Object of the Month – July 2011

Little Europa Sewing Machine

This sewing machine was made by Smith and Starley of Coventry in the 1870s. By the 1850s most processes in the textile industry, including weaving, knitting and spinning, were done using machines. Only sewing still had to be done by hand, using a needle and thread. This included sewing leather and canvas as well as clothes. Richer people had their clothes made to order by seamstresses – women who worked long hours in poor conditions for very little money. Poorer people made their own clothes or wore hand-me-downs.

The first machine for sewing was invented in the late 1700s. For about 50 years various inventors worked on new and better versions. It was an American, Elias Howe, who patented the first really successful machine in 1845. Further improvements were made by Isaac Singer and Allen Wilson in the 1850s and soon sewing machines were being sold in huge numbers. As a result clothes became cheaper and more readily available and could be bought ready made in shops.

In 1861 Coventry was in an economic depression caused by the collapse of its main industry, ribbon weaving. A number of local businessmen set up a company to make sewing machines in a disused ribbon factory. James Starley and an American called SC Salisbury both moved to Coventry to work for the company. Starley had previously worked for the Newton and Wilson sewing machine company in London. Starley was a skilled inventor and he and Salisbury patented several improvements to the sewing machine.

In 1868 the company won an order from France to make 500 velocipedes, an early type of bicycle. This was the birth of the cycle industry in Britain. Starley turned his inventive mind to improving the velocipede and his work led to the development of the high ordinary bicycle, which is more popularly known as the penny farthing. The company, now called Coventry Machinists, went from strength to strength and Coventry became the centre of cycle making in Britain.

In 1871 Starley left Coventry Machinists to set up on his own making cycles. He also set up a sewing machine company with Borthwick Smith. Smith and Starley produced several models of sewing machine including the Little Europa.

The Little Europa is on display in our History Gallery, where you can also see a European sewing machine made by the Coventry Machinists Company, a velocipede and a penny farthing. Starley’s role as an inventor of sewing machines and bicycles and his importance to the city is marked by a statue of him on Greyfriars Green in Coventry.

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Posted on 05/07/2011, in Collections, Object of the Month and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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