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    Around the world with Singer postcards from 1892

    I bought the sewing machine for the stack of postcards that came with it. What did I need with a monstrosity of a sewing machine, although it was a lovely one with an orange, lime green and white design that I learned later was the Lotus.

    When I saw those lithographic postcard ads of people from various nations in traditional dress (I barely noticed the Singer sewing machines front and center), I knew I wanted them – even if I also had to take 13 larger cards of birds that the company distributed as “The American Singers Series” in 1899.

    As I started flipping through the postcards, I saw that they were published in 1892, and I wondered if I’d come across any with brown faces. And there was one: A card titled “Zululand” showed a woman seated at a treadle sewing machine with two children, another woman and two men standing around her. One of the men was dressed in garb that looked very British.

    Singer sewing machine postcards

    A Singer sewing machine postcard called Zululand. The card was among a box set handed out at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

    The other postcards showed people in native dress in such countries as Italy, Hungary, India, Bosnia (Austria-Hungary), Manila, Burma, Roumania, Tunis, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Ceylon, and Servia. It was a geographical smorgasbord of people as seen through the prism of Singer sewing machine makers. These were idealized views of the sewing machine, pictured as a thing of pleasure rather than work.

    The 22 cards were beautifully colored – that’s what attracted me to them – and on the backs were descriptions of the countries and a bit of their history. The text also noted that Singers were in wide use in each of the countries. On the Tunis card: “Our picture represents a Tunisian woman in her peculiar dress, resting her hand upon the woman’s faithful friend the world over, our “Singer” which has its place in multitudes of Tunisian homes.” Some cards even included Singer employees in traditional clothing.

    The postcards revealed these peoples’ places in the world and the prevailing attitude toward them. The Zulus were the only ones presented in an environment that appeared rural or bush, and in clothing that denoted labor. The others sat or stood before neutral backgrounds with no indication of their culture or location except for their fancy clothing.

    Singer sewing machine postcards

    Singer postcards for Roumania, left, and Sweden.

    About the Zulus – who lived  in a “fertile, well-watered country of South Africa, on the Indian Ocean, and forms a part of the region known as Kaffraria” – it said in part:

    “The native Zulus are a fine warlike people of the Bantu stock, speaking the Bantu language. The language extends over more than half of Africa and is one of great beauty and flexibility. The Zulu bids fair to be as forward in civilization as he has been in war. Our group represents the Zulus after less than a century of civilization. Worth wins everything.” (Here’s the Zulus’ real history.)

    About Sweden: “The people are hardy, industrious and intelligent.”

    About Spain (Valencia): “The men are robust and grave, the women vivacious and pretty.”

    About Roumania: “The Roumania of today is a mixture of the Indo-Caucasian and Mongol races. They are good looking, intelligent and fairly energetic. The national dress is rich in embroidery and lacings.”

    Singer sewing machine postcards

    Singer postcards for Servia, left, and India.

    About the Indians:

    “Under British rule, India is making rapid strides in modern civilization. … The Singer sewing machine has been a factor in helping the people of India toward a better civilization for nearly twenty years, and thousands of them are in use.”

    At the time, Singer had become one of the most successful businesses in the world, 40 years after Isaac Singer improved on the sewing machine in 1851 – practically making the invention of it his own. He joined Edward Clark to found what would become the Singer Manufacturing Co.

    Expert at marketing, Singer made it seem as if every home was missing out by not having one of its mass-produced machines, which could be easily afforded under an installment plan that Isaac Singer had dreamed up. The company used women in its ads to demonstrate that they could readily operate the machines.

    By 1860, the company had set up offices and factories all over the world, the Singer name ubiquitous.

    The postcards at auction were just one of its marketing tools, aimed at showing people its universal success. The company also distributed trade cards in the 1890s depicting U.S. and British warships, with a marketing pitch on the back. During World Wars I and II, plants that had produced sewing machines were making weapons.

    Singer sewing machine postcards

    Two Singer postcards for Seville, Spain.

    Called “Costumes of All Nations,” the chromolithograph postcards at auction were among ones handed out in boxed sets to folks who dropped by the Singer booth at the Chicago World’s Fair – or the World Columbian Exposition, its actual name – in 1893, according to one site. They were described on the box as lithographic reproductions of actual photos taken in the countries and colored there. “They are national costume studies, reliable and perfect in every detail,” the text said.

    Other Singer advertising trade cards included a series of reproduced watercolors of birds and the “Celebrated Singers” series of well-known performers of the day. The cards were done by J. Ottman Lithographic Co., one of the largest trade card companies at the turn of the 19th century. It produced specially designed cards and other products for its customers, one of which was the humor magazine Puck.

    Singer sewing machine postcards

    At left, a Tunis postcard; at top, Manila, and at right, the back of the Zululand postcard.

     

     

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