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(21 Images) Wheeler & Wilson Was a Marketing Powerhouse!

While Wheeler & Wilson were known, for a time, for making the arguably finest sewing machines in America, their marketing gurus were especially clever, even foreshadowing our own social-media-driven 21st Century strategies.

Above we see the "Arrival of the No. 8 Wheeler & Wilson," a machine that won the The Grand Gold Medal and Diploma at the Paris International Exhibition, 1878. While this type of imagery wasn't exclusive to Wheeler & Wilson at the time, they were certainly expert at it and at the forefront of these trends in the sewing industry.

What's interesting to note is that such trade cards and catalog images weren't focused on the product; rather, they conveyed the buyer's experience. The delivery men are serious about their work as the father and mother appear concerned for their investment, maybe even still a bit in awe of their own decision to step into the future. Perhaps most foretelling is the more excited appearance of the daughters, and the keen interest of the boys. Rather than plastering the company logo and name over the image, these are emboldened on the wagon.

With even the dog present, we see that purchasing a Wheeler and Wilson No. 8 is a family experience to be envied. Notice also that the most eye-catching color red, moving left to right, first draws your attention to the Wheeler & Wilson brand name, then to the youngest daughter's dress. The message seems clear: this is the brand for now, and the future.

These types of ads were taking hold at a time when marketing was shifting from "needs based" messages to "wants based" messages. While manufacturers like Wheeler & Wilson were busy convincing their market that sewing machines, still in their infancy, actually made sense, the smartest advertising minds figured out that tapping into buyer's emotions would be equally important, if not more so as the public accepted the modern marvel as a "need." It was time to link the buyer's excitement and personal pride to Wheeler and Wilson.

1863 - A Great Machine-Shop Described

In 1863, Wheeler & Wilson published the booklet you see above, presented as a primer on the sewing machine, including "Its Origin." Within the pages, the manufacturer boldly discusses the merits of it's competitors' efforts, the importance - for example - of Elias Howe's patents, rather than attempting to suggest that the Wheeler & Wilson brand is an island, and others are to be ignored.

Read the language here and consider the unwritten subtext:

The potential buyer is essentially told that the public now knows the sewing machine is important and appreciated. Aren't you important, too, perhaps?

In truth, of course, the text serves to usher the reader to the ultimate conclusion: buy a Wheeler and Wilson because now that you understand the sewing machine, you have a personal connection to it and to Wheeler and Wilson. The trick was (and is) to elicit an emotional response wrapped in the guise of practical facts. While discussing the fact that at least nine manufacturers were beholden to patent fees to Elias Howe, the booklet explains that this group of manufacturers built and sold 38,285 machines in 1861, of which 19,725, more than half of those machines, "were made at the mammoth establishment of the Wheeler and Wilson Company at Bridgeport, Connecticut." The sheer might of the company was sure to stir fascination and awe in the reader.

Sidebar: Did you ever watch Downton Abbey? It wasn't until Lord Grantham and Grannie experienced the grandeur of the king's speech via the wireless, that they became emotionally vested in owning a radio - was it a practical matter? Not really, they were emotionally beholden to the monarchy.

Social Responsibility

As the history of the sewing machine is further told, passages about the Great Machine Shop provide far more than technical details about manufacturing. The literature discusses the admirable social impact of Wheeler and Wilson. The employees aren't the mere greasy blank faces and hands of a cold industrial age. Instead, they are described as "the scores of them who own these neat, handsome dwellings scattered around East Bridgeport, who live in comfort and independence."


Do you believe they are men of intelligence? Look at them. Watch them as they issue in a stream from the workshops on their way to dinner. There is not a stolid face in the whole 400. 
Look at the mail bag... it will hold half a bushel. It often goes out full of letters of a Monday morning. Mark! men who go to church regularly... and write half a bushel of letters on Sunday, don't spend much time at the ale-house. Every one of them reads his newspaper... they make sewing-machines, but they are men.
Church-going, thoughtful, God-fearing men who spend little time at the ale-house surely imbue the Wheeler and Wilson machines with a firm, wholesome quality by virtue of their hard-working hands - hands which, by the way, are notably clean when they leave the factory, telling us even more about how fine the Wheeler and Wilson brand must be. A section on the factory Wash Room is especially effective emotionally.

