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Home of the Sewalot Site


By Alex I Askaroff 


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Isaac Merritt Singer
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Alex Askaroff has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost specialists of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications worldwide.

Alex I Askaroff


See me on Youtube with the Singer 12



Isaac Singer
A brief history of a giant
By Alex Askaroff

Isaac Merritt Singer October 1811 - July 1875

A man touched by fire


What a man! When I first started, as a child growing up in the sewing industry, to hear stories about Isaac Singer I was enthralled. He had lived the American dream. A true rags to riches story, then it all went wrong. But in a final twist between wars and wives Isaac Singer found peace. He also founded a dynasty that continues to this day.

Out of all the sewing machine pioneers that I have written about over the last decades Isaac Singer's life stands out as simply astounding. Imagine a spiders web that stretches across the globe and in its centre is one man. That man is Isaac Merritt Singer.

They say a few men are touched by fire in their lives, Isaac was one of these men. From the day he was born until the day he died he was a man that stood head and shoulders above the crowd, and not only because he was over six foot four!

Although Isaac Merritt Singer claimed to his dying day that he had invented the first proper sewing machine, he did and did not. What the genius did was to take the best of what had existed at the time and make something better, the first practical sewing machine of the age. He also invented a mechanical digging machine for rock excavation, a rock drilling machine, a wood carving and cutting machine and a printers type letter cutting machine and patented dozens of improvements to sewing machines.

With his best creation, his sewing machine, he and his hand-picked men, promoted it with such an astounding flare and capability that it became the number one of its kind in the world. Marketing experts today would do well to examine Singer's methods as they were simply the best. From mass give-a-ways to beautiful models, Isaac used every tactic possible to promote his machines.

Let me tell you about the man who became a household name, some say known by more people than Jesus.

Isaac Singer was an extraordinary and complicated man. He grew from a penniless cunning and devious street-wise kid, living on his wits, to one of the richest men in the world. His character also changed from cold-blooded and ruthless in his youth, to a cheerful old benefactor throwing children's parties in his old age.

When Isaac Singer died the public read the papers in disbelief, with open-mouths and with bulging eyes. How could it be possible that one man who had come from nothing, begging on the streets, died one of the richest men in the entire world? And his children! In his will Isaac took the time to name 24 of them by various wives and mistresses, leaving them all sizable trusts that made them rich. Isaac's fortune was so vast that it lasted for five generations before it finally trickled away.

There is also little doubt that he fathered a host of other children and many of his siblings later set Europe ablaze with publicity, scandal and a little intrigue.

Over a lifetime I have collected every snippet on the great man and put it all here. I hope that others will follow in my footsteps and take his unique story further.

If ever there was a mini series that needed filming this is it and it starts in 1769.

Please forgive any mistakes and inaccuracies. I have tried to piece together a complicated and twisted puzzle with more than a few pieces hidden from us, many by Isaac himself. I hope as more light shines onto this amazing man and his family my story will be improved upon. At the end I give a short list of the people and places that have helped.

I have noticed that people are copying my mistakes but do not correct them when I do. I have the feeling that if I said Isaac Singer invented bubblegum someone would copy it and paste it somewhere within the hour! Cyberspace is a modern marvel and I work on my Singer page most weeks constantly improving and updating it. I am more than happy for people to read and copy but please do add my name even though it is hard to spell. Alex Askaroff.

By now you must be getting fed up with me rambling on, so come with me on a journey that will blow your mind, a journey through one man's fascinating life. A life that changed our world. Please do not take all my dates as gospel. I keep correcting and updating as new information comes to light.

Isaac Merritt Singer

Isaac Singer distinguished as ever, shown here later in life as one of the world's richest men. This picture was donated by Singers to the Smithsonian. It shows Isaac in his favourite smoking jacket. His children loved him wearing it at their palace, Oldway in Paignton, England, as they said it made him look like Father Christmas. He had a touch of red in his hair, was well over six feet tall, had hypnotic eyes, and was totally irresistible to women.

Isaac Merritt Singer
His roots

Isaac Merritt Singer was the youngest of eight children. His father, Adam Singer, was probably of German-Jewish origin as there was a Jewish family in his hometown of Frankfurt, Germany, known as the Rei-singers who were of Hungarian origin.

The first Singer sewing machine, some say Isaac named it the Jenny Lind after his infatuation with the beautiful Swedish singer.

Well folk's this is what it is all about, the first practical sewing machine in the world. The 1851 model made Isaac Singer one of the richest men on the planet. It had many novel ideas, a straight vertical moving needle going up-and-down. A wheel that feed the work through and a shuttle copied from Elias Howe. Boy that was going to lead to trouble...



Some say that Isaac Singer’s father, Adam Singer a Lutheran, arrived in New York around 1769 at the age of 16. Some say that he was not born until 1772. I am sure the facts will be corrected with census details coming on line almost daily. The German immigrant had arrived in America to chase a dream, find a wife have children and carve a new life. Little did he know that, out of all his children, his youngest son, Isaac, would fulfil that dream!

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Who would believe,that even today, people sailing to New York in America set eyes on one of Isaac’s wives! Yes, one of the first sights they see when nearing Ellis Island is the Statue of Liberty, which is supposedly modelled on the most beautiful woman in 19th century Europe, Singer’s half-French wife and actress, Isabelle. 

Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, in Paris, built the structure in 1885. It enables Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty to stand proud, welcoming people from all over the world. Édouard René de Laboulaye had the idea of presenting a statue representing liberty as a gift to the United States of America.

The sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, Laboulaye's old friend, turned his idea into reality. After Isaac's death Isabelle, his last wife, moved back to Paris where she became the toast of the city. Bartholdi knew Isabelle Singer rather well and rumours say that he had a passionate affair with her while on her third marriage.

Bartholdi originally asked his mother to sit for the statue to get the basic feminine outline but, though devoted to her son, she could not, or would not, stand still enough for long periods. Then he asked Jeanne-Emile Baheux de Puysiex a woman he met he while holidaying in America (who later became his wife). These tricky spellings are giving me a headache! However she was to shy to allow her face for the statue. There were other names mentioned but the one that keeps coming up time and time again is Isabelle. She was in the right place at the right time and knew all the people concerned.

So in my opinion after staring at family pictures for years that it is Isabelle Singer, the French actress and innkeepers daughter who grew into one of the most beautiful and rich woman in Europe, who finally posed naked for the statue.

If you take a look at Winnaretta Singer, Isaac and Isabelle's daughter, you will see a resemblance between the face of The Statue of Liberty, especially that unique nose and Winnaretta was the daughter not the mum who posed for the statue.

Check out that unique Singer nose.


Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty modelled by Isaac Singer’s wife Isabelle after Singer's death.

Even as an old man, Isaac Singer's charm and wealth attracted beautiful women and Isabelle was his last conquest. As a young man, by all accounts, he had the devil in him. He was a renowned womanizer and father to at least 28 children (24 mentioned in his will) by several wives and countless lovers. However, I am jumping ahead. He has many miles to go and many hardships to face before he makes his millions.

The beginning of a legend


Isaac Singer's father, Adam Singer, set up business as a wheelwright, millwright and barrel maker, or cooper, in Troy, New York. Around the age of 35, in 1788, he married a younger American girl, Ruth Benson, whose family had originally migrated to America from Holland around the 1680's. (Isaac later named one of his many children Ruth).

History tells us that he may have lived until 1855. He was 102 (or more likely 83 going by some dates). Either way it is an amazing fact for the hard frontier life of those days, if correct. It may be true even without porridge and wheat-germ cereals!

In the history books Isaac Singer seems to have been born in several locations in the New York area. One solution I came up with was that Ruth had a slow birth in a fast wagon!


The Legend begins

For our story we will go for the most likely town of Isaac's birth. Some say Isaac Singer was born in the small frontier town of Schaghticoke, NY, on the 26 or 27th October 1811, some say Pittstown.

His dad Adam decided to move his family to Granby, Oswego where Isaac spent his childhood!

Isaac had five brothers and sisters I will quickly name them all including Isaac.

John Valentine Singer, born 1791, died 1887.

Alexander Singer, born around 1800, died?

Elizabeth Singer, born 1801, died 1872.

Christiana Singer, born 1804, died 1887.

Isaac Merritt Singer, born 1811, died 1875.

Elijah Singer, born 1813, died 1860.

Isaac  was one of many children but apparently Isaac's mother, Ruth, suddenly divorced Adam Singer and left the family home in 1821 when Isaac was just 10. She may have gone off to return to her Quaker roots in Albany leaving Isaac's father to run his business and try and bring up eight children on his own. There was rumour that Adam Singer had an affair and it was the last straw for Ruth who divorced him.

However it was not long before Adam found another wife. Hard frontier life, working to keep the family afloat, and broken marriages may explain just a few of the reasons why Isaac never had proper schooling.

It is said that in later years Adam Singer went to find Ruth, possibly to tell her of the fortune their youngest son was making. He tracked her down in Albany, NY, only to find that, she had passed away shortly before his arrival!

Although the family had moved away it would be back in New York City, many years later, that Isaac Singer made an indelible mark on American history, leading to one of the first huge American multinational companies and also one of the first skyscrapers and one of the largest buildings in the world at that time.

The actual signature of the great man himself Isaac Merritt Singer

Adam Singer remarried but Isaac Singer never connected with his stepmother. Isaac Singer, still in Oswego must have had a hard childhood for,  within two years, by the age of 12, still a young boy, he slipped his running shoes on and ran as far away from home as he could.

Isaac runs away


There is little detail of his early years. It must have been hard on the road at such a tender age. What would make a child run from home is anybody’s guess. He probably stayed with some of his older brothers who had left home earlier and were living in Rochester.

There are tales that he worked part-time as a woodworker, carpenter, joiner, woodcarver and lathe operator, paying for his own rudimentary schooling between jobs until he was 19.

But how did the most famous name in the sewing world get into the sewing business?

Isaac Singer was smart, cunning and ruthless. He had to be to survive on the streets of 19th century America. America was a bustling mass of humanity at the time with immigrants flooding in and prosperity blooming. There were endless opportunities for those willing to grasp them.

While in Rochester he learnt how to read, but not write properly, and found a fondness for Shakespeare

A Horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.

Isaac was a born showman and it was his life's passion. He thought of himself as an accomplished actor landing himself, amongst other parts, the role of Richard III with a Rochester group when he was still only 19. Now well built, six foot five inches tall with blonde-red hair, he was an imposing young man. He played his parts so well that he toured for a while with the group.

Isaac's first wife

Catherine Maria Haley


That same year still only 19 in December of 1830, Isaac married Catherine Maria Haley from Palmyra who was 15. Isaac went to live with her parents who were from Croton Landing (Croton on the Hudson) in Westchester County. By the time Isaac was 23 he had a son in 1834, William, and his own house in Port Gibson.

William Singer was later to fill in many details of his fathers and grandfathers sketchy lives. It appears that Isaac would work at almost any job during the day and try his hand on the stage in the evening.

After a few years in the wilderness Isaac Singer reappears in history. By 1836 Isaac and family were living in New York. He had learned the trades of mechanic and cabinetmaker at Hoe's Press possibly in Waterloo, New York. It was these two trades that later would combine to make him one of the richest men in the world.

Baltimore Strolling Players

Now we pop back to Baltimore. As a handsome tall young man Isaac was trying to eek out a living as an actor supplementing his wages with almost any trade. Working during the day in one trade and in the evening as a handyman fix-it-all and part-time actor for the Baltimore  Strolling Players.

Mary Ann Sponsler

It was at one of his performances in Baltimore that he spied a young beauty in the audience. She was the bright-eyed daughter of an Baltimore oyster trader. Before long he had used all his charms on 18yr old Mary Ann Sponsler. Before even longer Isaac had moved in with her parents, probably failing to mention his wife and children in New York!

She was smitten and took acting classes and would later join Isaac on the road. The Baltimore Strolling Players disbanded but Isaac would never lose his love of acting.

Isaac took the time to return to New York and rather than divorce Catherine made her pregnant! Sweet mama...


Mary Ann moved to New York around September of 1836 where Isaac spilt the beans on his earlier marriage but swore it was all over and as soon as he could--he would marry her. wow I have never heard that one before! For 25 years she assumed the title of Mrs Merritt and carried on a tempestuous relationship with the inventor.

A few months later in 1837 a daughter was born to Catherine, a girl, Lillian C Singer. The mum then returned with her children to the family home in Palmyra. Many years later Isaac paid out a huge sum to officially divorce her. Though after Isaac's death Catherine caused lots more trouble. More of that later.

Mary Ann Sponsler would go on to have 10 children with Isaac, their first in July of 1837, Isaac Augustus Singer. She possibly married Isaac in later years but that is up for argument and if she did, it was only for the briefest time just before he left America. She never managed to produced paperwork to prove her marriage and seemed to tell as many porkies as Isaac. As the Red Indians used to say "them two speak with forked tongue!" Oh Isaac had made both women pregnant within weeks of each other.

Two of their children tragically died in infancy which was not uncommon in that harsh period. In later years Mary Ann became a huge thorn in Isaac's side and even after his death she caused an uproar selling her story to the tabloids and holding up his will for six months in court saying she was still his legitimate wife. However in the early years together they were deeply in love, bitterness was a long way off.

Even in Isaac's dreams he could never have imagined how big his name would one day become.


We find Isaac Singer at the age of 27 in 1838 working for his brother as a labourer on the Lockport, Illinois and Michigan Canal.

By the following year he used all his ingenuity an skill to invent a machine for drilling and excavating rock. He probably came up with the idea as he and hundreds more were manually breaking and shifting tons of rubble with little more than spades.

He had no use for his invention and sold it complete with patent rights for a staggering $2,000. It must have been a good invention to command several years wages.

The Merritt Players

With his new wealth he quickly put it to use and followed his first love—acting.

Isaac Singer, now 28, formed a group of actors called the Merritt Players and off they went around America treading the boards.


By 1840, Isaac, along with his small band or troupe were on the road again. Boy does that man love travelling!

Mary Ann's acting lessons had paid off and she played many of the female roles headlining as Mrs Merritt. Acting can be a hard life and as a travelling band of actors their must have been a lot of costs.

Harry Watkins, one of the Merritt Players, once noted that one rainy night the house was almost empty and they only took$2.

To Isaac this did not matter he was doing what he loved most and as long as he had money the show would go on. After their shows they would pack up their wagons and head for the next town. It was real frontier life and Isaac adored it. He would set up camp and the family would cook supper around the camp-fire and he would practise his plays to his family as the sun set. It was an idyllic time but his money was slowly running out.

As Isaac toured so his family grew and his finances dwindled. On the 4th of January 1840 Isaac and Mary ann Sponsler saw the arrival of Voulettie Theresa Singer.

Voulettie Theresa Singer

Voulettie Theresa Singer married William Fash Proctor in 1862. He had joined the Singer Company in 1853 and worked his way up to become Vice president alongside his good friend George Ross MacKenzie. Voulettie Theresa Singer died at the age of 73 on December 14th 1913. 


In 1843 John Albert Singer arrived and Isaac ran out of his invention money.


