Our Treasures: A Stitch in Time Singer Toy Sewing Machine

Singer is a household name, synonymous with home economics. Singer is renowned for its quality and this year the brand celebrates its 171 years.

Isaac Merritt Singer founded the company in New York, USA in 1851 with the release of Model No. 1. This small sewing machine is a Singer 20 (2021/12/4a-b).

The Singer 20 was the most popular toy sewing machine, and although competitors mimicked the design, they couldn’t come up with a better product.

The Singer 20 was in production from 1910 to 1975, and over 20 variants were created.

The Singer came with an array of features and details.  Photo / Provided
The Singer came with an array of features and details. Photo / Provided

This machine was made in England in the late 1950s and belonged to local resident Leonie Morris née Purdon, who donated it to the museum last year.

The toy sewing machine has a right hand crank that moves the needle across the fabric – it produces a beautiful chain stitch. The stitch length can be changed by moving one of the levers.

The first Singer 20 was cast iron, but this latest version is lighter aluminum.

Another key development was the introduction of stamped thread numbers on the machine to aid users – this feature was introduced in 1926.

Our gift came with the original instruction manual. This instruction manual is a visual explanation of the machine – how to thread, sew and care.

The manual is designed for youngsters and cartoons of cute animals frame the instructive pictures. The cartoons are Japanese-influenced kawaii culture, which emphasizes cuteness.

On the cover of the manual, many ethnicities are represented. Singer is an internationally marketed brand. This user manual may have been an attempt to create a product for all markets.

The manual has been designed to appeal to a younger audience.  Photo / Provided
The manual has been designed to appeal to a younger audience. Photo / Provided

The machines were intended for young girls, aged 4 and up. Singer aimed to make a safe but practical machine. The Singer 20 was marketed as “handy and informative” and “useful and fun”.

Young girls were encouraged to make doll clothes with their toy machines. One of the brand messages states that “when the twig is bent, the tree is bent”, which means that the first experiences have a permanent effect.

Essentially, this proverbial saying implies that by introducing girls to sewing at a young age, they will fulfill their expected roles as homemakers and mothers.

The contents of one of the Singer sewing machine manuals.  Photo / Provided
The contents of one of the Singer sewing machine manuals. Photo / Provided

This belief is of its time, but I am relieved that girls are no longer cast in restrictive roles. It’s exciting to see more women entering and succeeding in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), the growing professionalization and coverage of women’s sports, and the proliferation of programs supporting gender equality like Girls with High Vis , Women in Space, Wāhine on Water and Women in STEM.

It is interesting to reflect on the marketing of these sewing machines because they reveal the different values ​​and beliefs that have shaped our society.

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