Consumption Communities

“Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.”

Solomon in The Price by ARTHUR MILLER

“Pappa, what is the moon supposed to advertise?”

CARL SANDBURG, The People, Yes

INVISIBLE NEW COMMUNITIES were created and preserved by how and what men consumed. The ancient guilds of makers, the fellowship of secrets and skills and traditions of fabricating things—muskets and cloth and horseshoes and wagons and cabinets—were outreached by the larger, more open, fellowships of consumers. As never before, men used similar, and similarly branded, objects. The fellowship of skill was displaced by the democracy of cash.

No American transformation was more remarkable than these new American ways of changing things from objects of possession and envy into vehicles of community. The acts of acquiring and using had a new meaning. Nearly all objects from the hats and suits and shoes men wore to the food they ate became symbols and instruments of novel communities. Now men were affiliated less by what they believed than by what they consumed. In the older world almost everything a man owned was one-of-a-kind. In the newer world the unique object, except for jewels and works of art, was an oddity and came to be suspect. If an object of the same design and brand was widely used by many others, this seemed an assurance of its value.

And there were created many communities of consumers. Men who never saw or knew one another were held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners. These consumption communities were quick; they were nonideological; they were democratic; they were public, and vague, and rapidly shifting. Consumption communities produced more consumption communities. They were factitious, malleable, and as easily made as they were evanescent. Never before had so many men been united by so many things.


A Democracy of Clothing

IN THE MIDDLE of the nineteenth century, European travelers to the United States were struck by a new American peculiarity. Just as travelers before them in the eighteenth century had noted the difficulty of distinguishing between American social classes by the habits of speech, and had noted that master and servant, even in the South, spoke in accents far more similar than did their English counterparts, they now noted the strange similarities of clothing.

In America it was far more difficult than in England to tell a man’s social class by what he wore. The British consul in Boston in the early 1840’s, Thomas College Grattan, complained of American equality; he found servant girls “strongly infected with the national bad taste for being over-dressed, they are, when walking the streets, scarcely to be distinguished from their employers.” The Hungarian politician Francis Pulszky, traveling the country in 1852, missed the colorful Old World distinctions. In Europe there was “the peasant girl with the gaudy ribbons interlaced in her long tresses, her bright corset, and her richly-folded petticoat; there the Hungarian peasant with his white linen shirt, and his stately sheepskin; the Slovak in the closely fitting jacket and the bright yellow buttons; the farmer with the high boots and the Hungarian coat; the old women with the black lace cap in the ancient national style, and none but the young ladies appareled in French bonnets and modern dresses.” He lamented that in New York, “no characteristical costumes mark here the different grades of society, which, in Eastern Europe, impress the foreigner at once with the varied occupations and habits of an old country.” No wonder that the snobbish British merchant W. E. Baxter was irritated in 1853–54 to find common workmen so overdressed by English standards. “You meet men in railroad-cars, and on the decks of steamboats, rigged out in super-fine broadcloth and white waistcoats, as if they were on their way to a ball-room, and common workmen you find attired in glossy black clothes while performing work of the dirtiest description…. The farmers are the only class who wear rough garments…. The people have yet to learn that apparel should be chosen for use not show, that shabby broadcloth is the most pitiful of all costume, and that it is no mark of gentility to wear a dress unsuitable to one’s means and employment.”

Before the end of the nineteenth century, the American democracy of clothing would become still more astonishing to foreign eyes, for by then the mere wearing of clothes would be an instrument of community, a way of drawing immigrants into a new life. Men whose ancestors had been accustomed to the peasant’s tatters or the craftsman’s leather apron could show by a democratic costume that they were as good as, or not very different from, the next man. If, as the Old World proverb went, “Clothes make the man,” the New World’s new way of clothing would help make new men.

IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Americans would be the best-clothed and perhaps the most homogeneously dressed, industrial nation. It is hard to imagine how it could have happened without the sewing machine.

The sewing machine, however, like the system of interchangeable parts, was not first conceived in America. In England, in 1770, Thomas Saint had been granted a patent for a machine to sew leather. By 1830 Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor who had long been obsessed with the idea, had patented and perfected an effective sewing machine. When eighty of his machines were making uniforms for the French army, Paris tailors, alarmed at the threat to their jobs, smashed the machines and drove Thimonnier out of the city.