The Wash Room

The Wash Room may seem an odd topic, but both a working class and an upper class reader of the day would likely find something heart-warming in its description, each for different reasons: the lower class would be emotionally vested in the well-being of their fellow working men, while the upper class could have their charitable and socially responsible nature stirred as true gentlemen and ladies.

In the wash room, "forty or fifty feet long," (hence it's a huge luxury!), the writer "saw three troughs full of clear water extending from one end to the other." Clear water. Not dirty water. Clear.
Now watch when the bell strikes... and you will see every foot of these troughs occupied, and you will see the men much improved, in their appearance when they go out in the street, and when they get home, ready to sit down to dinner, or take the baby and have a romp with it, and not soil its clothes.
Yes, we see a wash room, in such a manufactory, is one of the improvements of civilization. It is necessary for men who own houses, read newspapers, establish libraries, improve public parks, and write letters by the bushel as these do who make Wheeler & Wilson sewing-machines.
An "improvement of civilization." Wouldn't such a thing go viral today? And more of the emotional invocations: the men "much improved," cleansed by that clear water. An emphasis on family as they return home after work. This was the stuff of selling sewing machines in the late 1800s.

But What About Women Paying the Rent?

Down to brass tacks in 1863 (or any year, frankly) - what does buying this sewing machine have to do with improving my self image, and my very worth? Wheeler and Wilson assured their readers that "instead of injuring the trade of seamstresses," the sewing machine "has proved to her a blessing."
A rent collector tells us that he never fears to trust a woman who owns one of these machines.
The single gal just discovered a whole new reason to want a Wheeler and Wilson. She could get a little trust and respect from the landlord!

Nathaniel Wheeler and Allen B. Wilson: Industrial geniuses.

1866 - Ladies Almanac

Now we really get into Wheeler and Wilson's "social networking." Even more clever than the guise of a sewing machine history booklet, we have the Ladies Almanac of 1866.

Again we have the practical information which tells the ladies, of course you want greater efficiency and economy in your life, and Wheeler and Wilson delivers these! For example, there is the article titled "Economy of Sewing Machines," which lists multiple garments with time required for hand stitching versus by machine. It's practical to make a "plain apron" in nine minutes as opposed to an hour and a half.

But notice the material intended to tug the reader's emotions. Top, dead-center, "Fools purchase the same experience more than once." If hand-sewing is the foolish experience, perhaps, we're reminded that it is indeed purchased... with our money (materials exclusive to hand stitching), time, and effort, in fact. At the bottom of the page we have the Shakespeare quote, "A heart unspotted is not easily daunted." A likely interpretation by a lady of the times would be that her unnoticed desires need not go ignored indefinitely, and of course there is a romantic slant to the quote. Of course she wants a sewing machine, and she'll gather the resolve to make her wishes known to her husband or father. Again, this is the ladies almanac, and a lady's behavior was paramount - she made her demands carefully. Further, such a booklet would find its way into the hands of women who wanted very much to be considered ladies by society.

Most cunning in the almanac are the fictitious journal entries by Mrs. Bright and Mrs. Blank that span the entire publication. The mere names are painfully loaded.  Entries from each of the ladies' "private" journals are published, and they read like confessionals and gossip. While the "bright" Mrs. Bright naturally owns a Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine, she observes the dull-mindedness of "Mrs. Blank:"
Went up Mrs. Blank's room, to ask her to join us... found her sewing, as usual, and too busy to go. I discovered at last, however, the reason why she never has time for any thing: SHE ATTEMPTS TO DO HER FAMILY SEWING WITHOUT A SEWING-MACHINE! No wonder her work is never done...
After Mrs. Bright describes her machine to Mrs. Bland, we find that Mrs. Bland "is determined, at any sacrifice, to have one for herself."

