Sew What?

Wanzer F Sewing Machine,

R.M. Wanzer Company, Wanzer F Sewing Machine Model, c.1875. Halton Region Heritage Services Collection


“Sewing machines rank among achievements that play an important part in social economy. We class it with the magnetic telegraph, the steam engine, the mower and reaper and other triumphs of genius in this age.” - Charles A. Goodrich, The Family Encyclopedia, 1862. 

Sewing machines, along with butter churns and wood planes are among the most ubiquitous objects in local history collections. Curators are regularly inundated with proposed donations of sewing machines of varying age and description to be added to the large number of these machines already in collections storage spaces across the province.

This example from Halton Heritage Services’ collection is a Wanzer F Sewing Machine, attached to a sewing table. It was produced by R.M. Wanzer and Company, Ontario’s first sewing machine factory, established in 1861 and one of the largest sewing machine manufacturers in Ontario at the time. The Wanzer F model was produced from 1874 until 1883 and was the first sewing machine which could sew in both directions.

Signature quilt

Traditional signature quilt, white with red embroidery, Milton Methodist Church (now St. Paul’s United Church, Milton), c. 1920. Halton Region Heritage Services Collection.


Why sewing machines? A loaded question to be sure, but it likely has to do with sewing machines being such an integral part of the domestic sphere throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, being especially important to the lives and daily work of women.

Sewing is related to the cult of domesticity: the ideal of the “true woman” and her roles within the home during the 1800s. Sewing, whether by hand or using machines like the Wanzer F model, was a regular task for women, who would spend much time making and mending clothes and household textiles.

However, many women also used needlework and sewing as a form of artistic expression. They created objects like quilts to celebrate their neighborhoods, local landmarks and weddings. A signature quilt (pictured) is an ideal community record, listing the names of men, women and occasionally children (the signatures in this example were likely hand-stitched on a quilt made using a sewing machine). In this instance, the quilt illustrates the history and community associated with St. Paul’s United Church in Milton. While providing facts about the church, it also communicates a sense of community and gives insights into the local associations, friendships, and vocations of people in the region.

Women often worked together to create these kinds of objects, forming quilters guilds and sewing circles. Historically, within Halton Region there were various sewing circles and quilting guilds, many of which celebrated and utilized sewing machines. Numerous associations still exist today and can provide modern awareness into the importance of sewing machines to this craft. The Halton Region Quilter’s Guild is a 40 year old association which aims “to enhance the knowledge of quilting amongst the members and the community, to preserve quilting as an art form [and] to participate in community projects.”

 Our sewing machine can assist museums and historians in telling stories of such guilds and communities of makers, alongside stories about domestic work, the role of women, innovation and industry, which isn’t a bad start for a more than century old piece of household equipment.