Isaac Singer could charm the socks of anyone, as one hotel manager from Piqua, Ohio once remembered. Isaac Singer, his partner, Mary Ann, and two children arrived at his hotel, penniless. Isaac Singer talked his way into getting rooms and later performed for the guests to pay for their food and board. Tuttle, the hotel owner even allowed Isaac to talk him and his wife out of their own larger family rooms!

When Isaac Singer packed to leave the hotelier even gave him a few dollars to help the family on their way. He last saw the family heading out of town, into the wilderness on a crammed buckboard pulled by an old nag.


A year later in 1844 Fannie Elizabeth popped out, almost onto the stage.

It is a fact that for the first 15 years of their time together Isaac and Mary lived a happy hand-to-mouth existence bringing up their children anyway they could. On more than one occasion Isaac would pawn his goods even his buckboard to pay for food and lodgings but somehow kept on going.

It was not long before Isaac's money ran out completely and now with three children in tow Isaac decided reluctantly to find regular work and the Merritt Players were disbanded.

He was soon back working at his old trade for a living. His first attempt at the American dream had failed but he was not finished, not by a long way.

In Fredericksburg, PA, Isaac Singer's inventive mind was at work again, this time in inventing an automatic wooden printer’s type. Don’t ask me what it did, I haven’t a clue! Someone told me it cut letters and words out for the printing press. It was obviously not all that successful because, with all of Isaac’s powers of persuasion, he never managed to sell it.

In a statement many years later Isaac lightly said that although his invention made superior type his partners did not and he dissolved the business. This piece of our jigsaw puzzle may be true or may not however what we do know is that all these little experiences in his life was leading up to his greatest achievement. The Singer sewing machine.

Isaac Singer was a practical man with vision but he had a poor academic education. As a child he only went to school when he had time and money mainly in the winter at a common school. His writing, in later life, shows how much difficulty he had spelling even the simplest words.

A rare sample of Isaac Singer's poor writing in 1868

This did not slow the master showman down. His intellect was undeniable, even at a young age he was able to quote great chunks of Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. Always one for smooth-talking the handsome young actor and inventor wheeled and dealed his way through life while Mary patched his clothes and cooked his meals.

By 1846 Isaac is working on his printing invention again trying to perfect it and a wood carving machine in Pittsburgh. Here Jasper Hamlet Singer was born and Mary Olive Singer.

1848 sees the man back in New York.


Back in New York Isaac starts in earnest to build, amongst other inventions, a wood carving machine and a sewing machine. When he is joined once more by Mary Ann she is now using the name Mrs Singer.

However disaster was to strike. Apparently his sewing machine was destroyed in February of 1850 when a boiler exploded in the unit he was using in Hague Street which was owned by A B Taylor. The explosion was so fierce that at least 60 people were killed and many more injured. Isaac was home at 130 East 27th Street with Ann and the children when the explosion happened. When he heard of the disaster he rushed to his premises only to find the place in ruins, bodies everywhere, and his machine in tatters.


By 1850 Isaac Singer had rented a basement at 19 Harvard Place, Boston, MA. He tried once more to sell his printing invention but again failed to find a buyer. However, just as the light was finally at the end of the tunnel tragedy struck. On 6 October 1850, their son, Charles Alexander died. It would not be the end of Isaac's tragedies.

Coincidentally 1850 was the same year that Jacob Singer, a possible relative of Isaac, set off with John Hodge on an epic 2,300 mile journey across America to the gold fields of California. Jacob Singer joined the famous 49'ers and along with 100,000 other men searched for gold in the streams and gullies of  the Golden State. It was a hard life and many men died, many returned penniless, and just a few came back rich.

George B Zieber

Now back to Isaac Singer.

Isaac had the luck to meet George B Zieber. A man who would change his life. George and Isaac sparked up an immediate friendship and George had money. He had seen Isaac's mind at work and his inventions. He knew there was a market for an automatic wood carving machine and he could sell it if Isaac could build it.

George would often visit Isaac and Mary in their shabby apartment where he would supper and talk of the better times ahead. George saw huge potential in his wood carving machine and was willing to find investment for it.

George found workshops at the Woorall Brothers yard in Worth Street where Isaac concentrated on the carving and cutting machine. As soon as it was ready they headed for the most likely place to sell their invention, Boston.

Orson C Phelps

During 1850 Isaac and George started renting a Boston basement from a sewing-machine repairer-manufacturer called Phelps. Here they would carryon working on their wood machine but fate was guiding Isaac into a different venture that would make him gloriously rich.

Orson Phelps was a scientific instrument maker of considerable skill. He had even advised Elias Howe on his sewing machine back in 1845, while in School Street, Boston, but did not see potential in the machine. Actually, Elias was so guarded about his instrument that Orson had not completely figured out what it did!

At 19 Harvard Place Phelps made and repaired not very good sewing machines under licence for Lerow & Blodgett. None of the makers really saw the huge potential in sewing machines at that time, well none of them except Isaac Singer, if only he could get one to work reliably. Isaac was fascinated by the new fangled machine that almost hypnotically joined pieces of fabric together. In Isaac's mind this was the invention of the century all he had to do was make it better.

Phelps was continually having to fix the machines that the tailors were using on the top floor of the workshops so he knew all to well how useless they were. Sherburne C Blodgett's machine was crude and prickly using points and pins so that any operator soon ended up bleeding, cursing and sewing.

When busy, Phelps asked Isaac Singer to repair many of the sewing machines that kept coming back faulty. Isaac was happy to work off some of his rent repairing them and ingratiate himself with Phelps who had capital behind him (where as Zieber, though well off, always talked-the-talk but rarely put up the money when needed).

It is a fact that in 1850 very few sewing machines sewed well. It was right back at the birth of the sewing machine industry and some of the ideas just did not work properly.

While working on the faulty sewing machines it became clear to Singer’s inventive mind that improvements were necessary and he was the man who could carry them out, often boasting about how he could make a better machine than any he had ever come across.

Isaac would later put his money where his mouth was. Now remember that Isaac had no takers for his wood machine. He was obviously hoping for another windfall like before with his rock-driller but it was not happening. If the centre of the wood trade in Boston was not interested who would be? Zieber was still reluctantly lending Isaac money to send home to his wife and kids and had by now sunk thousands into the wood machine with no return.

I bet there are some plans for the machine somewhere. Apparently it could do the work of 20 men and better.

The Famous Bet

While Isaac was in this state of despair his life was about to change forever. Isaac was staying at the Wilde's Hotel sharing a room with Zieber scribbling out drawings of sewing machines.

Legend goes that a bet between the two men is was what started Isaac on his path to millions.

Zieber needed to encourage Isaac into making a sewing machine and had already quietly drawn up a contract on a rough piece of paper. He needed to talk Isaac into signing it. The 1850 contract was between Zieber, Phelps and Singer and basically concluded that they would build a sewing machine called Jenny Lind and patent it.

Zieber would pay for the patent and materials, Phelps the workshop, more money if needed, and any technical help. Isaac would be the inventive genius that made it all possible. All future dividends would be split equally amongst the partners. Phelps and his staff would also be the manufacturer of the future machines.

Zieber kept ribbing Isaac about the sewing machine idea and in the end Isaac boasted that he could build a better sewing machine than anything on the market in a matter of days.

His friend, George Zieber, leapt up and told him to put his money where his mouth was and put him to the test. Isaac said he would take the bet if he had any money. Zieber, unperturbed, offered to lend him the money (for his own bet) as long as they shared any profit from the machine if he produced it! On agreeing Zieber pulled out his contract and found a witness, James Baker Junior. The deal was truck!

Forty dollars was the bet and it was that $40 that would make Isaac Singer one of the richest men in the world.

Zieber and Phelps were onto a good thing. If Isaac Singer did make a sewing machine that worked well they would get their money back and much more. If Isaac failed then Zieber would win his bet and get Isaac to work his debt off over the next few months and stop trying to flog his wood machine that was driving all three of them mad!

1851 was the year that Singer finally came of age. 100 years later in 1951 Singers were marked with a special centenary badge, highly collectable today.

Isaac Singer was handed just enough money to have a go at making a practical sewing machine. Something that, in the entire history of the world, had not yet been done.

Supposedly ignorant of many of the patents of the time Isaac Singer went to work building the machine that would revolutionise the world and set women free. I'm very suspicious of that myself, with all the spare sewing machine parts that he had from broken machines in Phelps basement it would not surprise me if he used some of them to build his model and remember Phelps had seen the Elias Howe machine! Anyway Isaac was on his way to his first sewing machine.

Sure, there were plenty of sewing machines around in 1851but none that were, like his, reliable. The public knew that. Men had tried through the ages to make a good sewing machine but all had shortcomings. In fact there were papers of monopoly issued by Queen Elizabeth I, for an engine that sewed in the 16th century!

If you would like to stop a second and read my History of the sewing machine you will see the muddled path that led to this point in history.

History is made

At last the first practical sewing machine was being built in a basement by a gifted 39yr old who still had a passion to make a fortune and, of course, win his bet.

Now let's look at what Isaac knew about sewing machines in 1850. In September of 1850 the sixth annual exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic's Association was held at the Faneuil and Quincy Halls in Boston. On show was a rotary hook sewing machine made by A B Wilson. Isaac would have gone to the show, if only to try and sell his wood carving machine, but also being an engineer he would not have missed the opportunity to see what was going on.

We know that Isaac was familiar with more sewing machines like the Lerow & Blodgett machines that he repaired for Phelps. We know that Phelps had seen the Elias Howe model and finally we know that Isaac is already an accomplished engineer and inventor. All these add up to making Isaac the perfect man to invent the first practical sewing machine in the world.

Isaac Merritt Singer on the verge of inventing the machine that changed our world.
Burning the midnight oil with George Zieber the man he later fell out with.

Isaac Singer’s versions of events were naturally flamboyant. In later life he often told of how he worked tirelessly for eleven days and eleven nights building his sewing machine. How he went without food and grabbed only a few snatches of sleep.

That may be true. Whatever the story, the result was undeniable, a sewing machine that actually sewed a reliable lockstitch.

Isaac Singers own words

"My attention was first directed to sewing machines late
in August, 1850. I then saw in Boston some Blodgett sewing
machines, which Mr. Orson C. Phelps was employed to keep in
running order. I had then patented a carving machine, and Phelps,
I think, suggested that if I could make the sewing machine practical
I should make money.

Considering the matter over night, I became satisfied I could

make them practically applicable to all kinds of work and the next
day showed Phelps and George B. Zieber a rough sketch of the machine
I proposed to build. It contained a table to support the cloth
horizontal instead of a feed-bar from which was suspended vertically
in the Blodgett machine, a vertical presser-foot to hold the
cloth, and an arm to hold the presser-foot and needlebar over the
table. I explained to them how the work was to be fed over the table
and under the presser-foot, by a wheel having short pins on its periphery
projecting through a slot in the table, so that the work would
be automatically caught, fed, and freed from the pins, in place of
attaching and detaching the work to and from the baster-plate by
hand, as was necessary in the Blodgett machine.

Phelps and Zieber were satisfied that it would work. I had
no money. Zieber offered forty dollars to build a model machine.

Phelps offered his best endeavours to carry out my plan and make
the model in his shop. If successful we were to share equally. I
worked at it day and night, sleeping but three or four hours out of
the twenty-four, and eating generally but once a day, as I knew

I must make it for the forty dollars, or not get it at all.

The machine was completed in eleven days. About nine o'clock
in the evening we got the parts together, and tried it. It did not sew.
Exhausted with almost unremitting work, they pronounced
it a failure, and left me one by one until only Zieber was with me.

Zieber held the lamp, and I continued to try the machine but anxiety
and incessant work had made me nervous, and I could not get
tight stitches. Sick at heart, about midnight we started for
our hotel. On the way we sat down on a pile of boards, and Zieber
mentioned that the loose loops of thread were on the upper side of the
cloth. It flashed upon me that we had forgotten to adjust the tension
on the needle-thread.

We went back, adjusted the tension, tried the machine,
and it sewed five stitches perfectly, then the thread snapped.
But that was enough to secure my forty dollars."

The rest as they say is history. After a few minor hiccups Isaac Singer packed up his sewing machine and headed for the patent office in New York. Against all the odds he had come up with the first reliable and practical sewing machine in history.

As agreed both Phelps and Zieber joined Isaac in a business partnership for Isaac's machine. At the last moment before the patents they dropped the Jenny Lind name in case she fell out of favour with the public and was forgotten.

Later in the year Phelps was bought out of the partnership with the help of a new partner buying in, one Barzillan Ransom, who was a manufacturer of bags and instantly saw the potential of Isaac's machine. Phelps was taken on as a salesman. It was a decision he later dearly regretted.

1851 the most important date in the history of the sewing machine

Though this is the 12 August 1851 patent it was not granted full patent protection until 29 September 1856 because of litigation.

Singer sewing machine patent 8294 of 1851. At last a sewing machine shape that is familiar.

To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, Isaac Merritt Singer of the City, County and State of New York have invented certain new and useful improvements in the machine for sewing seams in cloth.

From this point on in our history, true mass production of clothes and many other industries started. You can look back on many items from lamps to typewriters and see their birth in mass production from around this point in history.

Now I must add a little note here. While all this was going on Isaac was having his old wondering-eye problems with women for 1851 was also the year that Mary Eastwood Walters (another Mrs Merritt) produces a child by Isaac.

Back to mass production. An example:

Late in 1851 or early in 1852 a shoemaker, John Brooke Nichols, seeing the potential in the new sewing machines, bought a Howe sewing machine to try and convert it to sew leather for his business. This failed so he purchase a machine from Isaac Singer. He managed to successfully alter the Singer machine to sew leather. Nichols then proceeded to offer the rights, via Isaac Singer, to shoe manufactures such as John Wooldredge and George Keene in Essex County.

The Goodyear Welt Stitcher and the McKay Sole Stitcher soon followed. This introduced a new era of mechanised mass production in the shoe industry. The future was here!

Now back to Isaac Singer and his search for wealth.

Barzillan Ransom, I love that name, had invested $10,000 in Isaac's and George's company which allowed not only the buyout of Phelps but the instant expansion of the business. They immediately opened premises in New York at the back of Smith's & Conant's at 256 Broadway. The story goes that Isaac went to rent the rooms at the business but ended up selling them two sewing machines and clothing William Singer in a new suit!

Thomas Jones was hired to look after the back store where he made some make-shift tables where he and Singer's son Gus sat and waited for orders. Gus, who was 14, had the tip of one of his fingers missing after he got it caught while demonstrating his dad's machine! Jones later took a sewing machine out on the road to go and find some orders.

All the machines were still being made at Phelps's premises though he was now on the road selling the machine. Actually just about everyone was out on the road selling sewing machines including Gus and William Isaac's oldest son.

Isaac quickly settled into improving his machine. and by 1851 was busy bullying Barzillan Ransom out of the business who had not coughed up most of the promise $10,000. In fact Barzillan Ransom was not a well man and after advise from his son settled for payment in sewing machines. He died shortly after leaving the firm leaving just Zieber and Singer as partners.

