New This Month

A Surprisingly Romantic History of the Sewing Bird Invention

Fun fact: They have a special significance for Valentine's Day.

"bird" sewing machine by Charles Waterman
Photography by: Cowles Syndicate Inc.
This 10-inch high sewing bird sold at auction for $1,046.

The world was different for a woman in the 19th century. There was housework to be done, meals to be cooked, and sewing was a highly-regarded skill. Nowadays, we can't imagine our lives without sewing machines. So consider how tedious it was to patch a hole, mend a seam, fix a hem, sew a garment, everything... done by hand.


Enter this odd-looking invention by Charles Waterman in 1853.


This early rendition of a sewing device looks nothing like the Singer in your crafts room today. It resembles more of a small side table with... a bird on it. The "sewing bird" as it was called, was an improvement on existing iron clamps, which were often used to hold one end of the fabric while it was hemmed or embroidered. When the upper and lower tail ends were pinched together, the beak opened, allowing fabric to be fed into it. And when the tail is released, the beak closes on the fabric, holding it securely for a seamstress to pull it tautly for sewing work to be done. The tool was made from brass, iron, or steel, and it sometimes came with special features including velvet-covered cushions, emery balls to sharpen needles, drawers, thread reels, and more.


The original patent was dated Feb. 15, 1853 and granted to Charles Waterman of Meridan, Connecticut, for a "feathered bird upon the wing, bearing a burden upon its back." According to Waterman's daughter, "he wanted to make sewing a little easier for the ladies." (Thanks, Charles.) Variations of the sewing bird continued to be made by Singer Sewing Machine Co. until the 1980s.


And here's an interesting fact: A man would give a "sewing bird" to a woman he admired as a token of his love, and so the woman would think of him while sewing. (We have to admit, as much as we love crafts, we're relieved this is no longer the case.)


Feeling inspired? Here's how to make a sweet paper craft inspired by an antique token of affection: the puzzle valentine.