Phonograph Connections with the Sewing Machine
An April 6, 1878 Punch cartoon showed the maid of the house frightened by the new scientific device called a Phonograph. The cartoon illustrated the essentials of the phonograph - it was a machine that talked, its parts were exposed, it had a crank for power, it could be mistaken for a sewing machine and it was even dependent on a needle to function.
Punch April 6, 1878
The similiarity between the sewing machine and the phonograph was often noted in early descriptions of the Phonograph. In an article about the early phonograph and its future Philip G. Hubert described the phonograph in the February 1889 issue of The Atlantic as follows:
"The new phonograph takes up, with its table, about the space occupied by a sewing-machine, and might at first be taken for one " (1)
Domestic Sewing Machine Company Trade card circa 1885
Edison seated with his 1878 "Brady" tinfoil phonograph and Charles Batchelor, Edison's chief assistant at Menlo Park, standing next to Edison. This 1878 tin-foil phonograph is called the "Brady phonograph" by collectors because it was the machine pictured in the photograph taken at the Mathew Brady Studio on April 18, 1878.
Factola about Charles Batchelor's connection with the sewing machine industry:
Mr. Charles Batchelor was a very skillful mechanic who was sent "from England to superintend the setting up and adjusting of the automatic thread machinery for the Clark Thread Works."(1A)
The Perfected Phonograph, T. A. Edison, The North American Review, 1888
To use the phonograph, a little instruction and practice are needed, but much less than the type-writer requires and hardly more than the training needed for the operation of a sewing-machine.
Graphophone dictating machine and typewriter, 1898 Courtesy of the Early Office Museum
Early Graphophones were manufactured at the Howe Sewing Machine Factory. Howe closed their Bridgeport factory in 1887 and it became the American Graphophone manufacturing plant. Business 'dictation' talking machines compatible with Edison cylinders were modified treadle machines. In the Howe factory "many of the same cabinet makers and finishers continued on in the factory making graphophones with similiar materials and finishes."
The look and the similiarities of the early phonograph with the sewing machine expresed the common identity of those two new household items -- they were both machines, called machines and thought of as machines. There was no precedent for what a talking machine looked like and since the sewing machine entered the home first it gave the phonograph designs and platforms that could be used.
This 1888 business dictation machine used wax cylinders to record and play back sound.
In these early commercial machines, the dictation apparatus sat atop a sewing machine table and employed a treadle to rotate the mandrel holding the cylinder recording. Text and photographs courtesy of The National Museum of American History.
The wooden cases with their wooden covers and carrying handle gave early Edison and Columbia home machines a design and portability that has obvious connections with sewing machines. The talking machine and the sewing machine would have profound impact on the home where they often shared the same room of the house, e.g., the parlor.
1895 Columbia Graphophone Model N
1895 Jones Sewing Machine with cover
1895 Singer Sewing Machine with cover
1897 Columbia Graphophone Model A with lid on the machine
Edison Home Phonograph Model A Circa 1901
Note that the Phonograph and the Sewing Machine are two of the prized inventions of "Uncle Sam--Now Let Some of the Other Fellows Invent Something" by Charles Nelan, New York Herald, January 9, 1898 (2)
Singer Talking Machine Co., The Talking Machine World, April 15, 1921
Humor found in 1915 periodicals: What are needles for?
Grandmother: “How useless girls are today. I don’t believe you know what needles are for.”
Girl: “How absurd you are, grandma. Of course I know what needles are for. They’re to make the graphophone play.”
The Onlooker, Foley, Alabama, 1915
Uncle Zed Buys a Graphophone - "Hail Columbia Happy Land talkin' an' singin' machine"
In May 1920 Columbia issued a record by Charles Ross Taggart titled "Uncle Zed Buys a Graphophone." In this 'descriptive monologue" Uncle Zed has purchased a talking machine but when he takes it home and expects to hear music nothing happens. Uncle Zed is completely ignorant that his talking machine needs records and phonograph needles to produce sounds. He telephones the clerk who sold him the machine to complain and the following exchange takes place:
"Say young feller, that Hail Columbia Happy Land talkin' an' singin' machine won't make no noise. How in the Sam Hill do you make it go? Well, he sassed me right to my face and said if I hadn't been in such a durn hurry to go he would have told me. He said I needed some see-lections an' some needles to make it work. "Young man," I says, "you made a little mistake. I bought a singing machine, not a sewin' machine." Well, he said it wouldn't sing nor play nor talk nor nothing without needles, so I told him to send me a good lively tune and a needle and spool of thread to sew it on with, and I'd try it again."
Taggart's portrayal of Uncle Zed as an unsophisticated customer who ends up offering to sew a tune with a needle and thread to hear a "good lively tune" shows that the popular culture of the 1920's understood the places held in the home by the sewing machine and needles and the talking machine. Some might even have believed that such confusion was possible for a someone from the country.
Hail Columbia Graphophone ad, 1906
Columbia Grafonola advertisement 1919
Phonograph needles were sold in colorful tins of 200 like these and in paper packages.
Assortment of Columbia needle tins courtesy of Arnold Schwartzman (3)
BOYE sewing machine needles and wooden boxes circa 1910
BOYE Phonograph needles circa 1927
Sewing machine needles circa 1960
The Singer Sewing Machine Company made a battery operated Phonograph in 1968, The Singer Portable Record Player Model HE-2205 which played 45 & 33-1/3 RPM records using 4 D batteries.
Singer Portable Record Player Model HE-2205, circa 1968
Singer Portable Record Player Model HE-2210, circa 1970
Scotch Comic Series postcard circa 1930's
The connection between the sewing machine and the talking machine began with the Punch cartoon in 1878 and continues into the 21th century.
The United States Department of Labor OSHA defines the following SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) Division Structure for Division D: Manufacturing | Major Group 25: Furniture And Fixtures Industry Group 251: Household Furniture (all of which is saying, albeit phonographia obscura, that this is another Phonograph and Sewing Machine connection), as follows:
Description for 2517: Wood Television, Radio, Phonograph, and Sewing Machine Cabinets
Division D: Manufacturing | Major Group 25: Furniture And Fixtures Industry
Group 251: Household Furniture
2517 Wood Television, Radio, Phonograph, and Sewing Machine Cabinets
Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing wood cabinets for radios, television sets, phonographs, and sewing machines.
Audio cabinets, wood
Cabinets, wood: radio, television, phonograph, and sewing machines
Phonograph cabinets and cases, wood
Radio cabinets and cases, wood
Sewing machine cabinets and cases, wood
Stereo cabinets, wood
Television cabinets, wood