The Story of the May Sisters
By the late 1950's, virtually all sewing machines had evolved to the same utilitarian design we still see today. While practical, this universal sameness has made us forget the golden age of sewing machines, when every manufacturer had unique designs often featuring elaborate scrollwork frames and beautiful illustrations. Come with me as we turn back the pages of time to an era when sewings machines could cost as much as a year's wages and were status symbols as important as Rolex watches and smart phones are today.
The sewing machines shown on this page are part of a collection that started with a machine made in 1885 by the Jones Sewing Machine Company. To reflect its age, style and personality, it was named "Hilda May." As the collection grew, each new machine was given the surname "May" to establish that they all belonged to the same family, and so the "May Sisters" came into being. We'll start with the youngest sister first, then work backward in time.
~ Penny May~
This Morse Apollo 6400 Fotomatic V sewing machine is the baby of the May sisters, barely half a century old. Her retro disco styling make her one of the most attractive machines in the collection. Morse imported machines made in Japan by Toyota and Pine for resale in the US from 1948 through the 1970s. One of the frustrating issues with these machines is that there is virtually no information about when any of the models were released so dating them is almost impossible. After failing to find information about this machine under the Morse brand, I got the idea of searching through Toyota's sewing machine history and struck pay dirt. On the official Toyota website, they have a picture of this machine with the statement it was made for US resale. It was released in 1968 and had the Toyota designation of Z765.
~ Daisy May ~
Manufactured in 1958, Daisy May has a form similar to modern machines, but two features mark her as belonging to an earlier era. First: her body is solid cast iron, which doubles her weight over more contemporary machines consisting of as much as 50-percent plastic. Second: she has an external motor. In operation she suffers from both motor and internal noises that make sewing on her a little distracting. Her bobbin and bobbin case are the same as modern machines.
oddity about Daisy May as well as all the other antique sewing
machines on this page is that
the needles all thread from left to right. Modern machines almost always thread from front to back.
~ Anny May ~
While her form is modern, This 1955 Sloan-Ashland sewing machine has the same cast iron body and external motor of the slightly younger Daisy May. Made by Toyota, the same company that makes cars, this heavy weight sewing machine was popular for many years on sailboats because it could stitch heavy sail cloth. This is one of the hardest machines to locate manuals for. Like Daisy May, her external motor and internal workings run on the noisy side compared to the rest of the machines. While the bobbin and its holder are similar to modern machines, instead of dropping in from the top, they feed in horizontally from the end.
~ Katy May ~
Although classed as a toy, this small hand cranked machine from 1955 produces a tight chain stitch that can be used to sew real garments. The construction is heavy sheet metal on a cast iron base and runs smoothly.
~ Betty May ~
This 1953 gem by Pfaff is an extremely early zigzag sewing machine. She's a heavy duty machine that weighs over 35 pounds but feels more like 80.
~ Milly and Molly May ~
(We call them "the twins.")
These two battery powered chain stitch sewing machines come from 1953. Sheet metal construction and plastic parts clearly label them as toys, yet here they are over 70 years old and still sewing straight, tight stitches. Their main problem is that they drift out of alignment very quickly. These use needles with round shanks rather than the flat sided shanks used on most other machines. We couldn't locate needles that were short enough so we had to cut off 1/4 inch from the shank of a normal needle to get it to fit.
~ Elly May ~
This Singer Model 66 treadle machine first saw the light of day in 1910. The fact that after 110 years she still sews perfect seams is a testament that back then things were made to last. Using a treadle machine isn't as easy as it appears. It takes time to learn the proper rhythm to keep the machine rotating in the proper direction. She uses a bobbin and case similar to modern machines but like Anny May they feed in from the end.
~ Lizzy May ~
While her small size might create the impression that she's a toy, this 1907 cast iron machine by Willcox-Gibbs is built rock solid and after 110 years is still the smoothest and quitest of all the machines in this collection. In fact, when first marketed she was advertised as being, "The Silent Automatic Sewing Machine." She's a chain stitcher with an unusual threading system that makes her the hardest to thread of all the machines. While she can be used in a hand crank mode, she's actually designed for use on a treadle. One curiosity is that her main drive wheel rotates in the opposite direction of all other machines.
A remarkable survivor that came with Lizzy May is her original manual, printed in 1905.
~ Suzy May ~
This Muller Model 1 toy sewing machine could have been made anywhere from 1880 to 1910. The simplicity of her decorations suggests she's an earlier model, but we're being conservation and listing her manufacture date as 1900. Three things differentiate Suzy May from all other machines. First, the cloth moves from back to front instead of front to back. Second, the hand crank operates parallel to the side of the machine rather than perpendicular and at the end. Finally, the foot that moves the cloth is above the needle plate instead of below it.
~ Hilda May ~
While she may not be the oldest machine in the collection, Hilda May was the one that started everything in motion so we think of her is the matriarch of the May sisters. Made in 1885, this hand cranked sewing machine still works perfectly, an amazing accomplishment for something over 132 years old. While she may look like Singer machines of the same era, she features several different drive mechanisms that avoided Singer suing over patent infringement. Using hand cranked sewing machines requires more dexterity than modern machines because you only have one hand to guide the cloth, while the other turns the crank. This is more difficult than it sounds. It's rather like trying to pat your head a rub your stomach at the same time.
An interesting side note about the Jones sewing machine company is that they would manufacture machines and if requested, put retailer's labels on them for resale. Singer, on the other hand, insisted that all of their machines be sold under the Singer name.
~ Mandy May ~
Hailing all the way back to the very early 1860s, Mandy May is a chain stitcher that was sold by the James Weir Company in London, England. Originally titled, "The Globe," she was presented to the US as, "The American Hand Sewing Machine" and represents one of the very earliest sewing machines made for home use. Prior to that, sewing machines targeted commercial use because their cost was too high for most people to afford.
One unique feature is that the thread spool rides on the armature that holds the needle. This means the spool moves up and down with the needle. It looks odd but makes her the easiest machine to thread because the thread goes straight from the spool into the needle. A downside to this system is that the armature's weight makes the wheel slightly easier to crank when the armature is moving down than when moving up. This fluctuating resistance to turning the crank isn't significant enough to be bothersome, but it does feel a little odd.
Mandy May is over a century and a half old and it's entirely possible that she may have sewn Union or Confederate uniforms during the American Civil War. She's truly a treasure from the past.
Up until the late 1950s, all sewing machines were straight stitchers. To extend their capabilities, there was a very active industry developing elaborate attachments. The following are just a few examples:
Many were developed by individual inventors. In a way, these attachments played the same roll for sewing machines back then that modern aps do for smart phones.
hope you've enjoyed this tour back in time.
We're still looking for and collecting vintage sewing machines so
be sure to check back from time to time to see the latest additions to the May sisters.
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