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The Torture of the Treadle Sewing Machine

Thousands of women killed by treadles. This was the claim made by the Brosius Sewing Machine and Motor Company in 1893. Originally from Chicago, the company was newly formed with a $2,000,000 capital investment (equal to about $56,000,000 today), and had set out to make the manual treadle obsolete with its spring-driven motorized alternative.

The Brosius Sewing Machine and Motor Company's 1893 literature.
In their literature, the Brosius Company claimed their motorized machine had received great praise from physicians as well as the women who knew "the terrible suffering that has been caused by the TORTURE of the TREADLE." (All emphasis from the original document.)

More than twenty-five years earlier, Dr. J. Langdon H. Down reported in the British Medical Journal that women were suffering in great numbers from the use of treadle sewing machines.
These patients for the most part complain of palpitation of the heart... frequently troubling them at night, when they assume the horizontal position. They speak of severe pain in the back, the pain extending down the thighs. Their pupils are usually dilated, and not very responsive to the stimulus of light. They complain of supraorbital headache, of a feeling of giddiness, and a sensation of cobwebs floating before their eyes.
He went on to report that the unfortunate women were typically lethargic, that they answered his questions slowly upon examination. When he took their pulse at the wrist, he said that the patients' arms would remain suspended in place for a moment, a semi-cataleptic condition that leaves a person like a mannequin briefly, and desensitized.

Horribly, the patients almost always suffered from gynecological issues, too unpleasant to detail in a blog like ours and best left to the medical journals.
More claims by the Brosius Sewing Machine and Motor Company, 1893.
Dr. Down found that in truth, the most severe symptoms were caused by a more demanding manufacturing environment, and in particular by the use of treadles requiring a left/right alternating up and down motion of the legs. Delving further into his study - and this is particularly bizarre - he determined that the motion of treadling had actually led the women to adopt "immoral habits... in several cases the patients admitted the fact, and they recovered health on discontinuing the machine-work" and adopting other healthier practices.

Meanwhile, domestic machine operators who spent considerable time sewing indeed felt the effects of the treadle. We could liken this to any repetitive and ergonomically concerning activity, even the hours we may spend seated at a keyboard. But far less severe than carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, domestic treadling lead to normal muscle fatigue for the most part. It only made sense: a factory worker had to press on for her wages, while Mother or the maid could pause and take a break from the treadle.

In 1869, Scientific American published "The Effect of Sewing Machines Upon Female Health." The article first points out that a healthy woman who had resisted "wrong living and bad dressing" could "operate a sewing machine at intervals without discomfort," or could "follow it as a business without evil consequences." Still, Scientific American went on to acknowledge the impact of treadling. With more than a million sewing machines at work in the United States, it had 'become a fact recognized both in this country and abroad" that a particular range of debilitating and unpleasant ailments for women were "more prevalent among those who work with sewing machines than among almost any other class of women."

Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, might have developed some health issues if she were forced to treadle several hours a day. Up to four hours with some stretching, and she'd likely be fine. The problem was excess.
Scientific American's conclusion was simple if we were to eradicate all problems associated with treadling: somebody needed to invent a motor, and steam engines were impractical. Spring motors were mentioned and likewise dismissed as unworthy, since "winding them up is one of many objections against [them]."

By 1872 Scientific American revisited the subject of the effect of treadling upon women, citing numerous studies. Plain and simple, it had been well established that normal domestic sewing was no worse on a woman's body than many other tasks. One doctor, having apparently accomplished genuine, extensive research, offered these conclusions:
The effects of this work upon the muscular system differ in no respect from those of any other kind of excessive labor involving the use of certain portions of the body to the exclusion of others. The affections most commonly complained of are muscular pains, pain in the region of the kidneys, and cramps in the lower extremities; none of which, however, are developed among those working three or four hours daily. These pains, cramps, etc., are most commonly found among beginners, and usually diminish after one has become accustomed to the motion of the machine.
The use of the sewing machine, when employed within moderate limits, without overworking, as is too often done, is attended with no greater inconvenience to health than working with the needle, as was shown by the examination of 28 women between the ages of 18 and 40, employed from three to four hours daily.
While Singer began producing electric sewing machines in 1889, electricity was obviously unavailable to most of America. In fact, it wasn't until about 1925 that even half of households enjoyed the luxury. So it isn't surprising that in 1893 the Brosius Sewing Machine and Motor Company used their $2,000,000 in capital to take a run at the American market with their spring-driven machine. In the UK, the Brown Manufacturing Company had already offered a spring-driven motor that attached to Singer and Wilcox & Gibbs models, but as of the late 1800s, Brosius became the forerunner for the technology in America and began a bumpy corporate ride.

Inventor and patent holder John M. Brosius wisely sold the company almost immediately, maintaining royalties on units sold.
Trade articles of the time suggest that competitors considered Brosius a threat, and at times the volatile ups-and-downs of Brosius seemed to amuse the industry observers. Initial investors lost their money, and the company relocated, or began the process of relocation, multiple times.
Brosius had it's ups and downs.
I've found no counter evidence to "thousands of women" being "killed by treadles," but when the Brosius Company said, "It will be seen at once that this machine will completely revolutionize the sewing machine," they were well off the mark. The spring motors made little impact from a historical perspective.

One of the Brosius locations "now being erected" as of 1893. Previous plans for factories in other cities had failed.
More significantly, when Brosius stated, "That thousands are ruining their health every year by the use of treadle sewing machines is a fact that is too well known to require discussion" - well, this was just fear-mongering to sell machines. Sure, the sewing machine trade was rife with hyperbole and half-facts in its marketing, but the Brosius Company took it to a new level. Was it driven by their genuine concern for women, or by the $2,000,000 investment? America had the facts by 1872: common household treadling was not a danger to women. With their sensational claims of treadles killing thousands women, the Brosius Company was offering a household machine with a lovely cabinet. They had endeavored to scare the money out of their buyers.

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1 comment:

Scotia said...

I can only imagine the sweat shops clouded with the dust of textiles! If anything caused them harm, it was long hours of breathing that stuff and working constantly!
As usual, great, thought provoking article!

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