Isaac Singer's only problem with his superb machine was that he had infringed several patents while putting his machine together. His worst nightmare came true when he found himself in court against one of the most powerful men in America the stubborn and driven, Elias Howe.

Elias Howe had successfully been charging all the other sewing machine manufacturers for the use of his patents and Isaac Singer, the poor upstart, was going to be no exception. Although Howe had a rocky start in the sewing machine business, he had made most of his money suing everyone who had used some of his patented ideas.

Elias Howe's machine looked nothing like Isaac Singer's but it had the Howe patents that Singer may have copied.

It is well worth reading his history, by my own fair hand where I put his side: Elias Howe


In the year 1853, Walter Hunt, backed by Isaac Singer, applied for a patent upon Hunt's old sewing machine invention in an effort to destroy Howe's protection. The application was refused on the ground of abandonment. This is fascinating reading…

Judge Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, May, 1854

"Hunt claims priority upon the ground that he invented the
Sewing Machine previous to the invention of Howe. He
proves that in 1834 or 1835 he contrived a machine by which
he actually effected his purpose of sewing cloth with considerable
success. Upon a careful consideration of the
testimony, I am disposed to think that he had then carried
his invention to the point of patentability. I understand
from the evidence that Hunt actually made a working
machine in 1834 or 1835. The papers in this case show
that Howe obtained a patent for substantially this same
invention in 1846.

Notwithstanding this, the Commissioner was forced to
refuse Hunt's belated application, for the reason that an
Act of Congress in 1839 had provided that inventors could
not pursue their claims to priority in patents unless
application was made within two years from the date
when the first sale of the invention was made. Hunt
had sold a machine in 1834, and had neglected to make
application for his patent till 1853.

Thus it was that one of the grandest opportunities of
the century was missed by the man who should rightfully
have enjoyed it; the honors and emoluments of the
great sewing machine invention passed to a man who
neither had invented a single principle of action, nor
applied a practical improvement to principles already

 Judge Charles Mason then went on to attack Elias Howe…

 Elias Howe, Jr., acquired the power, by
simply patenting another man's invention, to obstruct
every subsequent inventor, and finally to dictate the terms
which gave rise to the great Sewing Machine Combination
about which the world has heard—and scolded—so much.
Howe's machine was not, even in 1851, of practical
utility. From 1846 to 1851 he had the field to himself, but

the invention lay dormant in his hands. He held control
of the cardinal principles upon which the coming machines
must needs be built, and planted himself squarely across
the path of improvement—an obstructionist, not an inventor—
and when, in 1851, Isaac M. Singer perfected the
improvements necessary to make Hunt's principles of real
utility to the world Howe continued to obstruct and pursue litigation.”

 Walter Hunt testified, under oath, as follows…

"Elias Howe has several times stated to me that he was
satisfied that I was the first inventor of the machine for sewing
a seam by means of the eye-pointed needle, the shuttle and two
threads, but said that it was irrelevant as he had the prior right to
the invention because of my delay in applying for letters-patent.”

Walter Hunt, inventor of the safety pin and repeating rifle, had invented a sewing machine years before  but the story goes that Hunt’s daughter had actually put Hunt off patenting his invention. She feared that thousands of women would find themselves out of work if he went ahead with making a sewing machine.

Walter Hunt and his part in the invention of the sewing machine.

The facts turned out to be quite the opposite, creating a whole new industry and cheaper clothes for the masses.


On 4 September 1854 Julia Ann Singer, who was just a few months old died, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery alongside Charles Alexander. Isaac named two of his daughters Julia Ann.

Let us have a quick sum up of Isaac's women in New York that we know. Mary Eastwood Walter know as Mrs. Merritt: Lived at 225 West Twenty-Seven St. Mrs Judson who worked at Singers in New York. Ellen Brazee, Ellen Livingstone, both who supposedly bore him children. Mary McGonigal known as Mrs. Matthews lived at 70 Christopher Street. Mary Ann Sponsler lived at 14 Third Avenue and Fifth Avenue and Mary Water. Also another young beauty now appearing on the scene was Kate McGonigal, younger sister of Mary... My brain hurts. It gets worse...There was a Mary McGonigal who was born around 1837 who went to America from Glasgow. Her parents were Hugh McGonigal and Sarah Coyle. It is a possibility that as a young woman she found work with her sister in one of Singers premises where she caught his ever-wandering eye. 

1851, child with Mary Eastwood Walters (Mrs Merritt).

1852, child by Mary Ann Sponsler.

1852, child by Mary McGonigal (Mrs Matthews).

1854, child by Mary McGonigal.

1856, child by Mary McGonigal.

1856, child by Mary Ann Sponsler.

1857, child by Mary Ann Sponsler. 

1858, child by Mary McGonigal.

1859, child by Mary McGonigal

Fight, Fight

Let us get back to Isaac and his sewing machine and leave his women for the moment.

As the court case blustered on one day Elias Howe spotted one of Isaac Singer's machines being demonstrated in a shop window and immediately went in to complain.

Isaac was there and a furious argument ensued. Much to the amusement of the onlookers the powerful Isaac booted Howe out of the shop.

Howe left flustered and angry. By now he was used to manipulating others not being pushed around. He vowed Isaac Singer would pay! 

 Isaac Merritt Singer's first machines were monsters to move but produced a reliable stitch. 

Above you can see an 1850's Singer and a 1950's Singer, 100 years of evolution.

Note: Although this has been marked the model A it was better known as the Singer Model 1 & 2.

Years of legal battles ensued and much later Elias Howe allegedly tried to get Congress to allow him to extend, once again, his patent rights. Elias Howe stated that the huge sums that he had made out of his patents was still not enough. Needless to say popular opinion of him was not the same. He was slaughtered in the periodicals of the day and lost his patent extension.

Later Elias Howe hired writers to boost his colourful version of the sewing machine saga. I have a soft spot for the genius so I won't say any more you have to read his history. Elias Howe.

Patent 12364 Isaac Singer 1855

Isaac Singer was super-busy between 1851-1856  partly in court, partly in his new business, partly with women but also designing ways to get around the main patents held by Howe, Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker. This patent is for a lever to pull the work through rather than A B Wilson's four motion feed. Isaac Singer also patented the first stitch that we now call the stretch stitch and the needlebar cam bearing. What a clever boy!

Isaac Singer used all his talent and cunning to avoid Howe’s costs while producing his sewing mahcines.

Singer sewing machines came onto the market at $125, a fantastic and impossible sum for most normal families. Apparently it was around a years wage in 1852. Still undeterred Isaac went ahead with a stream of adverts for his machine.

Beauty in advertising

Singer's first machine being advertised in 1852. Legend persists that this woodcut is actually Isaac Singer's mistress and later wife Mary McGonigal who worked at Singers and was known as Mrs. Matthews. Isaac had two children with her.

Possibly the only picture of Mary McGonigal known as Mrs. Matthews who lived at 70 Christopher Street New York and bore Isaac several children..

Isaac interviewed and employed countless beautiful women to demonstrate his sewing machines in shop windows, halls and auditoriums. His plans worked so well that the crowds often blocked carriages trying to move along the streets and police were paid to keep traffic flowing.

The cunning Isaac

Isaac Singer no longer really needed his old partners, he needed a legal brain. Firstly to fight his court case with Elias Howe and secondly to figure out how people could afford his machine.

Edward Clark

We have to back-peddle a little to 1851 and introduce Edward Clark.

Into our story comes Edward Clark who instantly sees a huge potential in the new venture. Clark was a partner working at a firm of New York lawyers called Jordan Clark & Co. Isaac knew Edward from his dealings with him on an earlier invention of the wood carving machine. He had offered Edward right in his patent rather than money for his help in the carving machine. He was about to do the same again. By June of 1851 Clark was a partner in Isaac's sewing machine company. Clark immediately set himself against the legal teams who were ganging up on the Singer patent and Isaac's machines.

Also Clark and Singer went to work on Zieber. Clark informed Zieber that no formal agreement existed over Phelps's and Ransom's share of the company and Isaac could transfer the patent to whoever he liked as no court would uphold an non-binding agreement on a patent before it was actually issued!.

Isaac Singer had constantly overworked and bullied old man Phelps, one of his early partners, until he sold out. Then, in a brilliant move, he allegedly conned the other. He had already got rid of two partners, Ransom and Phelps. There was only one left, Zieber.

Clark watched while Isaac Singer removed his old partners. It appears that Clark was more than happy for them to be removed from what was to become such a huge financial boom, all he had to do was wait till Isaac Singer needed him most and then strike a deal.

Clark had no money to invest but he had something more precious to Isaac Singer, legal talent!

The Isaac Singer feed patent 13362 of July 1855

This was another of Isaac Singer's attempt to get around the A B Wilson feed patent.

George Zieber who had also gone into partnership with Isaac was overworked and in failing health, probably due to the pressure Isaac Singer was putting him under to get machines produced as demand grew.

The story goes that Isaac Singer went to his bedside with his friendliest acting face on. He listened patiently to all of poor Zieber's problems and promised he would look after Zieber’s family after his death. Noting that his doctor had told him that Zieber would die shortly. He also told Zieber that all production of sewing machines had stopped as there were no orders and the business was failing!

All that Zieber had to do was sign over his part of the business to Isaac before they were lost.

To sweeten the pot Isaac Singer would even advance him $6000 to leave to his offspring after his impending demise! (a huge amount).

It seemed too good to miss. If only Zieber could have seen the future! He was about to make the biggest mistake of his life... The very next morning Isaac brought all the paperwork with him for Zieber to sign.

March 1852

No sooner had Zieber signed the shares over, Isaac Singer promptly left and searched out the best doctors of the period. Their orders were to spare no expense in curing the failing Zieber. Guess what...Zieber recovered! It turned out that Isaac had never spoken to Zieber's own doctor and had made the whole 'dying' thing up!

In a stroke of devious genius Isaac Singer had most of his business back and for what would become a pittance of the companies future wealth.

To make things worse for Zieber, once fit, he ran to England to see if he could get ahead of Singer but found the market already sewn up. He returned and he ended up working for Isaac as an employee, which he reluctantly did for many years. He edited the I M Singer & Co Gazette hoping that one day he would find himself on the generous side of Isaac. It never happened. Zieber openly hated Clark who he saw him as the man who made it possible for Isaac to get him out of the company.

It is extraordinary to think that Isaac Singer could have been so cold blooded. Isaac Singer and Zieber had been through so much together. When the pair had first met, according to Zieber, Isaac Singer hardly had a shirt on his back, his jacket was torn at the elbows and he had not eaten for days.

Zieber had clothed and fed Isaac Singer and spent many hours with him talking of living the dream. Between them, they had been through great hardships. Zieber had also borrowed heavily to invest in Isaac Singer new business and helped him in endless ways.

Isaac Singer’s showed his ruthless side where money was concerned. This ruthless side was what many people felt when crossing the man that had grown up fast in a hard world.

Isaac Singer stitches

Isaac Singer was a busy boy experimenting with several types of stitches. All were patented including Patent 12969 for a chain-stitch machine in May 1855.

However, Isaac Singer did not have it all his own way for waiting in the wings as all this went on was the brilliant legal mind of Edward Clark who was a match for Isaac’s more forceful tactics. It was probably Clark who drew up the legal documents for Zieber on his supposed death bed.

Once Zieber recovered (and failed in his bid to secure overseas patents for himself) he had little choice but to continue working for Isaac but as far away from him as possible. They say that around 1858 Zieber moved to Brazil where he set up Singer's South American agencies.

Edward Clark was to become the financial genius behind the Singer name and helped make Singer's the powerhouse it became. They were the perfect team.

Clark had agreed to fight Elias Howe, and others, in court, for a huge lump of Isaac Singer’s business. Isaac, still far from rich and in desperate need for money to pay Zieber, had little option but to agree.

After all of Isaac Singer’s cunning work, Eddie Clark got half his business without putting in a cent! Brilliant.


Isaac Singer messed around with loads of ideas to try and get around the patents owned by the his main competitors but in the end they were unimportant to him personally. His wealth was to be made in his greatest and first lock stitch sewing machine. His place in history was assured.

The partnership between Isaac Singer and Clark turned out to be one of the most successful in sewing history and, although they obviously did not trust each other, they both needed each other. They became uneasy bedfellows in a multi million global empire.

Incidentally, Isaac Singer, with his persuasive manner also managed to get some of Elias Howe’s sewing machine competitors to refuse to pay the huge licence fees that Howe was demanding. This enraged the pompous Howe even more who one day marched around to see Isaac Singer.

He told him the demand for his patent had changed from $2 000 to $25 000. Once again a heated argument ensued and Howe was shown the door. The stage was set for years of legal wrangling and court cases.

The Isaac Singer chain-stitch of 1855, Patent 13,687

Isaac Singer experimented continually during the early 1850's patenting idea after idea. As his wealth increased he let the Singer Company to do the inventing while he chased women and spent money. How the other half live eh!

The first Hire Purchase

This is where Clark earned his share of the business. Not only did he keep Howe’s lawyers tied up in court but  with his staff he devised the first official hire purchase scheme for Singers expensive sewing machines.

Everyday people who could not afford $125 for a Singer machine could pay $3 per month for their sewing machines and so the never-never was born. Clark also devised multiple or group purchases where several people could get together to buy one machine. Families could pay together or even work colleagues or streets of neighbours could buy a sewing machine together.

Clark's hire-purchase scheme that seems so obvious and simple today was revolutionary and brilliant in its time.  

The first publicly accepted hire purchase in the world

This is a genuine British Singer hire purchase slip, one page from a whole book of them. Each page would have the amount paid weekly or monthly cut off the top. Amounts were changeable from one shilling to one pound depending on your circumstance. Each week the customer would take the hire-purchase book to their local Singer shop where the amount paid would be filled in and signed and dated by Singer's. 

The average payment in 1936 for a standard Singer hire-purchase agreement from the Singer Company in England was two shillings and six pence a week (half-a-crown). The average woman's wage was little over one pound a week. A Singer 28k which retailed for around £30 would have been paid for over several years. One pound was 20 shillings.

This meant a customer would pay weekly for roughly 240 weeks for their sewing machine or over four-and-a-half-years. I met a customer who paid for 15 years for one sewing machine from 1926 to 1941! Inconceivable today for a sewing machine! You can see that the price of a sewing machine would relate more to a price of a car today. Expensive or what.

Of course for hundreds of years before Clark there had been bartering and exchange, money lending and part-payment, but it was Clark who really did the paperwork and made it part of  our everyday life.

Who remembers the Tallyman or knocker? He would turn up once a week or at the end of the month to get his payments on borrowed money. He would lend money for Tommy’s new shoes or a bicycle for the hubby, a little extra at Christmas. A million Tallymen kept their books of payments and travelled around the poorer communities of the world before Clark’s scheme.

Howe beats Singer in court

Eventually Elias Howe beat Singer in court and Singer had to pay Howe huge sums. By then Singer had the money to pay, so it was painful but no real hardship. If Isaac could have seen how much he would end up paying Howe the $25,000 he had asked earlier would seem like pocket money. I keep jumping ahead, slow down boy.


