Sewing Modernity: How the Sewing Machine Allowed for a Distinctively Feminine Experience of Modernity

Abstract: Whether it allowed for women’s employment, mass production and consumption of ready-to-wear fashion, encouraged their creative individuality through sewing patterns, accompanied them into the public sphere, or triggered their sociopolitical emancipation in protest marches: the sewing machine played a decisive part in women’s experience of American modernity, mass culture, class, and (feminist) emancipation. Within symbiotically related experiences of modernity and mass culture, this paper reads the sewing machine as feminine modernity’s very ‘motor’ that allowed for a distinctively feminine experience of modernity in New York City. It took up a complex middling position that oscillated along the public versus private sphere continuum, (class-biased) roles of producer and consumer, and, in a bidirectional movement, at once expanded and enforced women’s spatial and socioeconomic boundaries. Emanating from theoretical frameworks of separate spheres and modernity in a gender context, I analyze this cultural artifact’s representation. By examining contemporary sewing machines’ designs and patterns of use as implied by trade cards and other forms of advertisement that targeted women of varying class, economic, and family status backgrounds in the modern era, the central role this machine played can come to the forefront.

In order to account for the complexities and contradictions of feminine modernity, the present text delineates and analyzes the multilayered connections between sewing machines, femininity, and modernity in New York City by arguing that the sewing machine allowed for a distinctively feminine experience of modernity. Following Ben Singer’s enumeration of the “six facets of modernity,” I demonstrate how the sewing machine allowed women within New York City to experience not only “[m]odernization” and “[r]ationality,” but also “[m]obility and [c]irculation,” “[i]ndividualism,” as well as “[s]ensory [c]omplexity and [i]ntensity” and “[c]ultural [d]iscontinuity” (20-35). In addition to referring to these facets as significantly ‘feminine,’ New York City is read as a metonymy of this specifically ‘feminine’ experience of modernity in the United States as a whole.

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