by Brian Roulston
For thousands of years the only way to stitch two pieces of fabric together was to use a thread and a needle.
Elias Howe Jr. who was born to farming parents in Spencer, Massachusetts is often given credit for inventing the sewing machine. According to the Smithsonian Institute the first U.S sewing machine patent was awarded to John Greenbough in 1862, five years before Elias’s patent. Elias did however do what many others before him couldn’t…that was build a successful and practical sewing machine.
It was on the corner of Vine and James St. North in Hamilton’s downtown core that Richard Mott Wanzer, a Quaker born in N.Y State in 1818 rented a building with the financial backing of the iron-founding firm of Edward Gurney. Wanzer had moved to Hamilton from Buffalo N.Y after stints as a teacher, store clerk, book agent and machinist with his wife Electra, a son and a daughter. Wanzer started Canada’s first sewing machine factory. Established in 1859 as the R.M Wanzer & Co. it went on to become both the largest and most successful sewing machine manufacturer in Ontario if not Canada over its thirty-year history. R.M Wanker’s Company was a highly awarded company internationally. At the Universal Exhibition in Vienna in 1873 R.M Wanker was the only company in Great Britain and the commonwealth to receive The Iron Cross which was conferred upon him by the Emperor of Austria and knighted with the Order of Francis Joseph I for his services in the sewing machine industry. He also received the Gold Medal and 2 medals of distinction which was not obtained by any of the other sewing machine competitors at the Exhibition. The company received awards from Australia, South America and Russia as well.
The first machines produced by R.M Wanzer were Singer’s models 1 & 2 and also Wheeler & Wilson machines. Fifty sewing machine mechanics were employed by the Hamilton company at the time.
R.M Wanzer made and sold a machine in which they patented on February 9th, 1862 in Canada called ‘The Family Shuttle Machine’ which took all the best features of both the Singer and Wheeler-Wilson machines. Canadian manufacturers were free to copy or incorporate features of American Patents into their own machines prior to the patent acts of 1872 and were not obligated to licence those patents to the powerful American Sewing Machine Combination for use of these patents. This machine which sold for $45 was made completely out of iron, a rare feature. By 1864 R.M Wanzer put out 60 machines a week and employed 70 mechanics.
In 1868 Wanzer introduced the “Little Wanzer” a small but simple machine that included a marble base. It was hailed as “The most perfect of sewing machines made in the world”. There was table top version for $25 and floor model that included an iron stand which sold for $30. Four thousand Little Wanzer’s were sold during the first production year. Within 4 years the R.M Wanzer co. sold over 200,000 of these popular little machines.
In 1874 four additional models were introduced and the factory boosted production to a thousand or more machines a week.
September 1875 Wanzer bought out his long-time partner J.N (Neil) Tarbox and started selling machines overseas in London, England. They were cheaper than any of the American sewing machines on the market at the time and they quickly became very popular. The parts were built in Hamilton then shipped to England where the sewing machines were assembled. Eventually, Wanzer sold sewing machines throughout Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and South America.
Isaac Buchannan an international merchant and political figure in Western Canada as well as the founder of both the Hamilton and Toronto Board of Trades acquired export rights from the R.M Wanzer & Co. One of his two sons unsuccessfully tried to sell the Wanzer machines in Japan.
In the 1880’s the economy soured and with increased American competition, poor tariff protections and over production the R.M Wanzer Company went bankrupt in 1890. By 1898 Richard Wanzer was financially ruined after several subsequent business ventures failed to take off, such as a lamp company he bought to supply lighting to Hamilton, a soap company and the Oneida Lamp Co. of Niagara Falls.
Richard Wanzer eventually moved back to Buffalo N.Y where he died from Pneumonia in 1900. His body was brought back to Hamilton where he laid in state at Hamilton City Hall. He was then buried in Hamilton Cemetery.