Elias Howe then gave up suing everyone and, on advice from one of his enemy, joined forces with the men he was suing. All the patent holders pooled their patents and joined The Sewing Machine Cartel. For the first time in history in 1857, patent-pooling happened.

Illegal Monopoly

This was really an illegal monopoly, that ended up needing government legislation, to bring to a halt. I can just imagine the table where they all met. They had been suing each other for years but money had made them uneasy bedfellows.

The all-powerful Sewing Machine Cartel had years of suing all fledgling sewing machine companies. This allowed the few to dominate sewing machine production for years and become rich, stifling most American competition and industry.

Eventually, as all the patents ran out the Cartel was destroyed. Its demise ushered in a new era of affordable sewing machines for the masses, that's you and me. Patent applications went from hundreds to thousands to tens-of-thousands and in a few years the sewing machine pioneers became history.

Once again we are jumping ahead. Let's get back to Isaac Singer.

Out of all of Isaac Singer's patents he failed to notice that the treadle cabinet, that he made to store his machine in, and on which it was used, was unique. He was beaten to the patent office and missed out on patenting the treadle base of his own machine.

Isaac Singer was on the verge of untold wealth but it had not been an easy ride.

So why buy one of these new fangled sewing machines? None of them had ever worked properly before! Why buy a Singer? Who was Isaac Singer? Certainly not the household name he is today.

Isaac hits the road with his machine

With Clark watching his back on the legal side it was time for the showman to return. This is where Isaac Singer’s superb salesmanship comes into action. Much like before, in his acting career, he packed up his machine (in the case he forgot to patent) and he and his entourage hit the road.

He goes to shows, to theatres, to factories, playhouses and displays—"Gather round ladies and gentlemen, come and see the future! The miracle of modern engineering is here."

He tirelessly demonstrates his amazing invention that not only stitches but is also guaranteed to stitch for 12 months without failure!

All of his acting skills, used to promote his machine, start to pay off. The master showman has a great publicity stunt up his sleeve.

He goes to one of the largest sewing factories in America with the Press in tow. Remember up until this point in history every single item of clothing was made by hand. Here his sewing girl has a race with not one—or two—but three of the fastest hand-sewing girls in a factory of over 3000 staff.

He unpacks his sewing machine and off they go. By the end of the race not only has his machine beaten all three hand-sewing girls but the machine has worked flawlessly and with the much stronger two thread lockstitch rather than their single thread hand-stitch.

The press were impressed, the factory was too—placing an immediate order for the machines (though some say he had arranged the factory order with the owner beforehand).

Incidentally, rumour has it that some of the women in the early pictures, that Singer used to promote his sewing machine, were also his mistresses!

Was this another of Isaac Singer's mistresses?

 P T Barnum

Once Isaac set up a demonstration just along the road from the famous P T Barnum. More people flocked to Singer's demonstration than to Barnum’s museum on Broadway!

Isaac Singer, after struggling for most of his life, had finally come of age and so had the sewing machine. Almost single-handed, with bloody determination and against all the odds Isaac Singer had ushered in the dawn of the sewing machine industry.

Colt and Winchester
Mass Production

After a tricky time (up until 1855) when the company kept borrowing to survive the machines started to sell at an amazing rate. For the first time in history, in America, proper mass production was going on. The new age had arrived, which affected not only sewing machines but also more deadly inventions such as firearms!

It is said that both Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester gained knowledge for their mass production of arms from the sewing machine industry, touring the factories to learn how to mass duplicate parts.

The money started rolling in for Isaac. As word spread about the reliability of Singer's machines sales were moving faster and faster.

Isaac soon moved his family out of his workshops and looked for bigger premises as 10 machines turned into a 100 then a 1000.

A rare woodcut of men decorating the Singer New Family sewing Machine in 1865. It was painstakingly finished by hand in gold.

By 1857 I M Singer & Co had survived poor trading and a depression and was booming making over 3,600 machines.

Edward Clark’s clever hire purchase plan also helped tremendously and was copied by all the other sewing-machine makers of the day and then by just about every company in the world. Clark also drew up a plan to trade-in old machines for new ones at a ridiculously high rate of $40 per trade. All old machines were quickly destroyed to stop them being resold.

This policy continued right up to the 1960s and many Singer shops had presses in their store rooms to crush old machines. I know for sure that the Singer shop in Eastbourne, my hometown, had a seven-ton press in the basement for crushing competitors machines.


At last, Isaac Singer's machine, that he had invented-copied-made-improved was to revolutionise the world and provide him untold wealth until his death. He had become the first Bill Gates.

His bank balance, along with is waistline, expanded rapidly.

Edward Clark was kept busy, this time in the Baltimore courts where someone called Walmsley pops up claiming that Isaac should never have been allowed any of his original patents. Incidentally backed by an unhappy Phelps who was now claiming that it was he who had done most of the work on the original Singer machine along with a Mr Lafetra.

Singer's Baltimore lawyer, Latrobe, was well versed by Clarke and Isaac spent his time in a suit of rooms at the Barnum's Hotel with Mary Ann Sponsler, who was addressed by all the staff as Mrs Singer. As the trail dragged on Clark somehow managed to switch Lafetra to his side and won the case.

The good life starts


Isaac Singer was a flamboyant and good-looking man at his peak—and now had money rolling in beyond his wildest dreams. He let Clark run most of the daily grind of their business while he set about enjoying the fruits of his labour.

He moved on mass with Mary Ann to an imposing property at 14 Fifth Avenue full of staff. He employed tutors for the children and a full time doctor, Bill Maxwell, to look after them all. eight coaches were kept along with around a dozen horses and coachmen. He had one specially made racing carriage which was pulled by five horse and capable of high-speed travel through New York..

Going to work in style

Isaac Singer did everything in flamboyant style. He had the grandest and most expensive parties. He loved dancing and telling tales of his days of struggle and hardship.

It is said that he travelled to work in a specially commissioned coach or Sociable which was the finest ever seen in America. He designed and patented it, Patent No 25920. It was bright yellow, over 30 feet long, had toilets, bar cloakroom, smoking room, nursery, beds, seating outside for 16 with luggage for at least a dozen persons. The monster was pulled by matched black horses costing a $1,000 each, nine of them, three abreast.

It was here that Isaac really started to appreciate horses and their bloodstock, a hobby he continued through his life. I wonder if all those years travelling around the frontier Isaac thought he might do it again in amazing style?

The New York Times called his 3,800 pound coach a steamboat on wheels!

He would ride through Central Park to his magnificent offices. Everyone would know who was coming and children would often run along beside his carriage shouting to him in the hope of a few coins. He had special coachmen to keep them off.

I imagine that he probably had a little black cab that he could quietly sneak around in as well!



By the early 1860's the Singer main factory had produced over 20,000 machines at $125 a piece. At a time when the average wage was a few dollars a week, it was already a fortune!

Also his divorce came through for Catherine, amazingly on grounds of her adultery with a Mr  S Kent. I found out that Isaac had Clark offer Catherine $10,000 to agree to the claim of her adultery.

Isaac could not spend the money as fast as he was earning it. Within a few years the company was making over a million machines a year and Isaac and his estate would be getting a cut of every machine.

One of the many Singer factories

 A more dissolute man never lived in a civilized country. He is in the constant habit of seducing females who submit to his base desires.
 Mary Ann Sponsler 1861.

Isaac Singer went on to embrace the good life. He had a string of mistresses and wives. He managed his affairs with little privacy and gave the papers of the day wonderful print material. As his wealth grew so did his excesses, especially where women were concerned.

His offspring rose in number, almost by the month. Many say that he had at least 28 children, possibly more, by a dozen or more wives, mistresses and lovers. Twenty four were named in his will.

Early Singer models

1858 Singer Turtleback

There were not many Singer sewing machine models that Isaac was involved with but here are a few.

Singer No1 1851-1884

Singer No2 1854-1891

Singer No3 Heavy duty 1856-1872

Singer models 4-9 assorted variations of the above.

Singer Family 1856-1859, nicknamed the grasshopper of Turtleback. a failure that led to a superb machine.

Singer Letter A 1859-1870 Singer's first really popular machine.

Singer No12 New Family, 1864-1900. The sewing machine that made Isaac a millionaire.

Singer Turtle-back or Grasshopper 1856.


Singer New Family model 12 of 1865 known as the Fiddlebase

What else was Isaac up to?

Allegedly Isaac was married to at least two women, and keeping mistresses, all at the same time! In the same city— New York!

How he managed to keep his intriguing life going is anybody’s guess! He was burning the candle at both ends and loving it!

One incident caused local uproar and apparently ended with Isaac being arrested.

On 7 August Mary Ann was in her carriage driving along Fifth Avenue when coming along the other way in an open carriage for all to see was Isaac with his mistress, Mary McGonigal (who he had interviewed and hired to work for him at his Philadelphia offices).

A huge row erupted and later when Mary went back to her home possibly at 14 Third Avenue where Isaac was waiting.

Mary flew into another rage. Isaac also became enraged and neighbours fetched the police.

Mary said it was a brutal and bloody assault in which he had knocked both Mary and their daughter Voulettie unconscious.




I M Singer,
The great sewing machine magnate, of 14 Fifth Avenue
was arrested on complaint and put under bond of peace for six months.

Isaac was in a bad situation and to make peace promised to marry Mary Sponsler as soon as he could. She had been his common law wife anyway. Strangely Mary Ann later sued Isaac for divorce in 1861 with her lawyer Fuller in the Supreme Court of the state of New York.

Later in April 1863 she once more went to the Supreme Court on ground of fraud against Isaac but Isaac informed her of something so dire that she dropped the case! We have jumped ahead again, let's get back to 1860. 



Isaac almost kept to his promise to marry Mary Ann Sponsler, (some say he secretly did marry the mother to his eight of his surviving children 10 children by her). But Isaac was also deeply intertwined with Mary McGonigal with whom he had five more children.

How did the man do it? Simply astounding. He now has 17 children that we know of and there is more on the way.

Isaac was also involved with another Mary, Mary Water with whom he had another child. How did he keep all this going? Many times he lived with his lovers and partners under assumed names such as Matthews and Merritt. 

He must have told them all he travelled a lot! All this makes Isaac’s real life almost impossible to follow but I am doing my best. Eighteen kids and many more to go!

It is all too possible that he was over-compensating for his very hard start in life. Now, not only could he afford a new suit, he could buy the shop and the women to match!

Incidentally, Singer never made any sewing machines for anyone except Singer. This was unlike most of the other companies who were only to happy to put any name you wanted on the front of a machine if you bought enough of them.

Isaac Singer was busily improving his machines all the time and right up until 1867 he was submitting a constant stream of patents to the Patent Office. Isaac was at his peak and buzzing around 24 hours a day not only with work but enjoying all the benefits of massive wealth that just kept on growing.


Eventually it all caught up with him. His constant womanising and a series of scandals turned many Americans against him. Their prodical son became ostracised from society and scandalised in the papers.

Remember Isaac was the consummate showman and could not resist the opposite sex. It was as if he was playing a part in one of his plays, seducing each female in turn. I have no doubt that he loved many of his mistresses and wives. He would not have got so upset about them if he didn't.

His ability to fall madly head-over-heels for someone and treat them like a queen was balanced by his darker side rages when things went wrong.  With his exceptional love came the ghost from within and his uncontrollable rages.

Also there is an old adage that goes...Success can help wash away sins of the past. I think that Isaac was brilliant at washing away his past and most of his women went quietly on their way. However a few did not!

Periodicals say that Isaac Singer could be rude-mouthed, hot-tempered and arrogant. Some women obviously loved it, though in reality he had a dark side! Clarke was constantly having to work around his partner and expand the company. At one point he had a loan for expansion denied by the bank on grounds of moral turpitude! Funnily years later Isaac flew into another rage when he found out that Mary Ann had married someone else claiming that he had married her and  no one else and that she would be sent to prison for bigamy!

The Edward Clark Steamboat 1860. People forget that Edward Clark also became amazingly wealthy and much of Singer's later success came from Clark's business practises.

There is also a conflicting story that Isaac Singer escaped while on bonded release under an assumed name, and, on Clark's advice, went to Europe to set up more agencies and promote his machines. I don't know how true either stories are but I do know that once Isaac was out of the way Edward Clark could get back to running the company rather than bribing his wives and mistresses and avoiding the press and public.

Like I say in the beginning my knowledge has come from a lifetime of picking up snippets of information on this fascinating personality. Now back to the intriguing story...

Isabelle Eugenie Boyer

So the story continues that Isaac fled America on 19 September 1860, not with Mary McGonigal but with her 19yr old sister Kate under the assumed names of Mr & Mrs Simmons. What a sneaky dog. I never saw that coming! They travelled aboard the famous Great Eastern on its return voyage to England and then to London lodgings near his London offices in Cheapside.

Singer's Chief offices in Europe, 39 Foster Lane, Cheapside.

Everywhere he went the tall rich American was news. Clark forwarded Isaac money as he needed. He travelled in style and spent money like water. For every cent he spent 10 more were coming in. He was American royalty and acted the part having tailored suits made in Savile Row and fancy beaver skin hats and silk coats. He would stroll down the London streets with his specially made silver walking stick like someone from another world. People would stop and stare at the sight of Isaac in all his glory.  When he went to the theatre he was more of a sensation than the production. The six-foot-five millionaire was a sight to behold.


Now, here the tale splits as he arrives in Paris.

One version tells that Isaac had visited Paris earlier in his travels and come across a beautiful English woman from Suffolk called Pamela Lockwood who was married to Louis N Boyer who ran a pension or inn. Some say he was an African confectioner with a French wife called Pamilla, which is most unusual. However lets stick with Louis Noel Boyer being an innkeeper. The innkeepers and his wife had a beautiful daughter, Isabelle, but she was already married to an American, one Mr Summerville.

The tale tells that he had persuaded her to free herself and wait for his return while he got rid of his new English companion, Lucy and Mary's sister Kate.

The other story is that first met in America as Isabelle Summerville. We shall go with the Paris story...

So while staying in Paris, Isaac Singer, now an immensely wealthy 49yr old, got together with the Isabelle the Innkeepers daughter. Isaac turned all his charm and wealth on the woman which some say he had earlier and had arranged to meet up again once she was divorced.

She was Isobel or Isabelle Eugenie Boyer a half-French half-English beauty. Described in later periodicals of the day as the most beautiful woman in Europe. Isabelle was only 19 and recently divorced!

Isaac Singer wasted no time in enticing her or maybe it was the other way around—who knows for sure! There is no doubt that the divorced beauty was a spectacular catch for him and, with his wealth, charm and looks how could she resist? She could have had no idea of the wives, mistresses and children that Isaac had left behind in America. 

Isaac and Isabelle went on a Grand Tour of the great cities of Europe combining business with pleasure. They bought works of art and beautiful furniture along with statues and ornaments. They travelled like the aristocracy of old purchasing and partying as they went. All the goodies were crated up and shipped back to America for Isaac's grand house that he was planning to build in New York.

Isaac went back to New York in 1861 on business as Clark needed him to finalise the last paperwork for the new company. Also Isaac wouldtry and tie-up his martial affairs with Mary Ann and his other mistresses and wives so that the coast was clear when he returned with his new love. He was soon pinning for Isabelle and went back as quickly as he could. IN New York they were all out to get him in Europe they all loved him.


