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Isaac Merritt Singer

Born: 26-Oct-1811
Birthplace: Pittstown, NY
Died: 23-Jul-1875
Location of death: Devon, England
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Torquay Cemetery, Torquay, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Business, Inventor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Built a better sewing machine

Isaac Merritt Singer ran away from home at eleven years of age. He eventually joined a travelling stage act, and for more than twenty years earned his living as an actor and, when ticket sales waned, a machinist and manual laborer. He was 38 years old when he borrowed $40 from a friend and began tinkering with sewing machines that had recently been introduced, leading to Singer's first machine, wherein the major breakthrough was that the needle moved up and down instead of side to side, which made the needle less susceptible to breakage. Singer's machine sold well almost immediately, and just as quickly drew lawsuits from earlier inventors, most notably from Elias Howe, who had invented and patented the lockstitch mechanism crucial to Singer's design. In court Singer was ordered to pay royalties, which made Howe a wealthy man, though never as wealthy as Singer.

Singer's business acumen was undisputed. His machine was so sturdy it could sew leather, so it sold briskly among shoemakers. His company employed traveling salesmen and introduced installment payments, which brought his machine within reach of the poor. Singer himself used his acting abilities to theatrically demonstrate his machine's abilities at county fairs and circuses, often accompanied by a pretty woman who would alternately dance and demonstrate the machine. He was not long active in the company, however, quickly passing off executive duties to pursue his other interests.

Through a vague number of bigamous marriages and mistresses, Singer had up to two dozen children, raised under his own name and under false family names including Matthews, Merritt, and Walters. His first wife was fifteen when they married. In 1860 one of his wives, the former Mary Ann Sponsler, had Singer arrested for bigamy, and when released on bail he fled to Europe, never to return to America. Another of his wives, Isabelle Boyer, had an affair with sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, and was said to have served as his model for the facial features of Bartholdi's most famous work, the Statue of Liberty. By Singer's death he was worth about $13-million, and for many years thereafter his wives and children battled in court for their share of his wealth.

His relocation to Europe to escape US prosecution made the Singer companies one of the first international conglomerates, as he established factories in Scotland and France. He also constructed a huge manor in England, which he jokingly referred to as the Wigwam estate. His lesbian daughter Winnaretta was twice wed into unconsummated marriages with French royalty, first with Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard and later with the composer Prince Edmond Melchior Jean Marie de Polignac. Singer's son, Paris Singer, was an early aviator who had an extended and well-publicized affair with dancer Isadora Duncan.

Father: Adam Singer (b. 1772, d. 1855)
Mother: Ruth Benson Singer (div. 1821)
Brother: John Valentine Singer (b. 1791, d. 1877)
Brother: Alexander Singer (b. circa 1800)
Sister: Elizabeth Singer Colby (b. 1801, d. 1872)
Sister: Christiana Singer Cleveland (b. 1804, d. 1887)
Brother: Elijah Singer (b. 1813, d. 1860)
Wife: Catherine Maria Haley (m. 1830, div. 1860, two children)
Son: William Singer (b. 1834)
Daughter: Lillian Singer (b. 1837)
Wife: Mary Ann Sponsler (common law wife, ten children)
Son: Isaac Singer Jr.
Wife: Mary Eastwood Walters (at least one daughter)
Daughter: Alice Eastwood Walters
Wife: Mary McGonigal Matthews (common law wife, five children)
Wife: Isabelle Eugenie Boyer Summerville (m. 1865, six children)
Daughter: Winnaretta Eugenie Singer (b. 1865, d. 1943)
Son: Paris Eugene Singer (aviator, b. 1868, d. 1932)
Son: Washington Singer (racehorse owner, b. 1866, d. 1934)
Son: Sir Mortimer Singer (hospital founder)
Son: Grant Singer
Son: Franklin Singer

    Bigamy 1860 (arrested)
    German Ancestry

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