Female Economies in the Era of Global Capitalism: Credit and Entrepreneurship in Sewing and Embroidery

In May of 1898, in the midst of the armed conflict against the US in Cuba, the Spanish press effusively called upon Spain’s Minister of Justice Alejandro Groizard y Gómez de la Serna to act upon the estafas or scams of the Compañía Fabril Singer. The news article also informed readers that the company was actually American, from the US, as if this fact had never been of relevance to doing business in the country. El Pais had done research on the business and found that the “súbdito inglés" or British citizen Edmund Adcock, head of Singer Spain, was only the representative of this company, and that Singer was not British but actually headquartered in the US (El Pais 1898).

The article continued by calling the employees at Singer “cuadrilla ladronil" or cadre of thieves, for two reasons. One, because the company in the US, and probably also around the world, was requesting donations for a fund to contribute to the country’s war effort in Cuba. They deemed such requests shameless. Second, the news reported that the company was not only committing fraud by not saying the real provenance of the appliance—or by saying that the sewing machines were made in Great Britain—but also by taking advantage of reselling machines that women had to return after having defaulted on their payments (El Pais 1898; La Correspondencia Militar 1898; La Dinastía 1898). The press denounced the foreign company for lying about its origins to Spaniards and also for using women as its main market target. For a few weeks, the same newspaper, El Pais, and others such as El Globo, published more lists of women whose Singer sewing machines had been seized because they had not paid the full price of the appliance. In Singer’s correspondence with Great Britain’s office, delinquent accounts had been presented as one challenging aspect of doing business in Spain—as well as in Mexico (See also Chapter 2, in this volume). Yet this method of selling, in place since the 1880s, was at the heart of the Singer Sewing Machine Company’s success in countries where women’s incomes were irregular and low, and thus the company never questioned if it was worth continuing to use it. Likewise, in contracting with Singer, women found an alternative option, independently of their husbands potentially, to access the technology.

In the case of Mexico, Singer’s contratos de alquiler or lease agreements were also extremely popular, but they generated other difficulties with consumers who used the machines to negotiate cash loans. During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, Singer representatives embarked in litigation in local courts in Mexico City to track down the prospective owners of sewing machines who had left their machines at pawn shops for short periods of time in exchange of cash. Singer superintendent at the time, C. G. Lavers, took to court a dozen pawn businesses in downtown Mexico City requesting detailed information about the people who had left machines or parts of machines at their shops but who still owed payments to the company for those sewing machines. Singer’s goal was to get in touch with the official renter of the sewing machine, like Maria Saenz who in 1907 had loaned her sewing machine head to a pawn shop for 5 pesos (Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal, March 1907).

Although 5 Mexican pesos was a low price for keeping a sewing machine “pawned for some time,” as Maria had stated, sewing machines were common goods—typewriters were also regularly pawned—being used to access cash fast. Customers in Mexico paid a total of 150 pesos for a sewing machine with a table and without a cabinet at the turn of the twentieth century (between $500 and $1,000 in today’s currency). If clients preferred or had no other option but paying on installments, they owed 6 pesos a month and a down payment of 10 pesos. In Spain, Singer lenders or canvassers received a down payment as well and in this case it was 10 reales a week that the future owner of the sewing machine had to pay. In both countries, the total price of a Singer sewing machine was high, especially for working women and men who possibly purchased the sewing machine as a way to increase their own production of goods either in their home or in their small businesses.

The popularity of the option to pay for a machine on credit and how commonly these household goods appeared in local pawnshops are evidence of how women and families managed economic hardship and opportunity at the turn of the twentieth century in urban Spain and Mexico. As labor and social historians have shown, sewing machines and credit options were also at the center of local reformers and legislators’ agendas. Contemporaries were concerned about the morality and juridical impacts of women’s access to property and labor in emerging capitalist and industrial economies and about how individual credit options might have negative consequences on women’s economies (Gutiérrez Sánchez 1989:436; Capel Martínez 2005:302; Cruz del Amo and Capel Martínez 2009:333; Porter 2003; Francois 2006). However, instances where women were in the middle of capital-driven and managed productive activities were more than anecdotal instances of women trying to survive in oppressive economic systems. They demonstrate how women engaged in the market and how culturally constructed and gendered views of women’s social and economic roles shaped these market performances.

The decision that a consumer in Vigo, Spain, or Puebla, Mexico, made to buy and eventually own an expensive household appliance, a Singer sewing machine, was part of a larger context of economic opportunity, a process of producer identity building, risk decision making, and global capitalism. Gender historians study of the economy and culture has demonstrated that by buying, or as consumers, women shaped economic practices and contexts in important ways (Francois 2006, 2011; Remus 2019). As Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor states, in the case of the US in the Revolutionary era, “whatever women continued to do in actual market stalls was portrayed in popular literature as a household matter explicitly disconnected from larger economic and political trends” (Hartigan-O’Connor 2009:3; Buddle 2011). Although tangled to domesticity, the networking, financial dealings, credit options, shopping experiences, skill training, and mastery of industrial technology that women managed, produced, and performed placed the female practices of embroidery and sewing at the center of modern markets. This chapter examines the financial, professionalization, and domesticity-related cultural strategies that made women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds vital market players (Gálvez Muñoz and Fernández Pérez 2007; Olcott et al. 2006; Fowler-Salamini 2013; Remus 2019; Rappaport 2001; Yeager 2019).

To sell on credit, to rent until the last payment was submitted, or to borrow cash in exchange for a sewing machine were transactions in which women, men, sellers, lenders, journalists, reformers, industrialists, consumers of garments, professionals, and agents of international business were all essential actors. To define women’s involvement in embroidery and sewing, whether for personal use, gifting, or market purposes, as out of necessity labor is an understatement and the result of a narrow perspective on women’s entrepreneurial drives and female practices as only cultural and not economic. The opportunism in the press’ accusations in Spain reveals just a small glimpse of the market relationships and scenario of which Singer salesmen and female heads of households were part of. The home, the Singer store, the back of department stores, and both small and large clothing factories, all were spaces of production and consumption, of financial and entrepreneurial dealings and practices imbued in a global context of gendered perceptions of labor, commerce, credit, and management.

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