On 1 April 1863 the Singer Manufacturing Company was formed with a capital of $500,000 divided into 5,000 $100 shares. Isaac immediately sold 425 shares to raise $25,000.

As soon as Isaac got back to Isabelle he promised to marry her and by late 1862 Isabelle was pregnant.

Isaac decided that America would have long forgotten all about him by now and took his new love back to New York and installed her in his Fifth Avenue home.

Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, former wives and mistresses were waiting for the golden goose to return as were the paparazzi. Within the month Isaac was once again splashed all over the papers.

Isaac Singer was having trouble with one of his divorces and by 1863 Isabelle was very pregnant. As the settlement was agreed and the divorce papers finalised, an eight-month pregnant Isabelle toddled down the isle of St John the Evangelist Church at Waverly Place in New York to marry the man of her dreams. It was the 13 June 1863.

Now Catherine, his first wife, rears her head again not satisfied with a huge $10,000 settlement for their divorce she tried for more from the wealthy Isaac. Isaac was so close to sorting all his women out and flew into another frustrated rage. Isaac was so furious that he threaten all concerned including his own son (with Catherine), William, who, as a young man working for his father at the time. He was so mentally scared from the confrontation it stayed with him all his life. There is no record of Catherine succeeding with her plans.

On 25 July 1863, just over a month after the wedding Isabelle gave birth to Adam Mortimer Singer.

Isaac, now 52 (30 years older than his new wife) was finally free from all former wives and mistresses. He carried on building his grand in New York home where he would bring up his son in legitimate style. Oh I forgot to mention he is now father to al least 20 children... and what happened to poor English Lucy who he picked up in London and shipped to America?

So we know what Isaac was up to but what was the business doing around this time?

One of Isaac Singer Patents for twin needle and free-arm feed.

One of the last original Isaac Singer patents, Patent 34906 from 1862

The Castle

Isaac Singers last residence in the United States was the "Castle" that he had built in Yonkers, New York on the St Lawrence Strait just off the Hudson.

Not to be confused with the "Castle" that Singer Company president Frederick Bourne later built on Dark Island.


It was at the Castle on the 8 January 1865 that Isaac and Isabelle's second child, Winnaretta Eugenie Singer was born, known as Winne.

Winne grew up as the next generation of Singers. She stunned and shocked Europe in equal amounts. More of her later. 

Free sewing machines to wives of clergymen

Apply at the Singer offices

 New York

The Singer building, the world's first skyscraper over 600ft high finally finished in 1908.

Within a few short years Isaac Singer had become the figurehead of a multi-national company that was expanding to every country. Singer machines were being carted across African deserts and up the Amazon with new agents appearing in every town. In the larger towns there would be several agents and shops all selling Singer machines.  


Isaac Singer and family, Isabelle and children, lived in Yonkers for about another year-and-a-half before finally having to leave for Paris in April of 1866.  

Isaac Singer had underestimated the deep resentment that some of the New York society held him in. At the Castle in Yonkers Isaac and Isabelle put on grand parties. They were often shunned by the important families of the day and at some events less than half the people invited showed up for an evening of free entertainment and dining.

This had a deeply upsetting influence on Isaac and Isabelle who tried their hardest to be accepted, but never were.

Isaac's treatment of his former wives and mistresses had come back to bite him, and no matter what he tried he was deemed to be an outcast from high society.

This infuriated the big man but there was nothing much he could do about it. Even in 1863, when he had supplied General Grant and the Army of the North with free sewing machines during the Civil War, it did little to endure the man to his fellow New Yorkers.

If Grant, later to become the President of America, did not publicly embrace Isaac who would? Though it is said that in private they were apparently great friends, Isaac even named his third child, Washington Merritt Grant Singer in his honour.

The main problem is that all 'his problems' were public affairs. The papers of the day hounded Isaac as he was great copy. For example one of the hot gossip stories was that of his former mistress Mary Ann Sponsler.

Mary Ann Sponsler was doing her utmost to destroy Isaac publicly after being unceremoniously dumped by him when he married Isabelle.

Isaac had come up with an amazingly cunning plan to get her out of New York. He offered her a huge sum of money to vacate her New York house for a few days and take her/their children on a nice vacation. While she was away he then tried to force her out of her New York home permanently (allegedly in cahoots with her own layer who he must have paid very well indeed). The trick failed but it was his actions like this that led to a final solution for the exasperated Clark running Singers.

New York and the whole of America was getting just too hot for Isaac. He had burnt so many of his bridges that the whole place must have seemed on fire. It was at this point that Isaac, under pressure from his business partner, decided to pack up and leave America forever.

Enough was enough for both Singer and Clark. His public persona was affecting sales of Singer machines amongst the more prudish markets.

Singer fights Clark in the boardroom

Clark, constantly embarrassed by Isaac and his negative publicity, came to him with a deal that allowed Isaac to semi-retire and spend his wealth on one condition—that he departed America, this time for good!

Clark’s wife was delighted, she was deeply religious and apparently had hated Isaac Singer and what he was up to. She would not even let him step inside her house.

Singer, Clark and their legal team fought a pitched battle over the company and its assets until at last Isaac was satisfied. Isaac was well aware, as was Clark, that this was the deal that would settle the Singer business for good and it was both their chances to get what they could.

As the deal came to a head Clark had an ace up his sleeve. He offered Isaac almost everything he wanted including a cut of all future profits from the company. However it was on one final condition, that Isaac left America almost immediately. It was a ridiculous thing to ask such a thing as Isabelle was heavily pregnant, but in front of Isaac was a carrot of such proportions that he knew he must take it. Clark and his team held their breath as the huge man deliberated with his legal team.

Wheel feed mechanisms were quite popular until teeth caught on and worked very well.

Isaac reluctantly agreed to the deal in the Singer Boardroom. It meant he had to pack and leave America but it would also make him rich beyond all imagination, he would also have a cut of all sales and profits from the company, for life, and technical input on sewing machines if he wished.

The paperwork was drawn up scrutinized by all parties and signed. Inslee Hopper was made the first president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Isaac then moved fast. He was born a travelling man and knew what to do. He wound up many of his affairs in America and booked passage aboard the luxury liner and mail ship the SS City of Washington bound for Queenstown and Liverpool, England.

If Isaac was not appreciated in America he knew, from previous his visits, that Europe loved him.

Because thefamily were leaving America the obvious place to head for was Paris, France, where he had first met Isabelle and the city one of their son's was later named after.


It must have been a sad day in 1866 when Isaac Singer and his family set sail for Europe. He left behind his American dream as well as 18 known children and looked to the future in a foreign land.

I wonder, as he saw the coastline of his homeland slowly fading away, if he ever really knew that he would be leaving America and his other children forever? 

The ship left on April 1 (with a large chunk of the hold full of Isaac's possessions) but floundered on a sandbank at Sandy Hook before getting properly underway.

Isaac Singer never saw America again.

I M Singer & Co becomes the Singer Manufacturing Company

However Isaac still kept huge financial interests in the new Singer Company and remained on the board of directors. This was to lead to wealth of untold proportions as Singer sewing machines swept across the world.

From this point on we follow Isaac Singer and concentrate on the spectacular final years of his life.

On Board the SS City of Washington, in her state cabin, Isabelle gave birth to their third child, hastily named from the decided Merritt Grant Singer to Washington Merritt Grant Singer.

There was no need for Isaac to christen his son with the name Grant (as he had now left America) but it showed the high esteem he held the friendship of Grant.

At 55, Isaac Singer, and his entourage, landed in Liverpool and then toured Europe before settling down in Paris. Their address in Paris was possibly No.83 (Bis) Boulevard Malherbes.


In 1867 Isabelle gave birth to Paris Eugene Singer. Parisian society loved the Singers and great balls were arranged along with fabulous costume dances.


Isabelle Blanche Singer was born in Paris in 1869 and Franklin Morse Singer in February of 1870. The Singers now had six children, three French by birth.

However, as the Singers settled into Parisian life war was coming once more to Isaac's doorstep.

Franco Prussian War

In July of 1870 the Empire of France declared war on the Kingdom of Prussia but did not have the forces to back up their declaration. Isaac Singer watched in horror as the French were defeated in battle after battle. On September 2 Emperor Napoleon III was captured along with 100,000 of his soldiers at Sedan. This was followed by another crushing defeat at Metz where over 180,000 French troops surrendered. Paris was now in danger.

Isaac Singer decided he had seen enough war in his own country and did not want to see it again. At the last moment Isaac managed to book passage on the night train. He quickly packed up the family and rushed to the station where pandemonium was breaking out. With the help of guards the family boarded one of the last safe trains out of Paris. Troops went ahead of the train all the way to check the tracks for explosives and sabotage.


By January of 1871 the family were safely in London just as a peace treaty was signed. The Singers had left most of their clothes, furniture and possessions in Paris thinking that they would return as soon as it was safe. However that was never to happen for Isaac. 

Isaac and family put down roots in London, firstly at Brown's Hotel in Dover Street, but as they settled into London life having six kids running around a hotel was difficult. They moved to a grand town house just off the centre of the heaving metropolis. Isaac kept up-to-date with news from Paris, but it was all bad. After the peace treaty an uprising followed where the Parisian's organised a revolt which was mercilessly crushed by French and Prussian troops. Countless thousands of Parisian's were rounded up and executed. Isaac decided he would never set foot in Paris again.

Unlike New York, the Singer family were warmly welcomed into the centre of  high society in London and the Singer family spent a happy summer in the capital visiting all the attractions like Crystal Palace and the Palm House at Kew Gardens. He fell in love with the home of the giant Amazonian water lily which was warm and brilliantly engineered. He later built a smaller version of all of these 'glass houses' at his Palace in Paignton.Isaac hated the cold which eventually led to his death.

Isaac adored the theatre and would see most of the new plays put on by the late Charles Dickens or my distant grandfather the prolific playwright, James Robinson Planché.

However problems were brewing. The thick smog, poor sanitation and general lack of hygiene in London caused Isaac serious health problems and he became prone to chest infections. Isaac was now 60 and his boundless energy was deserting him. He had put on considerable weight, constantly being on holiday enjoying all the best of London had to offer. As summer came to an end he knew that winter in London was no place for a frail man.

His doctors suggested that clean sea-air worked for the Royal Family and would also suit Isaac. The warmest climate in England was down the West Country on the English Riviera along the coast of Torquay. So once again Isaac was quickly on the move before having to suffer freezing London a moment longer.

Funnily enough Isaac had moved around all his life, from his years as a lad on the streets, to his travelling time with his own touring company. It was no problem for the big man to hit the road to find greener pastures. With his youngest not even a year old the family set off for the West Country.

Isaac had briefly visited the West Country before when he disembarked from the Great Eastern in Bristol and made his way to London and later with Isabelle on his Grand Tour, so he was vaguely familiar with the area of outstanding beauty and possibly in his mind he knew where he would look first.


By February of 1872 the family took the Great Western Railway (their main baggage following by carriage once a destination was secured) down the coast and then onto the small and bustling seaside resort of Torquay. The family moved on-mass into the newish and magnificent Victoria and Albert Hotel (now the Victoria in Belgrave Road).

The Victoria & Albert was only a few years old and the height of Victorian elegance with a ballroom, excellent menu, orchestra and even an electric lift! Also the top suite was self contained with stunning coastal views and perfect for Isaac and his six children. The Victoria Hotel today still has echoes of its grand old days and is well worth a visit. If you stay there, when you have breakfast in the main old ballroom you get a hint of its beauty from ages past.

The Victoria & Albert Hotel in 1870. This view is now the side entrance. Belgrave Road runs down the left to the sea.

Isaac turns Benefactor

It was while recovering at Torquay that Isaac made the amazing decision to shun big cities and the fast life and to stay put in his little hamlet on the English Riviera. Most of the locals adored him, the children loved the open sandy beaches, rocky Jurassic coastline and freedom and he had the fresh sea air to breathe.

I can just imagine the big man sitting in the sun by the sea and thinking to himself that it doesn't get any better than this. Torquay and the surrounding area is still utterly beautiful but does get busy so take a taser, it helps when getting through the crowds!

As his health improved and energy returned Isaac was positive that this was where he wanted spend his last few years.

He sent word to London to lay off the staff at his Chelsea home and close down his Town House, keeping just a skeleton staff for Isaac and Isabelle's occasional shopping trips to the big city.

Oldway House-The Wigwam

Isaac and Isabelle looked around for suitable land to build their magnificent palace in which he would bring up his children and retire in wealth and happiness. He put out word to all the right people and would take Isabelle on long journeys, in the hotel's pony and trap, around the small country lanes looking for suitable land. He almost found it when he came across the Brunel Estate in Torquay but fell out with the owners exploding in his usual mad rage before announcing he would not buy their land if there was gold on it!

On the opposite side of Torquay, across Tor-Bay, on a high point 100 feet above the sea with spectacular coastal views was the Fernham-Oldway estates, and part of it was for sale! Bingo. When Isaac visited he immediately loved the site gesturing to Isabelle where everything would be built and how it would lay with every main window showing panoramic views to the sea.

Land and property was soon rented (and then purchased) and Isaac moved a stones throw along the coast to the sleepy hamlet of Paignton. He and the family moved into two properties on the elevated land of the Oldway Estate which backed onto open farmland.

Although the houses, or rather villas, at Little Oldway were small in comparison to what he wanted (one is now an old peoples home) it was a manor to you and me. Isaac immediately set about enlarging Little Oldway to suit his temporary needs while he planned his palace.

The land was perfect and more land was also available all around the estate to buy.

Isaac was soon overseeing the clearance of the old apple orchards, gardens and remaining properties. Six cottages were flattened, a pub and some other warehousing demolished leaving a huge barren plateau above the sea.

Plans were being drawn up along the lines of some of the amazing architecture and palaces that he had seen on his tours of Europe. Remember Isaac is now rich beyond any imaginings and getting richer by the hour as his machines went global. His brilliant deal with Clark back at Singer headquarters meant Isaac got a cut of everything. Money was no object.

Isaac's dream was to build a palace on a grand scale. He would call it his 'Wigwam' but it became known as Oldway House, Oldway Manor, Oldway Palace, Oldway Hall or simply, Oldway. Around the area it was always referred to as Mr Singer's Palace. Whatever it was called Isaac, and later his son Paris, made sure that Oldway was to become a real palace on par with many around Europe including Blenheim and Buckingham Palace.

Even what is left standing today at Oldway takes your breath away.

Isaac called on the expertise of a 31yr old architect, George Soudon Bridgman, who had just finished designing the impressive Torbay Hotel in Torquay.

On his cleared plateau Isaac had a dream of building a unique house to compare with the best in the world. Isabelle put in her desires as well and between them, and later their children, a dream would come true.

Isaac and Isabelle knew what they wanted, he was a designer and inventor. He had also built his own properties before, and seen just about every grand house in Europe including King George's palace at Brighton now called Brighton Pavillion. As one of the richest men in the world he would design and build the Wigam, which by any standards would be a palace of extraordinary quality and proportions.

