The Art/Embroidery Department: A Global, Local, and (In)visible Organization Structure

Singer, a multinational corporation, had found the perfect cultural stance for its marketing strategies for over a century. The reason lay with the participation of the main actors, particularly women of the corporation’s Art Department and Educational Department, and the agents on the ground in different locations around the world. In the early 1900s, the Sewing Machine Times featured all Singer international exhibits and also those that branch offices organized for their home communities and markets, which were generally focused on local motifs. The Art Department in the 1890s organized traveling exhibits bringing some of the most artistically and skillfully embroidered paintings and artifacts to different stores around the US. The loaned displays stayed in the local store for some weeks and then moved to the next space in a store in a different city. By the turn of the twentieth century, a version of the Art Department had formed in every local Singer shop as well as in every office around the world. Besides promoting international fairs in the US, the Sewing Machine Times (1911) reported on stores in India, Nepal, Honolulu, Australia, the Philippines, France, New Zealand, Norway, Japan, Brazil, Cuba, China, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Paraguay having prepared extraordinary exhibits in their own stores with samples of embroidery for the home and to adorn dresses, following modern patterns but also displaying embroidery designs representing centuries of artistic work from their own regions (Published Collections Department, Hagley Museum and Library).

Singer stores and the women working in them had been central to establishing connections with the consumer that were so essential to the company’s success. Singer female employees were at the center of the marketing strategy of beautifying Singer window fronts. They placed the sewing machines on display, with female demonstrators making the goods that mostly other women knew about or might want to own because they were managers of the home. As skillful makers themselves, and as important decision-making consumers, women became part of Singer’s marketing system in most parts of the world as soon as one store opened. Although they were not always officially registered as employees, women welcomed clients into the store, made samples, and managed the organization of exhibits inside the store. These activities helped other salespeople working for Singer know and show what the machine could be used for. The women who worked at Singer’s Embroidery or Art Department generally came in with a background in embroidery or dressmaking. Girls learned to embroider as part of the gender-specific upbringing, and embroidery or dressmaking had become a career for many. At the end of the nineteenth century, embroidery as a domestic practice, but also as a trade, was prestigious because it dignified the home and women’s work (Parker 1984:178-180). The biography of Dorothy Benson, who worked for Singer’s London Art Department starting in 1916, explains that embroidery work was seasonal and thus Singer’s job offerings could have been attractive for skillful embroiderers to have a more stable position (Edwards 1988).

Singer’s embroiderers worked in Singer workrooms making samples for all stores, art parlors, and exhibits and tested attachments and new machines, or they worked as sales personnel and exhibit managers at the store. If separated, the workrooms supplied embroidered goods and garments for window demonstrations and exhibits. But most often, stores and branches had their own personnel preparing expository artifacts (The Red S Review 1920, Vol 1, No. 5 and 7, Clydebank Public Library). In Spain, the Art Department or Embroidery Department managed larger and temporary exhibits as well as smaller and more permanent displays in stores, and also visits and events at local schools to show education administrators that the sewing machine could very well serve their projects for a gender-specific education for girls and eventually also vocational training. Most likely, Casa Singer's Sección de Bordados or embroideries section as it was called in Spain, had members at every branch in charge of everything related with the making of samples and displays. The women working at these locations were called profesoras or instructors and they provided demonstrations to walk-in visitors based on Singer instruction manuals, which were translated into all languages where there were selling operations by the turn of the twentieth century. A veteran of Sección de Bordados in the Madrid office, X. del Aro, used one of these manuals and adapted

The Consumer as Marketing Expert 123 it to serve some local particularities. In the manual (see Figures 3.2 and 3.4), she recommended other women using the Singer sewing machine to “adorn with embroideries and laces your elegant home, your beautiful figure and your cheerful children’s [. . .]” because it was faster and “to save the glow of your eyes.” Emphasizing the idea that the home and personal use were the ideal spaces and practices for the industrial technology, del Aro also pointed out that the results of using the machine were superior—the embroidery had a cleaner, more defined and precise look and also the home remained free of all the threads, cuts, and dust resulting from hand embroidery. Most importantly, for del Aro, embroidering on the machine was considered modern. The machine made the work that “your industrious grandmothers” spent hours making, a pleasant labor (Instrucciones para bordar con la máquina “Singer” para coser 1906:7).2

Del Aro had directed the organization of a long-term exhibit in 1901 in Madrid exclusively dedicated to machine embroidery. The profesora alluded to it in her introduction to the Singer’s manual of machine embroidery, explaining that all the items on display there and in all stores around the country had been done following the company’s basic instruction manual. The exhibition consisted of five rooms or exhibitory booths, some with embroidered goods only and others with demonstrators sampling these items on the spot. As in other exhibits in the US that Singer’s Art Department was putting up, sisterhood and domesticity ideals were key values performed. The association of the machine and the brand with these culturally bounded elements had extremely valuable results for the company and the continuous success of the sewing machine as an important consumer goods in European homes. It also helped connecting with local traditions and historically rooted practices signified in some clothing pieces and ornamental objects.

