Phonographs and Sewing Machines

Phonograph Connections with the Sewing Machine


By Doug Boilesen 2020

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 19, 1878. (Wikimedia Commons courtesy of U.S. National Park Service)

Charles Batchelor had a connection with the sewing machine industry before he went to work for Edison.

FACTOLA: 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)


FACTOLA: Mr. John Kruesi, the associate of Edison and his machinist who built the first tin-foil Phonograph in December 1877, came to the United States in "1870 and went to work for the Singer Sewing Machine Company at Elizabethport.


The new phonograph "is of about the size of a sewing machine."

When Edison brought his Improved Phonograph into the office of Scientific American in February 1888 (a little more than ten years after the first public demonstration he gave also at the office of Scientific American, a large illustration of the new machine and everyone listening were featured in the article. And how did they start their description of the perfected phonograph? "The new of about the size of an ordinary sewing machine."

Scientific American Supplement No. 632, February 11, 1888, 10096. (Courtesy HathiTrust and University of Michigan)


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.

1895 Columbia Graphophone Model N


1895 Jones Sewing Machine with cover


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 Singer Sewing Machine with cover


1897 Columbia Graphophone Model A with lid on the machine (Courtesy of TechnoGallerie)

Edison Home Phonograph Model A Circa 1901 (Courtesy of TechnoGallerie)



Sewing machines were often sold by dealers who also sold phonographs such as this Pennsylvania dealer who sold pianos, organs, phonographs, records, and sewing machines. This advertising postcard c.1912 features the "Free" Sewing Machine.



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.


"Uncle Zed Buys A Graphophone" by Charles Ross Taggart, Recorded December 16, 1918. Label and Recording Courtesy of David Giovanonni and - LISTEN



Hail Columbia Graphophone ad, 1906

"Miss Columbia Celebrates the Fourth" - The Ladies' Home Journal, July, 1919 - artwork by Rolf Armstrong (PM-0864)



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


"You can't pull a Camel through the Eye of a Needle" but that would "be easier than having the WHOLE World's assemblage of choicest entertainers emanate from the point of a needle."

The Talking Machine World, July 15, 1915



A new era in music - Edison's Diamond Stylus Reproducer vs. the steel needle.

The Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph - "The secret is in the diamond."

The Talking Machine World, July 15, 1915


Gloria Steel Needles, The Talking Machine World, May 15, 1918


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


Kewpie with knitting needles listening to Gramophone playing "Keep the Home-Fires Burning (Till the Boys Come Home)," circa 1915.


Scotch Comic Series postcard circa 1930's (PM-0740)


The connection between the sewing machine and the talking machine began with the Punch cartoon in 1878 and continues into the 21th century (see below in bold for SIC "Household Furniture" classifications by the United States Department of Labor OSHA which 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