Arts & Culture

Scholar uses Singer sewing machine to parse cultural, economic development

5 min read

Viewing Japan through a needle’s eye

Harvard historian Andrew D. Gordon ’74, Ph.D. ’81 specializes in modern Japan and has written or edited a handful of breakthrough books on big labor, big steel, and big management.

But something small has now caught his attention: the sewing machine — specifically those made, marketed, and sold by what in the early 20th century was called the Singer Manufacturing Co. A century ago, the gold-detailed Singer was the most iconic American product in Japan.

Historians often write about war and empire and other grand topics sweeping across the stage of history. But the sewing machine has its own grand implications, Gordon told a lecture audience last week — “a small object,” he said, capable of illuminating “some large questions.”

For one, how did a middle class emerge in Japan over the last century? Gordon is a student of how the ancient culture moved in just a few decades from a closed, feudal society to one that embraced the middle class — “the carrier,” he said, “of an idealized life.”

Gordon called the sewing machine an emblem of both the fiscal prudence and the material pleasure of the middle class, “a very foreign world” for the Japanese a century ago.

And another big question: How did Japan’s culture shift from embracing the producer of goods — in heavy industries like coal, steel, and shipping — to focusing on the consumer of those goods?

Gordon, who is a Radcliffe Fellow this year, thinks those two ultimately global questions are illuminated by the Singer sewing machine — by how it was sold and marketed and by how it offered a mix of practicality and pleasure to traditional societies.

He delivered a lecture Nov. 28 to an audience of 80 at 34 Concord Ave., where the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study maintains offices and studios for its class of fellows. Gordon called the talk an “interim report” on a book he plans to finish in his fellowship year.

He became intrigued by the emblematic power of the sewing machine while studying the social family context of urban industrial workers. In a 1951 time-use survey of Tokyo-area families, he encountered what he calls “the 139-minute puzzle.” That’s the amount of time per day that the average Japanese housewife spent sewing — just one minute less a day than the time spent on cooking.

It struck Gordon as “a lot of sewing,” he said — and led to his study.

In 1900, Singer — by then the world-market leader in sewing machines — was among the first to start doing business in the interior of Japan. (Until that year, foreign businesses were geographically confined to specified “treaty ports.”)

Singer rapidly rolled out an American-style network of sales offices (from 70 in 1907 to more than 800 by 1932). The locally managed branches featured a series of innovations that seemed radical in Japan, including door-to-door canvassers, installment buying, and commission-only pay schemes.

It was a Western prototype of global selling that changed little when inserted into the cultural crosscurrents of Japan, said Gordon.

At the same time, Singer’s retail selling system helped introduce to Japan the ideal of middle-class life.

More radically, Singer’s signature sewing schools offered women a measure of financial and cultural independence. (In one 1922 photo, the women instructors — paid a fixed wage — wore hakama, a pleated skirtlike item of clothing normally associated with men, and at first only with samurai. Women adopting the hakama was a stylish and bold cultural step. Early Singer advertisements also played up the notion of women acquiring a skill to earn their own incomes.)

Elsewhere in Japan a century ago, intimations of modernity were emerging — a national tax, private property protections, compulsory education. But at the same time, Gordon said, “daily life was not changing that much.”

It was about to — in part because of Japanese fascination with Western technology. Gordon showed a print of three 19th century Japanese samurai — improbable visitors to the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. — peering at a sewing machine.

While thinking about Singer, Gordon considered writing a book on a cluster of Western products in Japan. (His choices, besides the primary icon of the sewing machine, were the piano, the radio, and the bicycle.)

The image of the sewing machine in Japan a century ago was so powerful that the appliance was known simply as “machine” or, in Japanese, “mishin.”

All the while, a Singer machine — with a sticker price equal to about two months of pay for a man — represented a considerable investment. “It would be like buying a $10,000 product today,” said Gordon.

Ultimately, Singer failed to adapt its sales strategies to Japanese culture, or to address Japan-based competition. After World War II, the company could not recapture its pre-1940 market in Japan.

But while the Singer reign lasted, said Gordon, the company was at the leading edge of American products symbolizing the coming wave of middle-class life — among them Kleenex, Vaseline, and Hoover vacuums.

Singer also accounted for the “birth of the salesman” in Japan “as a key figure in modern society,” he said.

The company also represented the rise of a consumer-credit culture. And its product signaled “the figure of the self-reliant woman” in Japanese culture, beginning with the 1906 recruitment of women instructors for Singer-inspired sewing academies.

That idea of feminine self-reliance within the formal and patriarchal culture of Japan, said Gordon, was “one of the big surprises of this research.”

Singer represented “a modern way of life” in two ways, said Gordon. Each machine, compact and practical, was an emblem of frugality and personal discipline (if you factor in the rigors of installment buying).

But it was also an emblem of the “pursuit of pleasure,” he said. “The sewing machine carried both of these messages with it.”