Perhaps the first of many American sewing-machine inventors was Walter Hunt. He was pure inventor, so obsessed by inventing and so bored by the prosaic tasks of exploiting his novelties that his very genius was destined to deny him a place in the history books. His inventions included a flax-spinning machine, a knife sharpener, a yarn twister, a stove (some say the first) to burn hard coal, a nail-making machine, ice plows, velocipedes, a revolver, a repeating rifle, metallic cartridges, conical bullets, paraffin candles, a street-sweeping machine, a student lamp, and paper collars. According to his draftsman friend who had been making drawings to accompany Hunt’s numerous patent applications, Hunt designed a patentable safety pin quickly in order to get the money to pay him a debt of $15. Within three hours Hunt worked out the idea, made a model from an old piece of wire, and sold the patent rights for $400.

By the early 1830’s in his workshop on Amos Street in New York City, Hunt had made several machines that actually sewed. Although they were rudimentary, sewing only a straight seam and requiring readjustment of the cloth every few inches, they did include the basic features that later would make a fortune for others. Hunt’s revolutionary new idea was an eye-pointed needle moved by a vibrating arm and a shuttle which carried a second thread to make an interlocking stitch. This was the great stroke of imagination that liberated sewing-machine inventors from the temptation to imitate the seamstress’ hand. But Hunt had neither the capital nor the organizing talent to make money out of his idea.

Others did. And there was enough money in the sewing machine to enrich scores of inventors, would-be inventors, lawyers, promoters, salesmen, and businessmen. The two giants in the War of the Sewing Machine, which climaxed about 1850, were Elias Howe, Jr., and Isaac Merrit Singer. They battled not merely for money but for the honor of having been “the principal inventor” of the sewing machine.

Elias Howe, born in 1819, was the son of a Massachusetts farmer. At the age of twenty, when he was working as a journeyman machinist for a Boston scientific-instrument maker, his interest was awakened by a customer’s effort to perfect a knitting machine. Some years later, under pressure to support a wife and three children and desperately casting about for some way to add to his salary of $9 a week, he decided to try to make his fortune from a sewing machine. After many false starts, in 1844 he too was inspired by the idea of an eye-pointed needle, using a second thread on a shuttle, on the analogy of the loom. By April 1845 he was actually sewing a seam on his machine. In 1846 he received a patent.

To persuade the public that his machine would really work, Howe took it to the Quincy Hall Clothing Manufactory in Boston, seated himself before it and offered to sew up any seam that anyone would bring. For two weeks he astonished all comers by doing 250 stitches a minute, about seven times the speed by hand. He then challenged five of the speediest seamstresses to race his machine. The experienced tailor whom he had called in as umpire announced Howe’s victory and declared that “the work done on the machine was the neatest and strongest.”

Even these demonstrations did not persuade people to buy Howe’s machines. Some objected that it was still imperfect, because it did not make a whole garment; others feared it would put tailors and seamstresses out of work. All were discouraged by the cost of a machine, at that time about $300. Howe determined to try the English market. When his brother, Amasa, took the machine to London, he awakened the interest of a shrewd corset manufacturer who bought the English rights for a song, and then persuaded Elias Howe to come to London to adapt the machine to the needs of corset making. By working hard for eight months, Howe accomplished the difficult assignment, whereupon his employer (who proved to be a Dickensian villain) fired him. Suffering from the tragedy of his wife’s death (he had to borrow a suit to attend her funeral!) and the loss of all his household goods in a shipwreck off Cape Cod, in 1849 Howe returned penniless to New York.

In Howe’s absence, the sewing machine had become a popular curiosity. A machine was actually being carried about western New York and exhibited as “A Great Curiosity!! The Yankee Sewing-Machine,” for an admission fee of twelve and a half cents. Ladies carried home specimens of machine sewing to show their friends. Machines were now being made and sold in considerable numbers by persons Howe had never known, many of these using features that Howe had patented. Determined to protect his legal rights, Howe sent to England to recover his original machine and the Patent Office papers he had pawned.

Howe then warned the infringers, offering to sell them licenses for a royalty fee. All but one agreed, but that one organized the rest, and Howe had to fight his case in court. For this purpose Howe needed money, which he finally secured from a Massachusetts lawyer who financed the infringement suits, but was secured against loss by a mortgage on Howe’s father’s farm.

The stage was set for one of the decisive industrial battles of the century. It might have been planned as an allegory, for there were the figures who would reappear with monotonous regularity: the competing “first inventors” and the Go-Getting lawyers. The dramatic struggle produced a mass product and eventually created a new consumption community. Incidentally, the prolonged and sensationalized courtroom struggle helped fill the new mass-circulating newspapers, and awakened consumer interest in the sewing machine by the public debates over its remarkable new features.

