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sewing machine

A machine for reducing the labor of sewing by hand. — Webster, 1882

A chance for a $35 Sewing machine. Buying $2 worth of goods for cash, entitles the Purchaser a chance for a $35 Sewing Machine. You want to get there. Only twenty-three numbers left, at Sasse’s Drug Store. – De Smet Leader, May 28, 1887

The first mention of a sewing machine in the Little House books is in Little Town on the Prairie, when Pa mentions there is one in Clancy’s store. At the time, there were hundreds of different patents on sewing machines, and hundreds of thousands of machines in use in boot/shoe factories, clothing shops, and private homes. All these sewing machines were generally one of a half dozen types, including shuttle machines, rotary hook machines, lock loop stitch machines, hand stitch machines. Pa explains the workings of a shuttle machine to Ma, something they have clearly discussed in the past. In a shuttle machine, the needle, with its thread, pierced the cloth, which offered enough resistance to the thread to pull a bit of thread through the needle so that the shuttle’s point entered between the needle and its thread, and passed through. The continuation of the needle’s ascent drew the shuttle thread close to the under side of the cloth, thus interlocking two threads into the cloth. In a rotary hook machine, the hook caught the thread thrown from the side of the needle and carried it around the bobbin, which fit loosely in the face of the recvolving hook, thus interlocking the under with the upper thread, as in the shuttle machine. — “The Sewing Machine” in the Worcester (Massachusetts) Spy, October 28, 1858, 1. Confused? See an animation HERE. In these days before electricity, the needle was driven via a foot treadle and drive belt.

In These Happy Golden Years, Pa sells a cow and surprises Ma with a sewing machine of her own! What kind of sewing machine did Ma have? Where did it come from? What happened to it? A brand name isn’t mentioned in the published book, but in the existing manuscript, it’s said to be a Singer sewing machine. The fate of Ma’s sewing machine is unknown, but according to Wilder scholar William Anderson, the children of Henry Hinz told him that when they were young and played in the barn behind the Ingallses’ house on Third Street, there was a broken treadle machine there. Perhaps it had been Ma’s?

If Caroline Ingalls owned a Singer sewing machine in 1885, there is no way of knowing which model it was. New shuttle models had been introduced in 1879 and 1885, with the later models popular for decades. There’s no way of knowing if Ma’s sewing machine was a Singer (that may have been proposed in the fiction merely because it was a familiar brand name) or was a new or used machine. An 1885 Singer advertisement is shown above. In De Smet, new sewing machines were sold at the general merchandise store by George Scofield, whose stock and store was purchased by Lewis Sasse. According to advertisements in the De Smet newspapers, the average new sewing machine cost about twenty-three dollars.

A “Household” sewing machine belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. It has a cabinet, iron treadle assembly, and box cover and is shown with some of Laura’s sewing notions. In years past, there has been a sign on this machine that it is the one Pa bought for Ma in These Happy Golden Years; the source of this information is unclear. According to Kingsbury County personal property tax records, both Laura and Ma had sewing machines in the 1890s. The Household sewing machine was manufactured by the Providence Tool Company of Providence, Rhode Island, beginning in 1873. In 1885, the company moved to Dayton, Ohio, and became the Household Sewing Machine Company; the date of manufacture of Laura’s machine is unknown at this time. The company went out of business in 1909.

Also in Mansfield, a 1912 Singer sewing machine said to have belonged to Laura is on display in a bedroom of the Wilder’s Rock House. You can see Laura’s sewing machine cabinet in THIS photo from in the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader in October 2016.


sew (BW 2, 5-6, 9-10, 12; FB 5, 11, 23, 26; LHP 9, 12, 19-20; BPC 9, 13, 15, 19, 33, 36; SSL 4, 10, 16, 19, 21-22; TLW 3, 7, 9-10, 15; LTP 5-6, 9-10, 15, 19; THGY 4, 12-13, 16, 19-21, 28-32; PG) – To unite or fasten together with a needle and thread. The act or occupation of sewing or using the needle.
     machine-sewing (FB 26)
     sewing machine (LTP 5, 25; THGY 16, 28, 31)
     wax-sewed (THGY 21) – Thread that has been stiffened with beeswax or other wax for ease in sewing through leather. It is typically employed when sewing shoes, belts, or harness.