Stone was shipped in from Portland, and granite from Aberdeen, hundreds of windows would be framed with terracotta coloured bricks and the great Singer 'S' monogram that was on every sewing machine would grace the front of the building like a heraldic shield.

The property would have touches of all the great houses from France to Italy. First to go up was the Rotunda started in 1871 but as soon as that was sorted and all the plans and materials for the main building finalised Oldway Palace would rise like a colossus above Paignton. 


On the 10 May 1873 a grand event was laid on as all the workmen surrounded the Singer family Isabelle laid the first foundation stone of their palace. With great cheering hundreds of workmen started to build one of the most impressive properties in England.

The front driveway would sweep up to the first floor entering through four grand Palladian pillars into the Italianate hall. In the hall just by the entrance to the theatre, would be Isaac Singer's first, Jenny Lind, sewing machine with his patent drawings in a huge display cabinet.

Isaac sent Bridgman off to Paris to get structural details of some of the properties and palaces that he loved and set about adding every latest invention that could be put into his new dream home. Isaac drew from all his experiences planning his greatest house, his mausoleum. He loved Claridge's in London which he adored and where great heads of state regularly stayed. He loved parts of Hampton Court and many other great buildings scribbling endless ideas down for his architects and designers.

Isaac decided to call his house the Wigwam from his early years on the frontier, but no place on this planet could have been further from the humble Indian abode.

Isaac commissioned a huge totem pole to stand at the front of the building with a Red Indian firing an arrow from a bow. Many years later, his son, Paris Singer, donated the Indian pole to Paignton where it stood above the bandstand on the seafront.

Oldway Palace

This is a drawing of just a part of Isaac's Wigwam published in the periodicals of the day. A huge S was emblazoned in the stonework like some heraldic shield. Look at the middle of the A.


Here is a Paris Palace of the same period. You can clearly see what influenced Isaac.

Isaac would also incorporate a large theatre, designed by Frank Matcham, who was probably related the the main building contractor, James Matcham, from Plymouth. Frank went on to become one of the greatest theatre designers of his time. The theatre is where Isaac and his children would put on plays to entertain visitors and the people of Paignton and Torquay.

Isaac's hate of the cold would be conquered by central heating. A few years before one of his friends and fellow sewing machines pioneers, Allen Benjamin Wilson, partner in the famous Wheeler & Wilson company and fellow member of the infamous Sewing Machine Cartel, had designed his own boilers and heating for his home in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Wilson had completed his house and then went on to build a hotel called Wilson House in North Adams, Massachusetts, which also contained a theatre, but more importantly it was fully central heated. In 1865 the year before Isaac had left America Isaac was given the grand tour of the, almost complete, hotel. Wilson proudly displayed his new fangled boiler and radiators for the hotel. It was this idea that Isaac used in Oldway to keep his Wigwam warm whatever the weather.


Here is part of the sweeping conservatories that lined the rear of the buildings.

The next four years of Singer's life were his happiest. It is here that we see the dramatic change in character from the fighter who had struggled to feed himself, to the father and benevolent old man for which he is still fondly remembered in Paignton. He was known to help the destitute with food, shelter and work and regularly held great feasts for the less well off so that they could stuff themselves silly. All the family joined in and it was a great grounding for Isaac's children who had so much, including private tutors, to mix and also see how normal people had to struggle.

 Isaac's Final Chapter

 Oldway Manor, Paignton. Taken by me in 2012. This is the side of Oldway where Isaac Singer died shortly after one of his children's weddings. Apparently it had around 110 rooms with a hall of mirrors modelled on many of the great homes like Claridge's in London or parts of Hampton Court and Versailles, especially the gardens. Oldway Manor is presently owned by the local council who upkeep and cherish the unique property that they have inherited. The decoration inside takes your breath away.

While the main manor was being built at an impressive rate by over 200 workmen and professionals with over 140 just on the building, Isaac also designed and had started The Arena, or Rotunda, next to the grand house. The Rotunda looked like a huge circular stone Bedouin tent. All the time Isaac ,who was still in his villa on site, overlooked everything like some ancient pharaoh building his tomb. His fantastic memory for names came in handy as he daily toured his buildings, chatting to the workmen, joking and laughing with them.

The Rotunda was mainly used for horse training which Isaac followed with a passion and his son, Franklin, carried on with, breeding some of the finest bloodstock in Europe. However, in the evening the Rotunda could be converted into a fantastic showpiece for entertainment.

The Rotunda

The Rotunda equestrian centre and entertainment venue still survives today but is in desperate need of restoration.

The doors were large enough to allow a coach and horses straight in to unload, out of the rain, so as not to spoil the ladies’ evening gowns. The Rotunda survives to this day but is only a shadow of its former glory when great parties were laid on and Isaac and his children performed for the local population.

The Wigwam and the Rotunda both survive in Paignton, part Council Offices, part empty but well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity of Paignton down the West Country. It is not hard to imagine the grandeur of the palace in its heyday with Isaac's children running around and staff everywhere.

The Rotunda was completed in record time as Isaac paid his workmen top wages and treated them well. He only had one condition, which was not negotiable, he had used it in his sewing machine factories to great effect. If a strike was called, for any reason, Isaac would shut up shop, lay everyone off, leave and never return.

Fair enough most of the locals thought. With Isaac Singer's investment in the town, Paignton was growing at a rapid rate and everyone was benefitting from the baker to the candlestick-maker. Paignton was being nick-named Singerton.

While he may have been shunned by America, the wealth that he brought to the West Country of England was most welcome. Isaac Singer employed hundreds of local workmen on his palace and he became a popular sight around the town of Paignton. He was like a mafia don, an all powerful, strange and imposing giant of a man in the sleepy backwater of old England. People would stop work and bow or tap their hats as he passed and occasionally he would stop and chat before continuing.

It was now that Isaac sent for one of his favourite children from a pervious marriage. Alice Eastwood Merritt Walter, daughter of Isaac and Mary Eastwood Walter (know for a time as Mrs Merritt). After a huge journey across the world the young girl duly arrived at the manor. It was a day of great joy for Isaac who openly wept in front of all the workmen then fell to his knees as he saw her coming up the path.

She soon joined in with the other children and became part of his Paignton family. She fitted in so well that later Winnaretta acted as one of her bridesmaids at her wedding in July of 1875 at St John's Church in Paignton.

Birthday Celebrations at Oldway


On October 27 1873 Isaac and family put on a show-piece to celebrate his 62nd birthday though many say his actual birthday was the 26th. Enough of the house and stage was completed to hold and evening of fantastic entertainment, complete with an accompanying pianoforte.

Alice Merritt, now with the surname Singer, played the maid of the Rising Sun Tavern from Offenbach's comic opera, in a one-act piece called Breaking the Spell. Winnie performed a solo scene, Spooning the Sands. Mortimer Singer, now dropping the Adam altogether from his name, did a scene from Henry VIII between Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell and then not to be outdone did a solo piece, Courting in the Rain. 

The evening was a great success and unlike New York the place was packed to the rafters, everyone came.

And so Isaac Singer settled into his retirement with ease, enjoying his family and wealth. On January 1st 1874 the Rotunda was complete and ready for its first great event. A huge New Year celebration was held.


Isaac Merritt Singer in his final year dressed in silk and crimson velvet, still a grand and imposing man but as he told his friends his appearance was deceptive, he felt hollow and constantly fatigued. He was now famous for his children's parties and charitable donations. He had come a long way since he wore ripped jackets, holed shoes and stole food to survive. Photograph with kind permission from the PDC, Paignton.



In the New Year of 1874 Children from the surrounding villages, and the workmen's kids were invited into the newly completed Rotunda. As they walked inside the amazing building, of which the likes they had never seen before, a band welcomed them in.

In the centre was the most enormous Christmas tree they had ever seen reaching high into the building. It was decked from tip-to-toe with presents, hundreds of them, some say over a thousand were piled at its base. As they children played games they were allowed to open their presents. To some it was the greatest day of their lives. As the evening continued dancing and feasting in the main house followed for the parents and other guests.

One final incident that I was told about at Oldway, shook family life. I was not sure at first about this but then bells started to ring when I found out a bit about Isaac's will. It may have a grounding in reality rather than rumour.

Allegedly Isaac was walking through part of his mansion with new instruction for some door openings when he entered a room still under construction. In the room was Isabelle and a workman. Isaac, (the ultimate womaniser who knew every trick when it came to women) immediately recognised the compromising situation that Isabelle and the workman were in and flew into a rage. He sacked the workman on the spot and sent the rest of the men home.

Apparently Isabelle wriggled out of the serious situation but Isaac never trusted his much younger and beautiful wife again. As work resumed he summoned his local solicitor and good family friend, Yard Eastley who contacted his New York lawyer Hawley. Isaac added a codicil to his will stating that if ever Isabelle were to marry again after his death she would immediately lose any title to the Wigwam and its lands and most of her inheritance. This would be a crushing blow to Isabelle as she had put so much of her heart into the buildings.

The Eastley family got on so well with the Singers, that they became instrumental in some of the family staying in Paignton after Isaac's death.

Because of his constant visits Isaac became good friends with a local doctor who not only looked after him also became executor of sorts for his will. Isaac made sure that Dr Pridham would, with Hawley, in New York and Eastley, have control of his trust and estates after his death.

Isaac was now in failing health and even the sea air was not working. Pridham would have told the straight-talking Isaac during his regular visits that his time was near and so Isaac set about designing his final memorial, a large and impressive tomb. He also took the time to choose an amazing coffin fit for a king.

Isaac's coffin

Isaac Singer's coffin was impressive, actually there were three coffins fitting one-inside-the-other like a Russian doll. The coffin in which he was to lay was going to be made of lime but he changed his mind and ordered cedar. He had it lined in pure white satin and silk with hand-woven Maltese Lace in ruffled layers. The second outer-coffin was made of really thick lead twice the normal thickness. The final outside show-coffin was impressive and huge to accommodate the other two. Don't forget Isaac was a large figure of a man six foot five and overweight, some say well over 20 stone. The last coffin was made of solid English Oak and decorated with pure silver filigree work and large solid silver extra strong handles. Once finished to Isaac's approval the marble mausoleum was designed to take its huge size.

 July 1875

Death of a pioneer

There are very few photographs of the great man himself as photography was still a relatively new idea in 1875. However this is one of the rare pictures of Isaac and his presidents. He is in his huge conservatory that stretched around his palace that he called his Wigwam. Isaac is signing some papers for the Singer Company with a dip-pen. Within a few months of this photo the legend was dead. The picture is a bit misleading as McKenzie is in the middle and the much younger Hopper is on the right. He died very young aged 45 in 1881 though he had resigned from Singers the year after Isaac's death. Don't you love the huge mutton chops of Hopper!

Isaac passed away shortly after Alice's wedding which was held at Oldway. He was too weak to walk down the isle with his favourite daughter, Alice Eastwood Merritt (Walter) on 14 July 1875. Isaac had already  postponed the wedding once while his infection rumbled on but as he realized he was not going to get better the date was set.

It was Isaac's American Lawyer David Hawley and friend that had travelled across the world to be at the wedding in England who took Alice's arm. Isaac had caught a summer cold and had been suffering with a severe chest inflammation that had weakened his failing heart even more and he needed constant rest. He was apparently propped up in a huge chair for the occasion but retired to his bed shortly after the ceremony. 

Alice, who was marrying an American (William Alonso Paul La Grove from New York), was wearing Isaac's wedding present to her, a stunning set of diamonds costing £2,347 hand made for her by the Royal Jewellers, Asprey's in London. Today they would be worth the price of a house. I wonder who has them now?

At 10pm on the 23 July 1875 at the age of 64, Isaac Singer was laying in his great bed, surrounded by his family and doctor. Weakened by his chest infection his heavy breathing slowed and his heart finally gave out. All the hardships of his early struggles had taken their toll, as had his over-indulgences in later life. The greatest sewing machine pioneer in the history of the world had died.


Isaac Singer's funeral

Isaac's funeral was spectacular, even more so when all the workmen who had feared for their jobs, were informed that Isaac had left strict instructions in his will (and plenty of money) to see his dream house completed.

He was deeply mourned and his funeral was almost like a state funeral with nearly 80 black carriages pulled by countless horses, some specially shipped in from France. Isaac's body was dressed immaculately and finished off in a long black coat. He was placed in his large coffin and laid in state at Oldway.

On the day of the funeral a large cortège set out from the mansion led by  the undertaker Prebendary Hall and Dr McKenzie in the first carriage. Isaac's hearse followed behind pulled by black horses. Behind followed his children and more carriages with some of his workmen and estate manager. Behind them followed many men on foot and more carriages. For some reason that I have yet to discover Winnaretta did not attend the funeral. It is possible that she was heartbroken as her diary entries are tear filled pages to the loss of her dear Papa.

At Torquay Railway Station there were many more people and carriages waiting. Thousands of mourners and onlookers jammed the streets as the procession slowly marched to his final resting place at the top of the hill in Torquay. Papers noted that the procession was so long it stretched all the way from the seafront to the cemetery at the top of the hill in Torquay in an unbroken line. Whilst Isaac reached his final resting place some carriages were still in line down on the seafront. There were over 2,000 mourners just in the cortège. Isaac's funeral was not to be missed.

I have to wonder if Isaac Singer was buried at the cemetery without a church because of his reputation? I am sure he would have wanted to have a church burial but who would allow such a man in their cemetery in 1875. The morals and standards of the day were way different to today. History states that Isaac's mausoleum was just too large to be in any of the local cemeteries which cannot really be true can it?

There is no church at the cemetery where Isaac rests in eternal peace, just a small dilapidated chapel. As I write the cemetery is in appalling-vandalised condition with many graves smashed and toppled. Strangely Isaac's impressive white marble tomb is untouched as is his son's behind him.

Isaac Merritt Singer is buried in Torquay Cemetery, Torquay. It is opposite Torquay Crematorium at the top of Torquay. The entrance is in Barton Road. If you would like to find his tomb walk up from the Barton Road entrance toward the boarded-up chapel near the top. You will see his huge white tomb on the right. It is crammed with information and many of his relatives are with him.

Isaac Singer never lived to see his precious Wigwam completed.

Isaac Singer's final resting place in Paignton is a large white engraved marble tomb and it makes me look small, which is no mean feat! The angel behind is also part of the Singer/Vanderbilt family.

And so, the most famous of all entrepreneurs was dead. Isaac Singer had blazed a trail that would never be followed, had lived life to the full and seemed to enjoy almost every moment.

I say never to be followed, let me tell you why. While Isaac Singer's early life was spent in poverty and obscurity, his final years were spent in a blaze of wealth and publicity.

Isaac Singer pioneered proper mass production, pioneered hire purchase, oversaw the first patent pooling and had one of the first truly multi-national companies employing nearly 100,000 people. Singer machines were the first mass-marketed domestic appliance in the world.

Singer’s machine may just go down in history as the most useful invention of the 19th century.

Singer was the first company to spend over one million dollars on advertising in one year. This, along with superb machines like the Singer 12k, New Family machine of 1865 made Singer machines world leaders. And, moreover, when Isaac died as a grey haired old man, he was married to the most beautiful woman in Europe .  