Isaac Merrit Singer, Howe’s antagonist, also had inventive talent, but his flair for salesmanship made him a man of quite another stamp. Raised in upstate New York as the son of a millwright, he had, while still a young man, secured a patent for a rock driller and a carving machine. But he had also been an actor and a theater manager. In 1850, when he happened to see a sewing machine, he determined to improve the machine so it could do a greater variety of work. According to Singer’s own account, after eleven days and nights of intense work during which he slept and ate only irregularly, he produced his improved model. Immediately he began manufacturing, selling—and, above all, promoting—this machine. In one way at least Singer’s machine was superior to Howe’s, for it could do continuous stitching. But what explained Singer’s success was his genius as advertiser and organizer, and his determination to sell sewing machines to the millions.

Singer refused to pay Howe a royalty. For, he claimed, Howe had not in fact been the inventor of the sewing machine. Singer tried to prove in court that fourteen years before Howe’s 1846 patent, Walter Hunt had actually made a working sewing machine; that Howe’s machine was nothing but a copy of Hunt’s. After a long search, Singer and his lawyers located Walter Hunt, and some fragments of Hunt’s early machine were finally discovered in a garret. In 1854, after a costly three-year trial, the court held in favor of Howe. Though Hunt had been on a right track, the court said, Hunt had never patented his invention, nor had he made a practical, salable machine. “For all the benefit conferred upon the public by the introduction of a sewing-machine, the public are indebted to Mr. Howe.” Howe’s fortunes abruptly changed. He obtained $15,000 from Singer, and soon was receiving a $25 royalty on every sewing machine made in the country.

This bonanza did not last long. Other sewing-machine inventions forced Howe to compromise. To keep his own machines salable in a competitive market, he had to incorporate improvements patented by others. Soon three other large manufacturers, each controlling some essential patent, were suing one another.

The upshot of these and other widening disputes, which now involved another half-dozen large manufacturers, was the great Sewing Machine Combination in 1856. The patent owners pooled all their patents on the essential features of the sewing machine into a single franchise for a single fee, and the owners of the different patents shared the franchising fees. Before signing, Howe insisted that at least twenty-four manufacturers be franchised. Howe himself received $5 for each machine licensed to sell in the United States and $1 for each machine exported, which eventually brought him about $2 million. Numerous manufacturers, willing to pay the costly licensing fees, now entered the race for sales.

By 1871 the sewing machine, which only twenty years before had been a curiosity to be exhibited at fairs for twelve and a half cents’ admission, was being manufactured at the rate of 700,000 a year. The machine was constantly being improved; before the end of the century nearly eight thousand patents had been issued on the sewing machine and its accessories. American manufacturers sent their machines all over. Competing in their claims for creating a new worldwide consumption community, the I. M. Singer Company asserted that by 1879 three quarters of the machines being sold were Singers. An 1880 Singer brochure, immodestly entitled Genius Rewarded; or, the Story of the Sewing Machine, proclaimed:

On every sea are floating the Singer Machines; along every road pressed by the foot of civilized man this tireless ally of the world’s great sisterhood is going upon its errand of helpfulness. Its cheering tune is understood no less by the sturdy German matron than by the slender Japanese maiden; it sings as intelligibly to the flaxen-haired Russian peasant-girl as to the dark-eyed Mexican Senorita. It needs no interpreter, whether it sings amid the snows of Canada or upon the pampas of Paraguay; the Hindoo Mother and the Chicago maiden are to-night making the self-same stitch; the untiring feet of Ireland’s fair-skinned Nora are driving the same treadle with the tiny understandings of China’s tawny daughter; and thus American machines, American brains, and American money are bringing the women of the whole world into one universal kinship and sisterhood.

The new machine was supposed to relieve drudgery. “Now,” Godey’s Lady’s Book rejoiced in 1860, “… what philanthropy failed to accomplish, what religion, poetry, eloquence and reason sought in vain, has been produced by—The Sewing Machine.” But there is little evidence that the sewing machine much eased the lives of seamstresses, or that the housewife actually spent less time on sewing. “Where is the woman,” James Parton asked in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867, “who can say that her sewing is less a tax upon her time and strength than it was before the sewing machine came in? … As soon as lovely woman discovers that she can set ten stitches in the time that one used to require, a fury seizes her to put ten times as many stitches in every garment as she formerly did.”

