Unloved Antiques: Antique Singer Sewing Machines

A 1914 Singer Model 66 Red Eye Treadle Sewing Machine. This one is on sale online. The owner is asking for $158.

The second item in this series of “Unloved Antiques” (the first edition is about Limited Edition Collectors Plates) is the Singer treadle sewing machine, an item that we receive inquires about virtually every week. The reason for the impression these machines have some great value is a mystery; one that’s often fueled by a well-publicized sale of a rare, early example or a the much-repeated family tale about “a dealer who offered Grandma $1,000 for it 10 years ago and she turned him down flat.”

Our best guess for this belief that these marvels of 19th century technology are of high value could be rooted in nostalgia and their vintage. Nearly everyone who has contacted us regarding these machines mentions a provenance to a great-grandmother or great aunt, who bought the machine, used, at the turn of the 19th century and lived to some great age, usually between 96 and 103. The impression in peoples’ minds being that the mathematics of all this breaks the magic 100-years-old “Antique Barrier.” The 100-year-mark, in many people’s minds, correctly puts things like treadle Singers into the “antique” category but, unfortunately, it also mistakenly makes the assumption that Antique = Valuable.

An original advertisement for a Singer model 66, dating to 1910, just one of some 80,000 model 66s made just that year.

With all things antique, items’ values are based on a number of things, but the basics being “demand & supply,” a reverse of the standard “supply and demand” equation used in the regular economy. The antique market differs from the regular economy for newly manufactured items because the supply of an individual antique item is always limited to how many were originally made. If demand and value for an antique item increases due to current decorating or collecting trends, there are no new factories put into production to create new antiques to fill demand; the only resupply are the forgotten pieces that turn up at auction or estate clearances. This is where the Singer machines fail the “valuable” test on both scores: the demand for all but the rarest examples is modest and the current supply is truly vast.

In the case of the Singer treadle sewing machines in general, production began in the early 1850s. Its introduction was deemed such a labor-saving breakthrough that any family that could afford to buy one did so. By the turn of the 19th century, production exceeded a million machines a year. The machine shown above, the Singer model 66, was introduced
about 1900 and remained in production until the 1950s. This one dates to 1910, just one of more than 80,000 model 66s made just that year. Its value? At auction, in “as found” condition, most comparable Singer treadles sell for less than $150.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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