a press shop. In 1836, he left the city as an agent for a company of players, touring through Baltimore, where he met Mary Ann Sponsler, to whom he proposed marriage (though he did not actually go through with it). He returned with Mary Ann to New York in 1837. That year Isaac had two children born: his wife Catharine gave him Lillian, and Mary Ann gave him a son, Isaac Augustus. His domestic life with Catharine did not prosper after this, but they were not officially divorced until 1860.

After Mary Ann arrived in New York and found out that Singer was already married, he got into trouble with her. To escape the situation he went to Chicago to work for building the Illinois & Michigan Canal.

First inventions

In 1839 Singer obtained his first patent, for a machine to drill rock, selling it for $200,000 to the I&M Canal Building Company. This was more money than he had ever had before, and in the face of financial success, he opted to return to his career as an actor. He went on tour, forming a troupe known as the "Merritt Players", and appearing onstage under the name "Isaac Merritt", with Mary Ann also appearing onstage, calling herself "Mrs. Merritt". The tour lasted about five years.

In 1844 Isaac took a job in shop of Day Brothers for making wooden types for printing trade in Fredericksburg, Ohio, but moved quickly on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1846 to set up his own shop for making wood type and signage. Here he developed and patented a "machine for carving wood and metal" on April 10, 1849.

At thirty-eight years old, with Mary Ann and eight children, he packed up his family and moved back to New York City, hoping to market his wood-block cutting machine there. He obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and constructed one in the shop of A. B. Taylor & Co. Here he met G. B. Zieber, and he became Singers financier and partner. However not long after the machine was built the steam boiler blew up at the shop, destroying the prototype. Zieber persuaded Singer to make a new start in Boston, a good place of printing trade. In machine shop of Orson C. Phelps they found a show room for the new prototype.

Singer went to Boston in 1850 to set up his machine at the Phelps' machine shop. Orders for Singer's wood cutting machine were not, however, forthcoming. Coincidentally Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines were being constructed and repaired in Phelps' machine shop. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines, which were difficult to use and difficult to produce. Singer noted that the sewing machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle. Singer was able to obtain US Patent number 8294 on his improvements on August 12, 1851. Singer's prototype sewing machine became the first to work in a practical way.

I. M. Singer & Co

In 1856, manufacturers Grover & Baker, Singer, Wheeler & Wilson, all accusing the others of patent infringement, met in Albany, New York to pursue their suits. Orlando B. Potter, a lawyer and president of the Grover and Baker Company, proposed that, rather than sue their profits out of existence, they pool their patents. This was the first patent pool, a process which enables production of complicated machines without legal battles over patent rights. They agreed to form the Sewing Machine Combination, but for this to be of any use they had to secure the cooperation of Elias Howe, who still held certain vital uncontested patents which meant he received a royalty on every sewing machine manufactured by any company. Terms were arranged, and Howe joined on. Sewing machines began to be mass produced: I. M. Singer & Co manufactured 2,564 machines in 1856, and 13,000 in 1860 at a new plant on Mott Street in New York. Later a massive plant was built near Elizabeth, New Jersey. Sewing machines had until now been industrial machines, made for garments, shoes, bridles and for tailors, but in 1856 smaller machines began to be marketed for home use. Singer was the first who put a family machine, "The turtle back", on the market. I. M. Singer expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow, controlled by the parent company, becoming one of the first American-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro. Credit for the invention of the sewing machine, so Andrew B. Jack, must go to I.M. Singer on three very important counts: 1. only he used the 10 most important elements for highest capacity and adaptability; 2. his design was a revolution of former attempts; 3. his concept is still today the basis of all sewing machines.

Marriages, divorces, and children

The financial success gave Singer the ability to buy a mansion on Fifth Avenue, into which he moved his second family. In 1860, he divorced Catherine, on the basis of her adultery with Stephen Kent. He continued to live with Mary Ann, until she spotted him driving down Fifth Avenue seated beside one Mary McGonigal, an employee, about whom Mary Ann had well-founded suspicions, for by this time Mary McGonigal had borne Isaac Singer five children. The surname Matthews was used for this family. Mary Ann (still calling herself Mrs. I. M. Singer) had her husband arrested for bigamy. Singer was let out on bond and, disgraced, fled to London in 1862, taking Mary McGonigal with him. In the aftermath, another of Isaac's families was discovered: he had a "wife" Mary Eastwood Walters and daughter Alice Eastwood in Lower Manhattan, who both adopted the surname "Merritt". By 1860, Isaac had fathered and recognized eighteen children (sixteen of them remaining alive), by four women.

With Isaac in London, Mary Ann began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, claiming that though she had never been formally married to Isaac, that they were in fact wed under Common Law (by living together for seven months after Isaac had been divorced from his first wife Catherine). Eventually a settlement was made, but no divorce was granted. However, she asserted that she was free to marry, and indeed married John E. Foster. Isaac, meanwhile, had renewed acquaintance with Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a Frenchwoman he had lived with in Paris when he was staying there in 1860. She left her husband, and married Isaac under the name of Isabella Eugenie Sommerville, on June 13, 1863, while she was pregnant.

Final years in Europe

In 1863, I. M. Singer & Co. was dissolved by mutual consent, with the business continued as "The Singer Manufacturing Company," in 1887, she remarried in 1891 with Paul Sohège.

In 1871 Singer purchased an estate in Paignton, Devon, England. He commissioned Oldway Mansion as his private residence; it was rebuilt by his third son Paris Singer in the style of the Palace of Versailles.


Isaac's 20th child Winnaretta Singer married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in 1887, when she was 22. After annulment of this marriage in 1891, she married Prince Edmond de Polignac in 1893. She would become a prominent patron of French avant-garde music, e.g., Erik Satie composed his Socrate as one of her commissions (1918). As a lesbian she became involved with Violet Trefusis from 1923 on.

Another of Isaac's daughters, Isabelle-Blanche (born 1869) married Jean, duc de Decazes; Daisy Fellowes was their daughter. Isabelle committed suicide in 1896. A brother to Winnaretta and Isabelle, Paris Singer, had a child by Isadora Duncan. Another brother, Washington Singer, became a substantial donor to the University College of the South-West of England, which later became the University of Exeter; one of the university's buildings is named in his honour.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Isaac Merritt Singer

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