The exhibit in Madrid, for example, contained home goods such as pillow covers, tablecloths, bedsheets, and small table covers decorated with intricate designs of flowers and designs associated with different regions in the country and with Spain’s idealized Muslim heritage. There were also more locally used objects such as hand fans full of detailed lace and colorful embroidery and mantillas, a delicate scarf associated with tradition, morality, and elegance in Spain, an adornment piece that royalty and aristocratic women used over their shoulders to cover parts of their body irremediably showing because of corsets but also important parts of the wardrobe to diligently attend mass or other social events (Exposición fabril y artística de las máquinas Singer para coser 1901, El encaje en España 1933, Museo del Traje). In Latin America, and in Mexico in particular—although also widely known in northern European countries and the US—the mantilla was also extensively worn along with embroidered calico covers, usually not so adorned in the case of poorer women who would wear a less ornamented rebozo, manto,

or capa (Calderón de la Barca 1843; Von Temspky et al. 1858; Herrero Ayora 1909; Seidman 1942; Vicente 2006).

Singer profesoras and saleswomen promoted the use of the sewing machine in home practices as tightly linked with women’s domestic duties and socially assigned responsibilities and for making goods that were associated with local heritage and cultural practices by adapting the production of already popular and traditions-imbued goods to the industrial sewing machine. An article entitled “Home Ideals” in the marketing-focused magazine The Red S Review restated what the company’s advertising and marketing had promoted for decades (1922, Vol 3, No. 11, Clydebank Public Library). Speaking to women, and also to the men and women working at Singer, the column understood that caring for the home was an arduous task, but that even if the “ambition of a home may not be an elaborate one,” women ought to “plan it to be a comfortable one, artistic with pictures, beautiful with flowers, and intellectual with books.” The article continued assuring that decoration would “make your home a haven of rest and peace.” To highlight localism, local women were the ones who knew about customs and traditions probably better than any popular literature or history tale, Singer marketing experts explained. In Sweden, an article describing the conditions of the business there after World War I said that “‘Drawn-thread’ work is the peculiar national needlework,” and that the company’s female instructors had easily “adapted [the work] for being worked on the sewing machine” (The Red S Review 1921, Vol 2, No. 7, Clydebank Public Library).

Saleswomen and instructors had been part of Singer’s selling system since the 1860s in the US when temporary exhibits and art rooms were filled with embroidered paintings and home goods made with the sewing machine. They were also salespeople in stores, and just as around the world, Singer shops and the inside customer service had become the company’s most important image builders. Although Singer marketing managers sent out specific recommendations about locations and shop design that was most optimal to attract customers, shops had great flexibility to come up with designs they felt could work best. In the Correspondence section of The Red S Review, a letter from the head of Spain’s selling organization told about a tradition that stores in Madrid had made during popular festivities in early August. “Shop Displays competitions” had become a very popular activity for what Madrid’s Singer shops worked on throughout the year. The stores displayed “elaborate arrangements” and “embroidery hoops and reels of cotton,” so that street viewers were prone to enter the store to know more. Singer shops in a city in southern Spain, Malaga, were also famous for their displays. This city, which “for generations been famous for its hand embroidery workers,” prepared intricate embroideries with motifs related to the region’s coastal traditions and Muslim heritage. “Hand embroideries of all kinds of garments are traditional all over the East,” an article about Singer Egypt’s stores

The Consumer as Marketing Expert 125 described, where “girls and women now number many thousands who habitually work on our machines for embroideries of all kinds” and the goods become unique attractions to pedestrians (The Red S Review 1922, Vol 3, No. 12; 1925, Vol 7, No. 2; and 1926, Vol 7, No. 3, Clydebank Public Library).

In stores around the world, female instructors developed and grounded the connection between the Singer sewing machine and local customs by offering embroidery courses. Window decoration of locally themed and embroidered goods had increased over the years after war and revolution in part because more women had joined the selling organization and were focusing on making stores the central point of distribution after communications and transportation had been disrupted. Enrollment in embroidery instruction using the sewing machine was among the most popular services offered by the organization.

