A newfangled machine arrived in February 1870 to the Belton home of Tennessee Keys Embree (1840-1918) — a gift from her prosperous physician-husband.
She made special note of it in her diary. “I wish to note my new advantage in sewing & it is this,” she wrote. “My good husband sent for and it has come. A Florence sewing machine. How intent I work over it, trying to use the many advantages it has over sewing by hand. I had several ladies to see me last week. We were trying to learn the machine. I am very proud of it, though I cannot sew well yet.”
The ornate Florence sewing machine with its curved legs and gilded ironworks was among the many popular brands in the mid-1800s. Embree does not elaborate on her Florence machine — whether it operated by treadle or by hand crank. No matter. She was delighted with the results.
By April 1871, she complained that she had been in bed with an unnamed ailment. “I caused my illness by sewing on my machine … I have been very busy sewing for my children.”
The humble sewing machine is the “silent partner” in a new traveling exhibit at the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum — “Thrift Style,” a display that extols the charm and utility of flour sack clothing.
“Thrift Style” can be viewed at the museum, 315 W. Avenue B, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday until Jan. 19.
Selected from the collection of the Historic Costume Textile Museum of Kansas State University, the exhibit focuses on the 1930s Great Depression era. Advertisements in the Temple Daily Telegram and Temple Times reveal that flour and feeds sacks used by homemakers in the 19th century. Even in the 1890s, dry goods stores sold empty flour cotton sacks for household use.
Feed and flour sacks — and their resulting fashions — were the perfect knitting of three major industries: cotton production, grain milling and industrial mechanics. When the grains were emptied, the cloths could be used to sew other items from tea towels and curtains to school togs and wedding dresses.
The sewing machine — treadled, hand-cranked and, later, electrified — was the unifier.
More than a mere labor-saver for homemakers, the sewing machine whip stitched women’s extraordinary entry into the labor market, especially for African-American women. The skills, passed on from one generation to another, spawned burgeoning markets in fashion and visual arts.
Bell County benefited from an ample supply of feed and flour sacks, thanks to several local flour and grain mills, notably the Willig Brothers Flour Mill, begun in 1890, and Wendland Feed Grains, opening in the late 1920s.
By 1923, Willig proudly announced it produced 18,000 barrels of flour annually. In fact, in 1921 when Alfred Willig (1898-1960), a son of the mill’s founders, married Thelma Nichols (1900-1993), their wedding presents were festooned with brightly colored flour sacks, which the bride used to sew linens for her new home.
The sewing machine was a blessing to generations like Tennessee Embree and Thelma Nichols. Many inventors had tinkered with the idea of a clothes-stitching mechanism in the late 1700s. Elias Howe is credited with first patenting his easily workable lock-stitching apparatus, but John V. Singer improved on the device that made his surname a household word. Pretty soon, several factories and foundries were pumping out their variations of lock-stitchers.
Manufacturers employed salesmen who toured the country, first by wagon and later by train. They carried with them sample machines, which they would demonstrate to vendors or households.
To hem up their sales, they would offer a month’s free trial. After the month, the salesmen offered a payment plan, which the buyers enthusiastically sign on. After all, the ubiquitous sewing machine saved householders time and money. In fact, by 1897, they were considered so essential that a Temple ordinance exempted sales taxes for store owners selling sewing machines.
The Temple Times from 1898 through the early 1900s advertised treadle machines for $20 and up, the equivalent of more than $600 in today’s dollars.
However, the average worker earned about $13 per week for 59 hours of work in 1900 — $675 a year. So, a standard sewing machine cost about two months or more of family income, a major purchase. Many women scrimped and saved their earnings from selling eggs and butter to cover payments.
As sewing became more efficient, so did the cloth manufacturing. “The spinning wheel was a relic of the past, and women no longer spun and wove at home,” said Dr. Angela Boswell, author of “Women in Texas History” (Texas A&M Press, 2018). “Despite the expense, buying manufactured cloth was the more cost-effective use of women’s time.”
Brightly printed cotton sacks served two purposes — selling flour and providing sew-able fabric. Thus, the Railroad and Heritage Museum’s “Thrift Style” is a homespun homage to the mantra, “Waste not, want not.”
Like their white counterparts, African-American women in Bell County formed clubs for mutual support and to share homemaking skills, especially sewing, which became a cottage industry. The club women raised money to buy machines for schools so that young girls could learn stitching skills.
Among the most highly skilled among Temple’s African-American seamstresses was Corine Porter Miller (1910-2016), fondly remembered for her expertise in crafting men’s suits for Booker’s Tailor Shop in downtown Temple. Well into her 100-plus years, she was still at her machine, sewing quilts and garments.
She generously passed her knowledge on to younger generations. Her great-niece, African-American fiber artist Marion Coleman (1946-2018) of San Francisco, was a National Heritage Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts. Raised by her grandmother, Coleman gained inspiration from her roots in Central Texas to create her intricately pieced works featuring African-American history.
She credited her Aunt Corine and her sewing machine for inspiring her.