Elias Howe and New Hartford

In today’s world sewing machines are both commonplace and invisible. They were, however, a major innovation in the nineteenth century, when the majority of clothes were sown at home. This was true even of the upper-middle class; it was assumed that all women, and most men, could not only repair a shirt, but probably could create one from a pattern. It was not only clothes, but also sheets, towels, and other materials. The largest amount of time, even with a complicated piece of clothing, was spent creating relatively straightforward seams.

In 1846, Elias Howe was working as a mechanic at the Greenwoods Company. Born in Spencer, Massachusetts in 1816, he worked first in saw and grist mills. Later he moved to a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts which specialized in building the equipment for cotton-textile mills. It was probably here that he gained the experience to build a swing machine. It would be the first lock-stitch machine and immediately took him from a little known, local mechanic to national celebrity. The lock-stitch was also a new creation; it has become the default stitch for all fabric worked on machines, throughout the world.

Elias Howe probably built his machine in his spare time. He was living in the New Hartford Hotel, which now houses Chatterly’s and Passiflora’s cafes, standing at the corner of Rte. 44 and Bridge Street. He apparently used the basement of the building as a mechanic’s shop. One of his more important acts was to apply for and receive a U.S. patent. His machine was patented in September, 1846; and was patent number 4750. Despite this he did encounter difficulties with selling the machine in the United States; he actually had far greater success in the United Kingdom, where the machine was quickly modified to deal with leather and other heavier fabrics. One of the original machines is at the Smithsonian Institute.

Although Elias Howe lived in New Hartford for only a short time, it remains a proud moment in local history.

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