Most of the time, embroidery lessons were provided for free to girls and young women, generally at the store, where students could use the machines on display, but female instructors also visited homes, local churches, and were part of schools’ and Women Institutes’ programs where most likely all sewing machines had been supplied by the company. Students were given step-by-step hand-on instruction and they developed samples toward a certificate that the company’s instructors signed at the end of the course. The sample book that the students created throughout the course, a certificate in itself that was also used with female students in public schools, showed their skills in machine embroidery and also prepared them to become part of the company’s selling organization, something that managers highly encouraged students to do. In Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, Singer embroidery courses received attention from families and schools as well, but the stores there, with hundreds of students in each course, organized a variety of events around the work that younger students made such as contests and workshops to create commonly themed European embroidery and also local patterns for local festivities (The Red S Review 1920, Vol 2, No. 4, No. 7; 1926, Vol 9, No. 5; 1928, Vol 9, No. 9, No. 11; and 1929, Vol 10, No. 11 Clydebank Public Library).

Girls and young women gathered at Singer shops and sometimes at the company’s dedicated spaces to practice making the goods that their grandmothers and mothers had learned were appropriate within their culturally defined societal roles. These had evolved over time, modernized by the introduction of technology into the home, but the sewing machine had not changed the association of sewing, and even less of embroidery, as a gender-specific activity that helped maintain honored lives and economies. The connection with embroidering patterns particular to each region at Singer stores allowed the company to enter not only the home but also to become part of everyday forms of identity building in the era of globalization. Singer instructors provided similar lessons forhow to make embroidery stitches in Punta Arenas, Chile, at the Maceio Shop in Brazil, and at the Singer Embroidery Class in Libau, Latvia in the 1930s, contributing to create an image of the company and the technology as flexible enough to accommodate local cultures.

More and more women joined the ranks of Singer’s embroidery and sewing lessons as instructors over the 1920s and 1930s. They were at the core of store-centered innovative practices that continued to attract customers into buying and using the sewing machine in their homes well into the mid-twentieth century. Although studies on the role of store fronts and the introduction of new shopping experiences in expanding consumption in the twentieth century have focused on the developments introduced by department stores, direct selling in smaller locales was as common and as essential to encouraging more spending and opening new forms of consumption and production (Howard 2015; Stobart and Howard 2018; de la Cruz-Fernández 2019). During embroidery lessons, planned with the goal of making goods for the “hogar modesto” or modest or limited income home, and for the “pudiente” or wealthy household, girls learned simple calados or fretwork to decorate less delicate cloths first and more complicated lace making that could possibly be added to a wedding dress. They made traditional, widespread embroidery patterns such as the Richelieu or the Venetian as well as local designs, and there were also lessons on how to make monograms and decorative flowers to add to bedsheets, cushions, and personal goods such as purses or sewing baskets. The designs that students learned throughout four courses of embroidery lessons ornamented towels, nightgowns, baptismal baby clothing, and children’s dresses, procuring for a desired appearance and representing women’s dedication for work in an environment and for purposes that preserved notions of female honor and respectability (Libro “Singer” de Bordados 1922, 3, índice). What girls and women learned during these lessons was performed and displayed at the store, where saleswomen carefully created a “Children’s Corner,” for example, and invited “the crowds who are always around the window,” to see for themselves (Store in Kensington, Great Britain, The Red S Review 1920, Vol 1, No. 8 April, Clydebank Public Library). Women, and the sewing and embroidery practices that were culturally associated with female gender roles, transformed Singer’s hundreds of small stores around the world into uninterrupted forms of culturally imbued, innovative, and profitable business transactions.

The popularity of embroidery lessons declined over the years. This decline made space for an increasing interest in dressmaking lessons, which became the focus of Singer marketing efforts especially in more industrialized countries. The Art or Embroidery Department had turned into the Educational Department by the 1920s and although instruction for embroidery continued, principally to keep store decoration and temporary exhibits filled and renovated, vocational instruction, just in line

The Consumer as Marketing Expert 127 with public schools and women’s institutes at the time, took precedence over more traditional sewing practices. However, as the next section and Chapter 4 explain, the link with the home remained crucial. Although women performed as teachers at Singer schools or Singer Sewing Centers (as they were called in the US), or became certified in dressmaking to enter the ranks of growing dressmaking shops or contributed to their household income by working in textile and garment factories in large urban centers, the transformations in sewing practices modernized gender roles rather than undermining the hierarchies and associations between women’s work and their roles as mothers and wives. In line with what historians of gender in business and historians of gender in Latin America have argued in their studies of the state and industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, patriarchy and gender “restructured,” marked, and defined business transformations and sewing and embroidery remained a women’s and home imbued enterprise in the era of multinational mass marketing (Kwolek-Folland 1994; Besse 1996; Dore and Molyneux 2000).

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