Needlepoint samplers – a girl’s work
  • Vintage sewing machines at auction
  • Reader asks about Singer Featherweight sewing machine
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    Auction Finds

    Toys that prepped a girl for ‘women’s work’

    The child’s toy washing machine was cute and sweet. It was a mini version of mom’s old wringer washing machine, but this one had logo of a little cartoon figure holding a tennis racket.

    With its height, the machine towered over the other disparate items on the auction table. And it stood out. Who wouldn’t find such a little-girl-as-mom washing machine adorable? That was how I initially perceived it until I noticed other domestic items like it at subsequent auctions.

    An early Singer sewing machine. This one may have been produced for an adult.

    One auction house was selling what looked to be someone’s collection of vintage child sewing machines – most dusty, some still in boxes, all scattered inside and outside the auction house. There seemed to be as many sewing machines made for girls long ago as there were for mothers, whose job it was to make clothes for the family.

    Along with the machines at auction were irons for mom to press the clothes after making them and washing them. As I continued to see these toys, it dawned on me that they were made to prepare girls for what was considered “women’s work.”

    Then the cute little toys became symbols of drudgery:

    The Daisa wringer washing machine and logo.

    That white washing machine with the cartoon figure represented hours of filling the machine with clothes and detergent, and then taking them to a clothes line to dry outside. (The machine was made by an Argentine company called Daisa, which apparently made washing machines and kitchen sets.)

    A Seamstress set, left, still in the box, along with other machines.

    Those sewing machines with names like Singer, Betsy Ross, the Italian-made Necchi and Montgomery Wards’ Signature meant hours of cutting fabric, bending over the machine, and peering at the needle as fabric was guided under the foot.

    Toy irons and sewing machines waiting to be auctioned.

    Those irons called for hours of pushing and sliding, pushing and sliding a piece of heated metal across wrinkled clothes so everyone in the house would look neat and pressed.

    I suppose that all of these contraptions made the work easier, especially the sewing machine, which replaced the chore of sewing by hand. Mothers could thank a man named Elias Howe, who in 1846 patented a machine for practical rather than industrial use, and Isaac Merritt Singer, who in 1851 reworked it for home use. Singer went on to make the first electric machine in 1889.

    Singer’s SewHandy, a nifty black metal sewing machine bearing its name, was produced in 1910 and according to the website, was the best-selling toy machine ever produced. The machines are also very collectible, selling for up to $300 and more on eBay. The sewing machines at auction sold for $75 for a group of six to $85 for a group of three Singers. A SewHandy sold for $50, while another Singer sold for $25.


    Two toy Singer sewing machines. The black machine is a SewHandy, first produced in 1910.

    After seeing these toys aimed at girls, I wondered if toy manufacturers had changed their focus from domestication to careers outside the home. So I went on a search for a Toys R Us store for an answer.

    Finding one, I headed straight for the dolls section, which at this particular store was near the front. I ignored the Barbies and dolls with newer names and came to a row of household items. They were not too different from the vintage items, the aim basically the same.

    Just Like Home, which appeared to be a Toys R Us brand, seemed to specialize in them. It offered a plastic microwave oven, stainless steel and plastic cookware, a house-cleaning set, a shopping cart, a shopping basket filled with plastic groceries, and a McDonald’s cash register and food (for a potential fast-food job, I suppose). There were lots of oversized kitchen sets by the little tikes company and an updated Easy Bake Oven.

    I also saw a plastic grill, which I also found in the boys section, where most of the items for sale were guns and sports-related.

    A girl's electric sewing machine in a bright and appealing lime-green color.

    The Toys R Us website marketed the Just Like Home items as mom and pop replicas, but most of the items I saw on the page were mom’s:

    “Chop! Sizzle! Sweep!” the ad said. “Just like mom, just like dad … Just Like Home offers everything a child would need to pretend to be a grown-up: play kitchens, restaurants, furniture, even vacuums!”

    Things haven’t changed much, except that little girls now have the choice to be all-domestic, a little domestic or not domestic at all.



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