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The Buyable Past

June 2024
1min read

Miniature Sewing Machines

Isaac Merritt Singer devised the first commercially viable sewing machine, in 1850; by the time of his death in 1875, his company’s annual sales exceeded 500,000 machines. Not long afterward miniature sewing machines began to appear.

Model names like Baby, Junior Miss, and Little Lady indicate that they were designed for youngsters, but marketers shrewdly pitched them to adults as well. A 1926 magazine ad stated that Singer’s No. 20 was “so easy to set up and use that both you and mother will find it convenient for quick sewing. And it is so small and compact that you can tuck it in the corner of a bag or trunk for use on trips or vacations.”

Though minis were often called “toy” sewing machines, they were also sold as effective household tools. “This machine is not a toy or experiment, but . . . does the work of the regular chain stitch machines, which are usually very high priced,” the 1903 Sears, Roebuck catalogue said of the Perfection Automatic, which cost $2.00 or $3.50, depending on the version.

Vintage miniature sewing machines remain affordable and are often showcased on eBay. Patricia T. O’Conner, the author of the popular grammar book Woe Is I , collects them there and has made numerous finds starting at less than $50, a sum that might buy a circa 1950 Betsy Ross with a handsome geometric design embossed on its arm. O’Conner spent $250 for her most expensive machine, a 1940s American Girl in mint condition in its original carton, complete with its instruction manual and all its supplied accessories. Examples that cost more than $1,000 are truly exceptional, she reports.

O’Conner says collectors insist on machines in good working order and adds that the models most in demand are from anywhere between the World War I era, when their inner workings were perfected, through the mid-1950s, after which their styling became pedestrian. Except for a few pressed-metal examples, the best pieces tend to have cast-iron bodies. Those with plastic ones aren’t collectible—at least not yet.

David Lander

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