67 A Stitch in Half the Time 1851 THE SEWING MACHINE suited up the armies of the U.S. Civil War in record time and stitched the wings on the Wright brothers' plane. But in 1830, when French tailor Barthéélemy Thimonnier patented the first one, few of his colleagues foresaw any benefit. Rather, they felt they would be rendered obsolete: This new device made 200 stitches per minute, while a man made only 30. In 1841 they ransacked Thimonnier's Paris shop. The credit for automating the garment industry would instead go to the son of a German immigrant to America, Isaac Merritt Singer, who in 1851 improved on an earlier design by Elias Howe. Then, in 1856, Singer made sewing machines affordable by offering the first layaway plan. For five bucks down, one could take home a $125 machine and pay off the rest in monthly installments with interest.
The "iron seamstress" also led to ready-made clothing: A woman could walk down Fifth Avenue and--horrors!--run into someone wearing an identical garment. But even as ready-to-wear liberated those with spending power, it enslaved immigrant women and children in sweatshops. Despite the formation in 1900 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, clothing today is available thanks not only to Singer but to the people around the world operating his machines for little pay.