Sewing for the family

Updated February 22, 2022 to fix a few minor typos, and to add a link to a brief history of American samplers, with an illustrated list of 73 of the 137 American samplers in the Textile Collection of the National Museum of American History.

In addition to raising and educating her children, a 19th-century farm wife like Mary Turck Clark had many other responsibilities, including planning and tending a farm garden, preserving its produce, preparing daily meals for the family and hired hands, and keeping the farm house clean and organized. And Mary, like many women of her era, probably made some or all of her own and her family’s clothes.

The sewing arts

Like most girls of her era, Mary Turck (born in New York, 1821) probably learned the craft of needlework from her mother and, perhaps, as part of her school education. When a young girl like Mary mastered some of the many practical and decorative sewing stitches, she might demonstrate her proficiency by making a sampler.

A sampler might feature simple examples of sewn letters, numbers and perhaps a popular saying or Bible verse. But many samplers were more complex and artistic. An accomplished embroiderer might produce an elaborate sampler featuring detailed images and texts, as in this 1829 sampler from Connecticut.

Thompson, Mariette (1817-1851), [Sampler with family register], 1829. Yale Art Gallery, public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

This sampler was not made by Mary Turck, but she may have made something similar. This example was “Marked by M. Thompson aged 11. under the tuition of Miss Ludington East Haven Con 1828.” It begins with three examples of the alphabet in different styles of capital letters, and another alphabet in all lower case. The center section features a “Family Record” of what appear to be Miss Thompson’s parents and siblings. In the lower left corner she has stitched two bits of rhyming Christian philosophy. The other parts of the sampler are filled with stitched images of birds, flowers, trees, and a two-story house with a picket fence in front, all surrounded by a repeating border suggesting vines or something similar.

Mary Turck came from a family that valued education and accomplishment. We know she could read, write and, in later years, manage the family farm. In the year preceding her marriage to Jonathan M. Clark, Mary served as one of the first school teachers of pioneer Mequon. As an educated young woman of the 1820s and ’30s, it would not be surprising if Mary’s sewing skills were equal to those of her Connecticut contemporary, Mariette Thompson.

Sewing on the Wisconsin frontier

The young city of Milwaukee was—from early days— home to at least a few seamstresses and tailors, selling a variety of factory-made and sewn-to-order clothing. The growing city apparently had enough upper- and middle-class residents to support these businesses. But frugal rural women and girls (and their working-class sisters in the city) were more likely to purchase fabric by the yard, and then cut and sew their family’s clothes themselves. This was skilled, precise, time-consuming hand work—until help arrived in the early 1850s with the invention of…

The Sewing Machine

[Occupational Portrait of a Woman Working at a Sewing Machine], hand-tinted daguerreotype photograph, ca. 1853, Library of Congress. Public domain, cropped and brightness enhanced by RFP. Click photo to open larger image in new window.

Although the invention of the practical sewing machine, like most important inventions, was a many-man project, historians generally give full credit to Elias Howe, Jr. Though such credit may be overly generous, Howe’s important role in this history cannot be denied.

Cooper, Grace Rogers, The Invention of the Sewing Machine, 1968, original p. 19. See note 2, below, for source details.

Elias Howe’s early patents date from the mid- to late-1840s, and many manufacturers raced to develop and market competing machines. By December, 1852, the Milwaukee papers began to include advertisements for Avery’s sewing machines, available by mail from New York city, “price only $25.”

Avery Sewing Machines advertisement, Milwaukee Sentinel, December 28, 1852, p 2, via genealogybank.com. Click to open larger image in new window.

I have not done comprehensive research on the history of sewing machine sales in early Milwaukee. But as this next advertisement shows, a variety of machines were available for purchase at places like Isaac A. Hance & Company’s Sewing Machine Emporium as early as May, 1858, including “Grover & Baker’s Family Sewing Machines.”

Sewing Machine Emporium advertisement, Milwaukee Sentinel May 26, 1858, p 4, via genealogybank.com. Click to open larger image in new window.