In the 1860’s, styles changed. Just as the improvement of wood-carving machinery produced ever more ornate furniture, now the sewing machine produced elaborately draped overskirts, a new opportunity to display fancy sewing and intricate trimmings. In this way, too, a use was found for the numerous sewing-machine attachments: hemmers, fellers, binders, tuckers, rufflers, shirrers, puffers, braiders, quilters, hemstitchers, and even an etcher adept at “beautiful machine embroidery in imitation of the Kensington hand stitch.”

The consequences of the sewing machine were not merely aesthetic or humanitarian. In America the sewing machine helped change the social meaning of clothing: a larger proportion of people than ever before could wear clothes that fit them, and could look like the best-off men and women. “The sewing-machine,” observed Parton, “is one of the means by which the industrious laborer is as well clad as any millionaire need be, and by which working-girls are enabled safely to gratify their woman’s instinct of decoration.”

IN THE LATTER HALF of the nineteenth century the United States experienced a Clothing Revolution—more far-reaching, perhaps, than any that had occurred since the birth of modern textile technology. Alexander Hamilton had noted in his Report on Manufactures(1791) that four fifths of the American people’s clothing were made in their own households for themselves. Only the rich could afford to employ tailors. At first these tailors traveled the countryside working on material supplied by customers, and eventually they settled down in the cities.

A ready-made-clothing industry did not begin to develop until the early decades of the nineteenth century. At first only the cheapest grades of clothes could be bought in stores. Shops in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for example, supplied sailors with the clothing they needed quickly when they had just returned from a long voyage or when they were hastily preparing to sail again. Sailors put these store-boughten clothes in their sea chests, generally known as “slop chests” (after the Old Norse word for the loose smock or the baggy breeches of the kind sailors wore). The clothes they bought were therefore called “sailors slops,” and the places where these were sold were called “slopshops.” “Slop clothes” or “slops” became a synonym for ready-made clothes. Cheap ready-made clothing was also in demand in the South for Negro slaves, and in upstart Western towns for newly arrived miners who had no household to make clothes for them.

All over Europe in the eighteenth century there were depots for renovating and distributing castoff clothes. Until well into the nineteenth century almost the only kind of ready-made clothing for sale was secondhand. Before the rise of a clothing industry, before machine manufacture had made textiles cheap, the clothing which had originally been tailor-made for the rich was the main source of ready-made clothing for the poor. “In this Country,” the English economist Nassau Senior wrote in 1836, “the poor are, to a great extent, clothed with garments originally provided for their superiors.” Around this fact Senior actually built a whole theory of expenditure.

In those days neither the buying nor the selling of secondhand clothes was disreputable; and even today in poorer nations castoff clothing is a staple of country fairs and cheap city shops. In the United States, too, before the Civil War, there was a sizable trade in castoff clothing, much of it destined for the South and West. Metropolitan newspapers like the New York Herald printed scores of advertisements for secondhand clothing.

Work clothes for Negroes and for sailors long remained the only clothing manufactured in quantity. A few ready-made garments were turned out as a sideline by the custom tailor. The demand for ready-made clothing grew fastest in the South and West, and establishments grew on the eastern seaboard to satisfy these needs.

The American revolution in clothing, which was well under way before 1900, was a double revolution: in the making of clothing (from the homemade and the custom-made to the ready-made or factory-made) and in the wearing of clothing (from the clothing of class display, by which a man wore his social class and his occupation on his sleeve, to the clothing of democracy, by which, more than ever before, men dressed alike). In Western mining camps, on wagontrain journeys west, on long sea voyages, men could not carry elaborate wardrobes. Specialized skills were few, and qualified custom tailors scarce. At the same time that wealthy Americans found it hard to dress as elegantly as wealthy Europeans, the new technology of the garment industry was making it easier for Americans in moderate circumstances to dress well.

By mid-century, the sewing machine was being used in the factory production of clothing. When the chain stitch, which unraveled if the thread was broken at any point, was displaced by the lock stitch, machine sewing was as strong as that by hand. Improvements and attachments, like the buttonholer, made the machine versatile enough for most sewing tasks. And new cutting machines which could slice through eighteen thicknesses of cloth made it easy to prepare numerous garments of the same size.

Then the Civil War brought an unprecedented demand for large quantities of men’s wear. In mid-1861 the need was for uniforms to outfit an army of hundreds of thousands; in the fall of 1865, for civilian clothing to outfit the demobilized hundreds of thousands. The clothing business suddenly became attractive and profitable. The demand for uniforms had encouraged standardization. When the government supplied measurements for the uniforms it required, it had given manufacturers the most commonly recurring human proportions. With this information, manufacturers developed a new science of sizing and began to make garments in regular sizes. Between 1880 and 1890 the total value of the products of manufacturing industries that used the sewing machine increased by 75 percent, to well over $1 billion. This was due largely to the sudden growth of the ready-made-clothing industry, including shoes, which accounted for 90 percent of sewing machine products.

