Worcestershire sauce, thyme and beef broth are the ingredients found in the typical cookbook recipe for how to prepare beef pot roast. The cookbook may also have a conversion chart for weights and measures and emergency substitutions for being short on cornstarch, but it certainly doesn't have a chapter on dressmaking.
Times have changed since the 1890s when no cookbook could be without it, as well as mutton broth for invalids, how to destroy vermin in the hair, the remedy for croup, how to raise children and how to make the home pleasant. "The Every-Day Cookbook and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes," by Miss E. Neil was necessary back in the day when women had to do just about everything to run a household, including sewing much of the clothing for the family. By today's standards, such chores and skills were "not sew easy."
Dating back to 1893 with the inscription "Mary," the handwritten notes inside this old cookbook are those of this columnist's great-grandmother, born in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. She used this book, which is now so worn that the pages are brown and crumbling. Browsing through it is a throwback to over a century ago, and while she's not here to tell us what parts were most useful, the section on dressmaking may have been helpful as the era of sewing by hand was giving way to sewing by machine.
The Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum has many artifacts including this old Wheeler an Wilson sewing machine dating back to 1905.
How many grandmothers had that heavy black Singer sewing machine that we can all picture in our minds? They were made so well that they were indestructible. This is precisely why there is still a great example of one very old machine at the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.
Part of this column's "virtual tour" series over the last several weeks highlighting the artifacts at the museum, today is a look at the history and life-changing effect that these sewing machines had in the lives of everyday women.
The sewing machine in the museum's lighthouse is not a Singer, but a "Wheeler and Wilson; W9" from Bridgeport, Ct. With some of the brass plate's patent inscriptions worn off with years as early as the 1880s, it is evident that this particular machine was manufactured in 1905. Stemming from the Industrial Revolution, several investors and inventors competed in the race to develop and improve sewing machines throughout the 1800s. "Wheeler and Wilson" was one of these manufacturers to produce them. It seems Allen Wilson was the inventive one of the pair and as early as 1850 obtained a patent for an improvement in the design of earlier machines related to making a perfect stitch, picking up thread with a bobbin. Another later improvement included a process for moving the fabric through the machine.
It was during this time period that Wilson met the investor Nathaniel Wheeler, which led to the formation of Wheeler, Wilson and Company. Production went from about 200 machines in the early 1850s to 50,000 in a year's time just a decade or so later with a huge factory in Bridgeport, Ct. During these years there were several competitors and much litigation over patents and royalties, which eventually led to more businesses being able to compete.
So what could a woman do with the W9 model found at the lighthouse museum? Originally introduced in 1887, a research site about Wheeler and Wilson (sewalot.com) states that the brand was one of the best sewing machines that money could buy and that the No. 9 was "silky smooth," as well as "beautiful and practical and led the world of sewing machines with elegance and style."
Miss Neil's cookbook describes 'home dressmaking' and claims that it is 'so simplified that almost anyone with a reasonable degree of executive ability can manufacture a reasonable costume.' Women's skirts and sleeves are described, with a suggestion to finish off necks on dresses with lace, even soft black Spanish lace in loose folds around the neck and fastened with a brooch. The book cautions women about the tightness of "stays" and the internal "maladies" they could cause on the organs.
Regardless of what the homemaker sewed, the treadle-operated and human powered machine freed up enormous amounts of time from the days of sewing by hand. One advertisement highlighted at the same site called it, "A most wonderful invention indeed for ladies. The sewing machine executes the work so efficiently that upon my word I think there will be nothing left for women to do but improve their intellect. " A reporter who had toured the factory noted in an 1873 edition of The Christian Weekly (as found on www.ismacs.net) that, "A good sewing machine takes drudgery from a woman. It accomplishes in one hour what the unaided hand takes a day to accomplish. The man who invented the sewing machine, and the men who make them, are doing more for women's rights than all the conventions which have been held since Eve claimed her independence."
Some collectors claim that these old machines, including Singer which bought out Wheeler and Wilson in 1905, in many ways sew better than those of today even though they are powered by electricity and computerized. People today still sew and find satisfaction in completing a project, even if it's something as simple as curtains. There are others with the sentiment that no matter how you cut it, it's complicated, takes time, and is "not sew easy." Make it a good week and consider visiting the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum while it is still open through the month of October. The "virtual tour" series will continue as we soon venture upstairs to the military rooms.
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