Mary Clark had a sewing machine

When Mary Clark died in Milwaukee on June 28, 1881, she owned three houses and a substantial amount of personal property. She left a will, and the probate process began in early August of that year. Long-time Clark family friend Philip Moss was appointed probate administrator; Moss hired appraisers D. P Hull and Christian Ott to perform the required inventory of Mary’s personal property.3

The inventory occupies the better part of seven manuscript pages. The second page includes this entry:

DINING ROOM NO. 3
[…]
1 Wheeler & Wilson sewing machine [value in $] 15.00

Wheeler & Wilson were major American sewing machine manufacturers. Founder Allen B. Wilson developed his first functional sewing machine in 1850, and by 1853 he had formed a partnership with manufacturer Nathaniel Wheeler. From their beginnings in 1853 until the company was sold to the Singer Sewing Machine Co. in 1905, Wheeler & Wilson made and sold almost two million sewing machines.4

Did Mary Clark own an early Wheeler & Wilson from the 1850s or 1860s? Or was the machine inventoried on August 23, 1881 a more recent Wheeler & Wilson, such as their popular model No. 8, manufactured from 1876 to 1887?

Wheeler and Wilson, No. 8 sewing machine of about 1876, from Cooper, Grace Rogers, The Invention of the Sewing Machine, fig. 129, Smithsonian photo 17663-C. Public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

We really don’t know. I tried to find out the price for a new Wheeler & Wilson, during the decade before Mary Clark’s death, and compare it to the 1881 inventory value of $15 for Mary’s used machine. But while the newspapers of that time have lots of details on how many machines had been sold over the years by Wheeler & Wilson, none of the ads that I’ve located include contemporary prices for new machines.

In any case, we know that Mary Turck Clark, like so many women of her time—and ours—owned a sewing machine and, in all likelihood, sewed many of the clothes for her family and herself.

_________________________________

NOTES:

  1. In case you were wondering, the unknown woman in today’s daguerreotype appears to be using William Wickersham’s sewing machine, originally patented in 1853. The Smithsonian Institution has one in its collection:

William Wickersham’s Patent Model of a Sewing Machine (leather), Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain, CC0. Click to open larger image in a new window.

The Smithsonian annotation reports:

In his [April 19, 1853] patent specification, Wickersham wrote, “My machine for sewing cloth, leather, or other material is calculated to sew either a chain stitch (the formation of which is well understood) or a stitch . . . formed of two threads, and so that the loops of one . . . shall alternately pass through or be interlocked with those of the other . . . .” Although he mentions sewing cloth, it was for sewing leather for boots and shoes that his sewing machine became important. Wickersham’s patents introduced the method that allowed for the use of sewing leather with waxed thread. The development of mechanisms that would allow for sewing with wax thread was crucial to the industrialization of the shoe making industry.

Knowing that, take another look at our anonymous seamstress in today’s daguerreotype. Is she sewing leather, or some thick, shiny fabric? Perhaps she is working on leather goods? Gloves? Shoes? Accessories? I can’t tell.

  1. If you are interested in the history of the sewing machine, I highly recommend The Invention of the Sewing Machine, by Grace Rogers Cooper. It was originally published in 1968 as Bulletin 254 of the Smithsonian Institution’s United States Historical Museum. It is now available as a free, 186-page pdf ebook. Click here to read or download your own copy.

  2. At the time of her death Mary did own three houses in Milwaukee, but not the land they stood on. The lots for all three were rented from their owners. I believe Mary lived in one house and rented out the other two for income. More research is needed to discover how Mary came to own all three houses. She probably had decent funds from the rent and eventual sale of the Clark’s Mequon farm and house. She inherited some money upon her father Peter Turck’s death in 1872, and Peter—in his work as a real estate broker—may have helped her purchase one or more houses as investments some time before August, 1867, when he was officially no longer capable of managing his affairs.

    I am overdue to present and discuss the will and probate documents for Mary (Turck) Clark, her father Peter Turck, and her daughter Josie Clark. The fact is, all these Turck and Clark probate files are long, not well organized, and the chronology of events is complicated and still not clear to me. For these reasons, and because of the mental health issues faced by Mary, her daughter and father, I think these probate files require particular care and attention to detail, and I’ve not yet had time to do them justice.

  3. If you would like to know more about Wilson & Wheeler and their sewing machines, there is a decent Wikipedia entry, and a nicely illustrated page at singersewinginfo.co.

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