The wearers of all sorts of factory-made clothing increased by the tens of thousands. As early as 1832 there had been an American shirt factory; the manufacturing of men’s detachable collars grew about the same time, and within a few years there was a thriving business in shirts and collars. The value of manufactured men’s garments nearly doubled between 1860 and 1870. In the next two decades the business was still one for pioneers. As late as 1880 less than half of men’s clothing was purchased ready-to-wear. But by the beginning of the twentieth century it had become rare for a man or boy not to be clothed in ready-made garments. Now even the wealthy, who had once employed tailors, were buying clothes in the better shops. By 1890 the value of clothing sold in shops amounted to about $1.5 billion; about three quarters of the woolen cloth made in the United States were being consumed in the manufacture of ready-made clothing.

Alexander Hamilton’s statistics had been reversed. Now, according to the best estimates at the time, nine tenths of the men and boys in the United States were wearing clothing made ready to put on. “Little by little,” William C. Browning, a pioneer in the business, boasted in 1895, “the early prejudice, founded upon the character of ‘slop’ clothes first introduced, was overcome. Men who had fancied that they would never wear ‘hand-me-downs,’ as they were vulgarly called, soon found that neither in respect of style nor materials was the best ready-made clothing inferior to the handiwork of the merchant tailor….there was a wonderful advance in the quality of goods manufactured.” The Americanism “hand-me-down” (in England it was “reach-me-down” to signify clothing that was simply reached down from a rack) had come into general use to signify shabby clothing. New expressions were needed for the good-quality new clothing now sold in shops. “Ready-to-wear” in the early twentieth century began to supplant “ready-made” with a significant new emphasis not on the maker but on the wearer.

Not only suits and coats, but everything else that people wore—hats, caps, shirts, undergarments, stockings, and shoes—were now for the first time generally beginning to be bought ready-made. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the shoes that could be bought ready-made in shops were “straights”—that is, there was no difference between rights and lefts. Then American manufacturers began to turn out “crooked shoes,” specially cut to fit the right or the left foot, and the increase in the mass production of shoes in the decade before 1860 brought (in the language of the Census Report of that year) a “silent revolution” in footwear. By 1862 Gordon McKay, a Massachusetts industrialist, had perfected a machine that sewed the soles to the uppers, just in time to help supply the Union demand for army shoes by the thousands. After the war the working class was buying factory-made shoes, but it was several decades before the middle classes and well-to-do were provided with factory shoes to their taste.

It happened, too, that the character of immigrants who came in the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century stimulated the clothing industry. Many from Germany, Russia, Poland, and Italy were tailors. Among the four hundred thousand Jewish immigrants in the first decade of the twentieth century, more than half were in the needle trades. At the same time the new sewing machine, requiring very little skill, attracted into the work many wives and sons and daughters of the immigrants in the Eastern cities.

An infamous by-product of the sewing machine was the “sweatshop” (an Americanism first noted about 1892), where women and children worked long hours at piecework for low wages. But in the clothing industry, too, where the business unit was small and the machinery inexpensive, it was less difficult than elsewhere to move up from wageworker to employer. In many unpredicted ways, then, the nation’s new clothing industry could be an agent of democracy. “The multitude is clothed by the clothier, not by the tailor,” a pioneer American merchant-clothier boasted at the turn of the century. “And if … the condition of a people is indicated by its clothing, America’s place in the scale of civilized lands is a high one. We have provided not alone abundant clothing at a moderate cost for all classes of citizens, but we have given them at the same time that style and character in dress that is essential to the self-respect of a free democratic people.”

Ready-made clothing instantly Americanized the immigrant. When David Levinsky, the hero of Abraham Cahan’s Yiddish novel, arrived in New York from Russia in 1885, his benefactor, eager to make him at once into an American, took him to store after store, buying him a suit of clothes, a hat, underclothes, handkerchiefs (the first white handkerchiefs he ever possessed), collars, shoes, and a necktie. “He spent a considerable sum on me. As we passed from block to block he kept saying, ‘Now you won’t look green,’ or ‘That will make you look American.’” Nothing else could so rapidly and painlessly transform the foreigner into one who belonged.

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