At any sacrifice!

Mrs. Blank next writes in her journal regarding Mrs. Bright:
... in many ways she has been exceedingly kind. I remember (to my shame!) that I have sometimes had uncharitable thoughts about her. There is a remedy for every evil under the sun. Mrs. Bright asserts... that a Wheeler and Wilson is the remedy in my case. I have seen for myself how easily her household cares sit upon her. I have also seen that her children are not neglected... if a sewing-machine is so efficient a helper as her experience seems to prove, what price would be too dear to pay for it.
Oh come on! Toiling without a sewing machine is evil? Ladies of the day would typically absolutely abhor the notion of evil. Mrs. Bland sees that a sewing machine leads to more time and care for her children - doesn't a good mother want that? And it's now a want at any price, in the guise of a need.

Brilliant. Or at least, very "Bright!"

The More Standard Marketing

It was also important to display the technical aspects of an award-winning machine. As I see the quote claiming "The Best Sewing Apparatus in the World," (far from an empty claim given the Paris Exhibition award), I can't help thinking of the quotes that frequently sprinkle blockbuster movie posters, such as "Exhilarating!," "A remarkable performance!" etc.


Wheel & Wilson No. 9 from the Still Stitching collection.
As the No. 9 model (above) continued to command great respect as a fine machine throughout the early turn of the century, the Singer juggernaut could not be resisted. Wheeler and Wilson's No. 9 was expensive at the time, $60, when some competitors' machines sold for well under $5. This fact did not bode well for the increasingly struggling brand, no matter that their machines were regarded as superior by many. Singer, too, had excellent marketing and was ever-expanding, gobbling up competitors.

Singer pounced by 1905, and after taking over Wheeler and Wilson, continued to manufacture and distribute the brand for a few years, most notably rebranding the No. D9 as the Singer 9W. When the original D9 parts ran out, Singer recast the model with slight variations in the shape of the machine as well as a few newly crafted mechanical components. Nonetheless, the Singer 9W from any year owes it's design and quality to Wheeler and Wilson. In our documentary film Still Stitching, Cathy Racine (speaking from years of experience as a machine technician and dealer) named the No. 9 as the finest engineering design for a domestic machine, in her opinion.

Sewing machine historian Alex Askaroff wrote on, "With over a million Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines made, every collector should have at least one model in their collection." That's all we've managed so far at Still Stitching, just one - the No. 9 shown above, although we are looking forward to refurbishing a No. 3 for a client that we currently have in the shop as of November 2018.

We were fortunate to obtain both a W&W D9 and a Singer 9W in the same purchase many years ago. This was particularly fortunate since it allowed us to break down each machine to the last screw as we had a "blueprint" for reassembly by observing the other machine.

The Still Stitching W&W D9 fully disassembled.
While we had the D9 apart, I posted a photograph online in one of the large vintage sewing machine groups of her arm and bed separated as you see below. I wrote something like, "Uh oh... I dropped her. I'm going to need super glue." I was pretty surprised at the many responses wherein the comments were extremely unimpressed that I intended to use glue. I was told in many cases to use weld-like products, but no one considered suggesting I merely bolt the parts back together!

Our Singer 9W wasn't in nearly the same condition before starting her overhaul:

Our Singer 9W "before."
She was rough!

The Still Stitching Singer 9W "before."
We broke her down to the same level as our W&W D9:

Still Stitching: Some of the Singer 9W parts breakdown, after cleaning.
Here is what we accomplished:

Our Singer 9W "after."
The Still Stitching Singer 9W underside "after."

Lastly, here's that Wheeler and Wilson No. 3 we are refurbishing.

Wheeler & Wilson 3

Wheeler & Wilson 3

Wheeler & Wilson 3

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