He really did start from nothing with little more than the clothes on his back. Isaac Singer was what the American Dream was all about. The son of an immigrant, he made the first good sewing machine in history—whatever other makers tell you. But the story does not end there.

Isaac was the patriarch of a large and expanding family, a family that went on to fill newspapers the world over with exploits and antic from horse breeding to public affairs.


The King is dead, long live the King

Isaac's Will

Isaac left an enormous amount in his will worth millions. The world was dumbstruck that this self made man could have possibly generated such a sum in a single lifetime.

Even after all his spending he had over £8,000,000. When the average wage was a few shillings a week Isaac's fortune was breathtaking and then there were his assets, properties, land, investments and of course the ever expanding Singer company.

In his will, Isaac Singer generously split his enormous wealth among his many children naming 24 of them individually instantly making them rich. Apparently he also left money to some of his wives and even mistresses via separate undisclosed agreements and even two Paignton women!.

Over the following months there were several claims by other children for a slice of his fortune. They ended up in protracted court cases. Had DNA testing been around we may have found out just to what extent Isaac Singer was a ladies’ man!  

One fly in the ointment was his old mistress Mary Ann Sponsler who came back to haunt him. On hearing of his death she immediately filed a claim stating that she was Isaac's legitimate wife and Isabelle had married Isaac while she was still married to him. This was nonsense has she had already gone through a divorce even though we are unsure if they were ever legally married.

In 1861 she had tried to claim $8,000 a year in alimony from Isaac from their divorce. Sweet lord that woman had stamina and enthusiasm. Just think how much $8,000 was in 1861, certainly a king's ransom and the largest settlement  that would have ever made to that point in America! In the end she settled for $50 a week and a house at 189 West Twenty Eighth Street.

If she could prove her case, true or not, this could make her rich. However after months in court it turned out that she was married to another man, John E Foster (1862 Boston, pretending she was 31 when she was 45)Oop's. Foster was attacked one night near his home. After all the trouble he had caused with Singer and Mary Ann no one was quite sure who the culprit was. Mary Ann had only divulged the secret marriage to one of her daughters after a serious accident when she feared she was dying.

Catherine Haley, Isaac's first wife, also saw an opportunity and stuck her oar into the proceedings. Their daughter, Lillian Singer, had done very well out of Isaac's will being bequeathed $10,000 but Catherine was not even mentioned. She caused so much trouble claiming that she was also not properly divorced from Isaac that the estate eventually paid out $60,000 to make her go away. The huge amount paid showed that she may have been telling the truth or certainly had enough evidence to hold up Isaac's will for a long time. She eventually retired to Brooklyn, New York, Dying in 1884. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Once that was all sorted out the instructions in his will could be followed. Unfortunately another fly in the ointment was waiting in the wings. Isabelle soon remarried and her new husband saw her children's inheritance as a honey pot to be sampled and was soon at their money!

 The great giveaway

50 years on top of their competitors, reason to celebrate! To my knowledge no other firm in history has manage to stay number one for so long and in 1897 they would have another 50 years on top.


Isabelle Eugenie Boyer Pt2
What Singer's last wife got up to! Well a little of it.
Vicomtesse D'e Estenburgh

Gossip here is hard to distinguish from fact, so I have added most in the hope that the facts may emerge at a later date. Please fell free to correct me.

Isabelle, now worth millions, carried on in Isaac's generous ways but soon got bored.

The house was finished and cart loads of seaweed was moved up from the shore to fertilise the impressive new gardens which were full of fountains and statues like some Roman villa. It was all overseen by the Oldway Estate steward Mr McCormack. Although William Mc Cormack was quite young when he started at Oldway he managed both the Paignton estate and their property in Chelsea, London. William Mc Cormack went on to have 12 children with seven of them being born at Oldway.

Seeing the Wigwam completed, Isabelle held a grand opening party and many more over the coming three years. However as the children grew and became more independent she yearned for the exciting hustle and bustle of her old Parisian life.

Life for her as a young widow had become dull in the West Country now that the great man was no longer there to attract the famous and important people. In 1878 Isabelle made the decision to pack up the family and move home to Paris.

This caused huge rows as many of the children regarded The Wigwam, which was now being called Oldway, as their home. Isabelle tried to explain to the children, that to marry well they needed to be in society not locked away in rural England where there was a glut of farmers! This gained little with them.

After much bitter wrangling a date was set to leave before winter set in.

However Mortimer Singer had other plans! Mortimer was a young man now and although he gave up trying to argue with his mother when the time came he could not face leaving his home. The story goes that as all the children and Isabelle boarded the coach bound for Paignton Station, Mortimer disappeared into the darkness and could not be found. The decision was made to leave without him and get him sent on once he was caught. Mortimer hitched a lift down to Isaac's old friend Eastley and begged him to let him stay the night.

Yard Eastley allowed Mortimer to stay and also pointed out to him that he was now financially secure for life according to Isaac's will. Basically Mortimer could do what he liked and that he did.

Now, gossip goes that Isabelle who had put on many social evenings at Oldway, after Isaac's death, fell for one of the musician that came to perform at the grand house before he had died. No sooner had Isaac kicked the bucket that Isabelle was after him, or he was after her.

He was like many musicians, was talented specialising in singing and the violin. But he was earning a meagre living of his abilities touring around and performing.


The musician Victor Reubsaet may have been the reason Isabelle was so desperate to get to Paris but either way not long after she got there, she married him on 8 January 1879.

As per Isaac's will she would never be allowed to stay back at Oldway, though she did visit several times. Also Isaac's will stipulated that should she remarry Isabelle would lose a huge amount of her inheritance which she did. Rumour goes that her new husband turned to the children to try and wiggle their fortuned out of them. This caused a huge rift in the family and was one of the reasons why so many of the children returned to England securing their fortunes with the help of Yard Eastley against any future attacks.

Isabelle's time in Paris was a blur of entertaining, marriage, investments and buying a few titles for her new husband to ensure that he would be accepted in society. Nothing makes people turn their heads quicker than beautiful people with impressive titles.

It was while Isabelle was living the high life after years of being stifled that legend tells that she modelled naked for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty (though some say she did not, she boasted openly about it for many years often striking the pose at dinner parties).

Although Isabelle married the broke, but very handsome musician from the Netherlands, Victor Reubsaet, she soon set about changing his image with a few titles.

Victor's possible real name was Jan Nicolas Reubsaet. Son of Jean Baptist Victor Reubsaet.  He was born in the Dutch town of Sittard on 26 April 1843. Victor was the son of a shoemaker and with Isabelle's money bought the title of Vicomte de 'Estembourg (Estenburgh) de Bloemdaal from the Austrian Emperor.

Well is one title enough?  From the Italian King Umberto in 1881 they also purchased the grand title of Duce de Camposelice or Compostella.

The rich couple with bought titles, property and set Europe alight with glamorous entertaining. Victor died in 1887 and Isabelle married once again to one Paul Sohege and died in Paris in 1904 at the age of 62.

Singer machines were sold all over the world including Zululand.


Back in Paignton Yard Eastley also helped not only Paris but the other boys in the family when Isabelle's new husband allegedly tried to get hold of their inheritances. He protected their inheritances and trusts allowing each of them to grow into considerable wealth. This produced a rift in the Singer family that never healed.

The three boys, Mortimer, Paris and Washington were soon back in Paignton all as neighbours, living in fine houses of which some are still hotels in the area. They partied at Oldway and spent much of their trust funds on the latest must-have's like, horses, parties and later cars. Washington and Paris managed to buy Oldway outright from the other trustees around 1893 and a few years later Paris moved back to his father's estate. Paris then bought out Washington and owned Oldway outright. He had big plans for the palace.


In 1904, after the death of his mother, Paris Singer undertook a massive facelift of Oldway to make it more to his own tastes. He added huge Palladian pillars all along the front and changed the gardens. Apparently Paris Singer who loved the Palace at Versailles copied not only the interior, such as the ballroom and grand stairs, but he also organized for castings to be made from the statues at the gardens to be replicated for Oldway. Oldway became known as the 'Mini Versailles of the West'.

Oldway Today

By 1910 the house that stands today was completed and renamed from the Wigwam to Oldway permanently. The picture that I took above shows a little of the glorious building. Stop for a moment and imagine how magnificent it looked 100 years ago when this was just part of the buildings and the grounds were a mass of ornate statues and fountains.


As the First World War raged the house was used as the The American Women's War Hospital which is not as the title implies for American women but used by American women to look after wounded servicemen throughout the war. Paris Singer himself was there at the train station, along with his only daughter also named Winnaretta, to help with the wounded. Amongst the young nurses in Torquay was one who would help out with the operations and in the pharmacy. She later went on to be the best selling crime novelist of all time, Agatha Christie.


In 1939 Oldway was taken over on orders from the Home Office by the Royal Air Force. Oldway became No4 Wing of the RAF for officer training. Not a bad place to learn.


In 1946 on Paris Singer's earlier wishes the singer family sold Oldway to Paignton Council, closely linked to Torbay Council which involves many of the towns in the Torbay area. The price was £46,000.

The house went through the decades changing with the times and at one point became a country club before becoming a Civic Centre where you could even have your own wedding.

from 1948 Oldway has been used by Torbay Council. Not a bad place to have a council office I must say. There are rumours afoot in 2012 that the mansion is to be turned into a hotel. I'll be booking the first room!

Today as well as Council Offices civil weddings are held at the palace. The wedding photographs must be stunning against the grand stairways which are painted from floor to ceiling in the most dramatic scenes. What is left of the gardens are maintained and a bowling club and tennis club have the use of part of it. Unfortunately the trees have grown up around the fringe of the land and these large weeds have stolen the amazing view that Isaac had first fallen in love with. His workmen had spent nearly a year just clearing the plateau to make sure Isaac had the best view possible. It also hides Oldway from visitors who often have trouble finding the landmark.

Isaac Singer's many wives and children

Researching Isaac's kids has been a bit of a nightmare as he made up names and assumed different identities to hide his illicit behaviour. What I can say with absolute certainty is that no one knows exactly how many mistresses Isaac Singer had or how many children.

What I have done is start a list of known children for your interests or research. Hey it only took me 30 years to get this far. I bet you could do it in an hour on the Internet now! Oh how I cry...

Several of Singer's wealthy children went on to marry into high society, some into the European classy families. Some took up important positions around the world. A few even carried on in their father’s wandering ways... 


Wives and Mistresses

Let's look at the wives, mistresses and kids that we know about.

Ist wife, Catherine Maria Haley:

Children, William Singer 1834-1914 and Lillian Singer 1837.

Catherine was married to Isaac Singer probably between 1830 and 1860

Mary Ann Sponsler:

Children, Gus, Isaac Augustus 1837 (called Junior by his family). Voulettie Teresa (became Mrs Proctor), John Albert, Fanny Elizabeth, Jasper Hamlet, Mary Olive, Julia Ann, Caroline Virginia, two others sadly died young.

Mary McGonigal (worked at Singers) known as Mrs. Matthews and for a time Mrs Merritt-Matthews.

Children, Florence McGonigal, Mary McGonigal, Ruth McGonigal and Charles Alexander McGonigal (1859), two more sadly died, (one in 1854). Lived at 70 Christopher Street, New York under the name Matthews with here children and her sister Kate.

Ruth Merritt Matthews. I believe Isaac and Mary's daughter, Ruth, who went under the name of Ruth Merritt Matthews may have died in childbirth around the same time as here father, Isaac in 1875. Although she was left a large sum in Isaac's will her inheritance went to Charles Hopkins, her husband. Charles Hopkins already owned a substantial stake in the Singer Company. When Charles H Hopkins died in 1913 he was so wealthy that his inheritance tax set a new record for the state of California.

Kate McGonigal, Children unknown?

Lucy from the 1860 trip to England? 110 West Thirty-Seven St New York.

Ellen Brazee, who supposedly bore him children.

Ellen Livingstone, who also supposedly bore him children.

Mary Eastwood Walter (know as Mrs. Merritt) Lived at 225 West Twenty-Seven St., NY.

Child, Alice Eastwood Merritt sometimes known as Alice Eastwood Walters.

Final wife, Isobel/Isabelle/Isabelle Eugenie Boyer/Sommerville or Summerville.

She told Isaac she was 19 but may have been older when she married him!

Children of Isabelle and Isaac Singer

Adam Mortimer Singer (always called Mortimer or Morti to his close friends) K.B.E, JP (born America 25th July 1863 died 24th June 1929)

Winnaretta Eugenie Singer (born in 1865 Yonkers, NY, died 1943).

Washington Merritt Grant Singer born 1866, died 1934. (Born aboard the SS City of Washington).

Paris Eugene Singer, (born in Paris), born 20 Nov 1867, died 24 June 1932.

Isabelle Blanche (Belle) Singer 1869-1897, (born in Paris) became  Duchess de Cazes.

Franklin Morse Singer (born in Paris but left within the year), born 12 Feb 1870, died 10 Aug 1939.

Finally Isaac's last conquests and more intriguing yet! Two very secretive Paignton ladies of which I have uncovered nothing but rumours! Rats.


Isaac Singer's Legacy


Washington Singer in his riding garb. Exeter University still has a building named in his honour.


Princess of Polignac
Winnaretta Eugenie Singer

Winnaretta Eugenie Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac wife of Edmond Melchior Jean Marie, Prince de Polignac. I am unsure why there is an extra e on the end of Princess but that is how it is spelt on her grave. 8 Jan 1865 - 26 Nov 1943. Edmond 1834-1901

One of the most interesting of Isaac's children and well worth a book in her own right was Winnaretta Eugenie Singer. Known as 'Winnie' and one of Isaac's favourites.

Winnie adored her flamboyant father and was only 10 when he died. She wrote in her diary every day wondering how she would get through the long lonely day without her dear Papa.

She grew up with immense wealth and by all accounts a similar nature to her father. She loved to party and sought out excitement.

Winnie married her first prince in 1887. He was Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard. Things did nor go well and it is possible he was attracted more to her money than her personality and she later said that her marriage was never consummated. However that may have been an attempt to upset him. Anyway legal proceedings were put into action and by 1891 she was free to marry the composer Edmond Melchior Jean Marie, Prince de Polignac, which she did in 1893.

Although she married two Princes, allegedly she also seduced half the wealthy women of Europe. Virginia Woolf apparently noted that to look at her you could never guess her real purpose was to seduce you. If you looked into her eyes you could easily get lost, she had a hypnotic and seductive look inherited from her dear Papa.

Winnie was flamboyant, pretty, rich and artistic and was known for much of her life as the Princess of Polignac.

Winnie was devoted to the arts sponsoring great talent when she found it with an endless list of beneficiaries who earned lifelong commissions to compose music. The list includes Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, DeFalla, Erik Satie and many, many more.

In 1888 she bought her house in Paris which still survives today as the Singer-Polignac Foundation handing out awards to scientists and musicians. Her true love seems to have been Violet Trefusis who she became devoted to sometime after the First World War.

She died when she was around 78 and being one of the richest women in Europe and knew just about everyone of importance. Apparently she had a grand funeral with many of the great artists of the day in attendance.

