REV: SEPTEMBER 8, 2008
GEOFFREY JONES DAVID KIRON
Globalizing Consumer Durables: Singer Sewing Machine before 1914
In 1914, the Singer Sewing Machine Company (Singer) held a 90% share of all sewing machine sales outside the United States and was the seventh-largest firm in the world.1 By successfully developing the huge, but far-flung, Russian market, reinvigorating theindustrial revolution in Great Britain, and transforming the lives of countless millions, Singer became the world’s first successful multinational company. Although Singer was the first to produce a reliable sewing machine,2 the company’s market dominance was due more to extraordinary leadership, marketing ingenuity, organizational adaptability, and its continuous efforts to refine one of the mostimportant inventions of the nineteenth century. (See Exhibit 1 for timeline of major events in Singer’s history.) In 1860, The New York Times proclaimed, “What the telegraph is to the commercial world […] the sewing machine is to the domestic.”3 A typical seamstress needed more than 14 hours to stitch a man’s shirt. Early commercial sewing machines could do the same job in slightly more than one hour.Originally called “The Great Civilizer,” the sewing machine created new markets for ready-to-wear clothing, shoes, and virtually all textile home goods, including canvas, sheets, drapes, curtains, rugs, blankets, and towels. During the 1850s, many American inventors and young companies crowded the nascent sewing machine market to take advantage of one of the period’s most promising commercialopportunities. That Singer was able to dominate such a crowded market is reflected in the fact that the only word for sewing machine in many languages was “Singer.” That Singer would dominate the market is much less obvious from a look at the personal life of company founder Isaac Merritt Singer (I.M. Singer). A skilled machinist, I.M. Singer was also a hot-tempered polygamist and would-be thespian.During a period of American history when prudish Victorian values dominated the social landscape, Singer had 28 children by five different women, all who claimed to be his wife.4 His scandalous personal affairs, which made headlines in the country’s leading newspapers, were a continuous affront to his business partner, attorney Edward Clark. A somber, deeply religious man, Clark was part of New YorkCity’s high society, which shunned I.M. Singer. This unlikely and fractious duo led the company during its first 12 years of growth (1851–1863).
Professor Geoffrey Jones and Senior Researcher David Kiron, Global Research Group, prepared this case. This case was developed frompublished sources. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management. Copyright © 2003-2005, 2008 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800545-7685, write Harvard Business SchoolPublishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.
Globalizing Consumer Durables: Singer Sewing Machine before 1914Midway through the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), Clark and I.M. Singer dissolved their business partnership, with the understanding that neither partner could be president while the other was alive. Though I.M. Singer remained on the company’s board, it was Clark who guided development of the company’s internal organization and its expansion into new markets. Many of Clark’s initiatives are now...