Isabelle Blanche Singer

Isabelle Blanche Singer (Belle) became a Paris sensation after moving on mass with her mother and siblings back to Paris. She was the beauty of her age marrying the Duke of Decazes. She had a daughter, Daisy Fellowes. Something went tragically wrong in her life which I have yet to uncover. In the prime of her life at only 27 yrs old, in 1896, she apparently took her own life.

Paris Eugene Singer

Paris E Singer 20 Nov1867 - 24 June 1932

Paris Singer helped run Oldway Mansion for many years and had started an affair around 1906-8 with the famous dancer and actress, Isadora Duncan after falling hopelessly in love with her whilst watching her performances. This was scandalous news and the tabloids around the world loved every second as the son was doing what his father had done.

Paris Singer was already married the the stunningly beautiful Lille but it was not enough. The blood of Isaac ran through his veins and he wanted more.

Lille Graham had married Paris Singer around 1887. Stunning or what! They separated in 1907 and divorced in 1918 though Lille stayed in Paignton until her death on 7 March 1951. She was 84. Lillie and Paris had five children, Herbert, Cecil, Winnaretta, Paris and George.

By 1910 Isadora Duncan had produced their child Patrick and was living at Oldway. Here Paris spoilt her, buying her everything that the heart could desire even a yacht to look at in the bay. She was surrounded by staff pampering to her every whim but she still left him and his palace.

She went on from one tragedy to another loosing both her children in the River Seine and later dying tragically in 1927 herself in the famous and horrific accident where she was strangled by her own scarf that caught around the wheel of the open-top car in which she was travelling. Right up until her death Paris had paid for everything that she needed keeping her as his mistress even though she would not marry him. He was devastated at her death and it tainted Oldway for him where he had many happy memories with her.


Paris, who was responsible for so much of the 1904 alterations at Oldway in Paignton carried on improving or altering Oldway until the outbreak of the First World War. He took direct action when war broke out in preparing all the properties, even the Rotunda, on the Fernham-Oldway Estate for wounded servicemen and spent much of his time overseeing their wellbeing.

Paris Singer loved the finer things in life, big houses, fast cars and beautiful women. I have been told that the first ever order for a Rolls Royce motor car was placed personally to Henry Royce by Paris Singer. Paris Singer was also a pioneer aviator.

After the war Paris found that he now enjoyed life in other countries especially America. In failing health he looked for a comfortable climate and found it in Florida. He married his nurse, Joan Bates, and took American citizenship.

Paris Singer & Palm Beach

While in Florida he met a fellow sufferer who also thought that he was dying. He was the architect Addison Mizner. As they compared illnesses they formed a life-long friendship. As they both recovered Paris Singer kept Addison Mizner on permanent retainer to develop Palm Beach. Addison was paid $6,000 a year to work exclusively for Paris Singer and the Palm Beach area. Paris Singer founded much of what is today Palm Beach today, investing heavily in Florida real estate.

He bought and started to develop a beautiful Island off the cast of Palm Beach which he named Singer Island. He supposedly paid the enormous sum of $4,000,000 for the island. The idea was a bit like at home in Paignton to build hotels and golf courses but fate had other plans. A huge storm in 1928 put paid to his developments and then he lost much of his wealth in the 1929 stock market crash. He never visited Oldway again.

Now I think I may have this correct. Paris Singer named his only daughter Winnaretta after her. She went on to marry the eldest son of Baron Leeds, Commander Sir Reginald Arthur St John Leeds Bt RN, becoming Lady Leeds. He was nine years her junior and died in 1970. She lived at Oldway and then Little Oldway, the smaller villa just behind, until her death in 1980. Shortly before she died she insisted on being moved into the same  bedroom in the villa that Isaac Singer had died all those years previously.

Lady Leeds was the last connection with the Singer family and Oldway. She had sold the estate to Paignton Council just after the war in 1946 to avoid crippling death duties. Paignton Council paid £46,000 for the estate a huge sum even with the buildings in poor repair. For example in 1946 the average price of a house was less then £300. Lady Leeds moved into the villa behind Oldway called Little Oldway. It was the place her grandparents had lived in while Oldway was being built. She lived their until she died on the 19 Jan 1980.

Franklin Morse Singer

Franklin Morse Singer was born in February of 1870 and married Emilie. He seems to be the more introvert of the family collecting antiques, racing his cars and breeding Arabian stallions of which many European offspring are today descended. He died just at the outbreak of World War II. His daughter may have been Daisy Winnaretta Singer 5 Dec 1891 - 6 Aug 1975 and her son, Alain Valery Ollivier Singer 19 April 1925 - 5 May 1994.

Countess Von Dyhrn

The Countess de (Von) Dyhrn was Florence Singer (born 1883 New York City), daughter of William Singer, Isaac's first son. Although William had not been left a substantial amount on his fathers death ($500), his mother (Catherine) had done amazingly well out of stalling Isaac's will. Much of that money eventually went to William and his daughter was brought up accordingly. When she was 22yrs old she was sent to Paris to live with Winnaretta Singer, Princess de Polignac. She lived there with her cousin, Daisy, Princess Decazes de Glucksberg. They all lived at 43 Avenue Georges Mandel.

Florence became a devoted art lover and with her wealth supported artists just like Winnaretta. Like the rest of her family they moved in the best circles and were friends with some of the great names of the day including Proust and Montesquiou.

While visiting her parents in America Florence went to a party in Newport laid on by Alva Vanderbilt who was a close friend of Sarah Webb, William Singer's wife. Sarah Webb's brother, William S Webb, was married to Eliza Vanderbilt.

The party at Newport in Rhode Island was a fabulous and glittering affair. Florence was besotted by a young count and fell madly in love with him. After a whirlwind romance in 1913 she married the Count Franz Von Dyhrn-Waldenburg (Baron Von Schonau). He was a distant relative of Winston Churchill-Spencer and related to some of the most important European aristocracy.

Within a short period in the spring of 1914, while travelling in Egypt, Florence gave birth to a daughter, Desiree. However tragedy was  to follow. Florence received word that her father William was seriously ill in New York and made the decision to rush home. While on route her daughter caught a chill that turned deadly and Desiree died. Florence carried on to New York only to find her father also dying.

Florence returned to Egypt and Franz then spent many years travelling between their properties in Germany, France, Egypt and America. Franz died in 1934 and a year later she moved to the centre of Konigsberg in Germany. During World War II, on 30 August 1944 the British carried out a massive bombing raid on Konigsberg and Florence Singer, Countess de Dyhrn was killed.

The Singer Company

$1,000,000 advertising in one year!

The Singer company went on to expand and expand building one of the first skyscrapers that really did seem to touch the sky in New York. Factories were built in every major country in the world and Singers dominated with its product for over a century.

I love some of the early ad's let's hope she is good with the needle or it will all end in tears!


George Ross McKenzie

Clark sent his cousin and George Ross McKenzie (Isaac's friend, confident and fourth president of Singer's) over to Britain to build the largest sewing machine factory the world had ever seen at Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland.

George Ross McKenzie was originally from, Inverness. He started work for Isaac Singer in 1852. Initially he helped on the shop floor making cases for the sewing machines. He then moved on to working on new models. George Ross McKenzie was a man on the move and he shot up through the singer company expanding with it.

Eventually he became so important that many said he was responsible for saving the company through some of its hard early transition periods. George Ross McKenzie became a wealthy and powerful man in his own right.

In later life for some reason George Ross McKenzie changed the spelling of his name to G R Mackenzie though I have never discovered why?

George Ross McKenzie continued successfully in the Singer Company for many years. He died a multimillionaire and his will was read at Monticello because of the closeness of his magnificent country estate called Glen Spey at Lumberland, Sullivan County, New York. He left his estate to his wife, Rebecca (though she died two years before him) and his 12 children. He is buried in Glen Spey Cemetery, NY.

The Singer factory was built over the border in Kilbowie, Scotland, to avoid some English sewing machine patents that were still in force.

The factory had its own docks, shipyard, railways and even forests for wood. At its peak the factory employed around 16,000 workmen. This is so brilliant...One of the problems the factory had was getting the men to work on time. In the 19th century very few working class people had a clock or watch. The problem was solved when Singers built the largest clock in the world, larger than Big Ben. Everyone in the valley could look out their windows and see the time. There was no reason to be late again. The clock survived right up until the 1980's.



The massive Singer factory at Kilbowie, Clydebank with the huge clock tower bigger than Big Ben

Interestingly on Isaac's grave stone, where Adam Mortimer also lays in Paignton, it states that he was Isaac's eldest son which is clearly not the case. So I guess they were having problems even years later with claimants to Isaac's wealth.

Can you imagine how many people today are actually related to Isaac Singer, there must be thousands.

All in all, the Singer name became synonymous with wealth and power. Not bad for a little runaway.

Now you see why I started this story by saying what a man!

Singer Manufacturing Company 39 Foster Lane, Cheapside, London.

How much did a Singer cost?

The prices varied over the years but in 1898 a Singer 17k, in England, cost £9.12s.6d, Nine pounds, twelve shillings and six pence. 20 shillings to one pound. Standard Singer hire purchase payments were 1s.6d, one shilling and six pence per week.

It would take several years to pay for the Singer. Can you imagine that today. No wonder they lasted so long. They were and are timeless engineering excellence.

If you missed any payments, even the last one, you could lose your machine!


Now I need to sit down and have a cuppa tea...I'm exhausted.

The End


I hope you liked my little story, I spend endless hours building these pages for you all. Please do let me know if you spot any mistakes or would like to add anything or if you just enjoyed the story of Isaac Singer. 






Much of the story of Isaac Merritt Singer is in my book Sussex Born and Bred.

News Flash!

 Books by Alex Askaroff

Both Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
 are now available instantly on Kindle and iPad.



Agent for the Singer Manufacturing Company Madame Suddaby, Northcote Road, Wandsworth.


Hi Alex
Isaac Singer was my great grandfathers brother. I Enjoyed reading your story about I. M. Singer. I Have read others, but yours is so much more in depth. 
Gary Singer

Dear Mr. Alex Askaroff,

Thank you for the story of Isaac Singer.
It was very interesting to find his connection to
the Statue of Liberty of which I've walked up
into the arm of it as a kid.
Thanks for the very interesting history lesson.
I was surprised that he did include many of his illegitimate kids at his death, to
the rascals credit.

Rogene Calkins


Hi Alex

I love your website and the information about the Singer Sewing Machine and the story about the man behind the machine. Thanks for your informative and fun web site.
Marilyn Jenkins


Hello Alex
Thank you so much for sharing your interesting and fascinating information about Singer.
Julie, Western Australia
Hi Alex,
You kept me up last night reading your Singer story I love your writing style. Very interesting, and very indicative of the "rich and famous" of the time. They had a "if you've got it, flaunt it" attitude about money back then.  
I don't write to many people when I read their sites, but your writing style is so dear to my heart that I just have to let you know.
Marilyn S

 Books by Alex Askaroff

Your story is just fascinating, and so well written. I also so much appreciated the many photos you included.  Thank you so much for doing all that work and for generously sharing it with us.

I don't think there is anyone in history quite like Issac Singer!  If you ever come across it, what I'd really like to see next is a contemporary "review" of his acting!  Was he really talented?  Someone somewhere must have written down some thoughts about that.

Sharon Wyper


Hi Alex,
Great work, Holy mackerel!
So I married a singer descendant. She always talked about being an heiress.

BTW I Have seen a photograph of her great great grandfather with Kaiser Whilhem.


I really enjoyed your page. It was the first time that I have read a
biography about Singer and I found your style very



 Books by Alex Askaroff

Dear Alex,
I discovered your beautiful website today, your illustrations took my breath away!
My husband was the 2nd great grandson of George Ross Mackenzie.
Thank you,
Yours truly,
Carrie C. Mackenzie

Dear Mr Askaroff,

Thank you so much for your informative website. I read every word about Isaac Singer and loved every minute of it. What an amazing man Isaac was.
Sarah Young
Petaluma, California


Isaac Merritt Singer


Touched by Fire

A big Thank You

I must thank the countless people who have helped with the research in this piece from members of the Singer dynasty to The Smithsonian and V & A Museum. Yolande Deveraux supplied some excellent information about Florence Singer.

Many complete strangers on the Internet who have seen Isaac's story and added snippets of their own information and sent in pictures which have added so much. Hardly a week goes by without someone adding another piece of the puzzle.

All the extra information has all been so helpful during my years of research and I deeply appreciate the help from my old friends at ISMACS and everyone from Torquay/Paignton and Torbay Council's to endless library's, patent offices and committees. Also to West Dumbarton Council for the use of their Singer Turtleback machine.

Also thanks to the family members of the Singer dynasty and to the staff at Oldway who I pestered so often and Paignton, Torbay and Torquay hotels and museums.

Well 30 years of research has ended here.

thank you all.

 Books by Alex Askaroff



Main Sewalot Site Index

Fancy a good read: Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires

Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.


A short history of Isaac Merritt Singer, a legend in his own time.


Dear Alex,

My name is Sonia McNulty ( nee Anthonisz ). I was so pleased to find your interesting stories on Isaac Singer. My Cousin Edith Anthonisz was married to Fred Singer, who took over his (I think Grandfathers? empire).
Thank you for taking such valuable time of your own to produce this fabulous work, and I hope a Film Director will reward you by turning this into an unbelievable film.

I wish you the best.


Hi Alex,
I Enjoyed your wonderfully researched and composed web story about my third-great grandfather Isaac Merritt Singer.
My great grandfather was Mortimer Merritt Singer, son of Isaac Augustus (son of Mary Sponsler).  I remember visiting my great-grandfather when I was about 5 years old, when he lived in the upstairs apartment of the Rye Country Club near NYC, in his early 90s.  He would give me a quarter for achieving a “cat” game in tic-tac-toe! 
Mortimer Merritt had two daughters, Elizabeth Singer and Katherine Singer.  Elizabeth was a rampant liberal, champion golfer and tennis player, and graduated from Smith College, before marrying my grandfather, Herbert DeRieux Lancaster (from the Lancaster banking family in New York City, previously Richmond, VA, and also descended from the Plumard de Rieux family, a branch connected with the court at Versailles that immigrated to Virginia with Phillip Mazzei in the mid-1700s). 
Elizabeth had two children, my father John Singer Lancaster (1927) and his sister Dr. Mary Jane Lancaster (1931).  My aunt Jane is an unusually strong character, obtaining her Ph.D. in geology from Columbia in the 1950s, serving as Associate Professor of Geography at Boston University for many years, where as a private airplane pilot she was an early expert in remote sensing with aerial photography, and she’s still playing tennis and skiing at age 82!
The Singer fortune lasted about 5 generations, pretty much disappearing with my father’s and my aunt’s generation.  My grandmother, Elizabeth, favored communist philosophy as a deep rejection of the extremely wealthy capitalist upbringing she experienced.  My father, having the advantage of a major in philosophy at Yale, retired to the life of a hermit in rural Vermont!!
We grew up proud of the sewing machine stories and aware that Isaac was a “scoundrel.”

Thanks again for your fine and colorful essay!

James Justin Merritt Lancaster
Belmont, MA






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