Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

by Andrew Gordon

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Since its early days of mass production in the 1850s, the sewing machine has been intricately connected with the global development of capitalism. Andrew Gordon traces the machine’s remarkable journey into and throughout Japan, where it not only transformed manners of dress, but also helped change patterns of daily life, class structure, and the role of women.… See more details below


Since its early days of mass production in the 1850s, the sewing machine has been intricately connected with the global development of capitalism. Andrew Gordon traces the machine’s remarkable journey into and throughout Japan, where it not only transformed manners of dress, but also helped change patterns of daily life, class structure, and the role of women. As he explores the selling, buying, and use of the sewing machine in the early to mid-twentieth century, Gordon finds that its history is a lens through which we can examine the modern transformation of daily life in Japan. Both as a tool of production and as an object of consumer desire, the sewing machine is entwined with the emergence and ascendance of the middle class, of the female consumer, and of the professional home manager as defining elements of Japanese modernity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book will excite readers interested in material culture, gender and socioeconomic change. . . . A brilliant portrait of modernizing Japan."--Social Science Japan Jrnl
Social Science Japan Jrnl - M. William Steele/International Christian University

“The book will excite readers interested in material culture, gender and socioeconomic change. . . . A brilliant portrait of modernizing Japan.”
H-Net - Anna Johns

"Gordon asks questions and draws connections that less ambitious studies of business or society alone cannot achieve . . . [he] reinvigorates the history of the sewing machine and suggests that there is much more to learn about this extremely significant piece of household technology."

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes , #19
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
3 MB

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Fabricating Consumers

The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

By Andrew Gordon


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95031-3


Meiji Machines


In 1841 five fishermenwere caught in a stormand shipwrecked on a small island more than two hundred miles from their home in Japan. Close to starvation, they were rescued six months later by an American whaler and brought to Hawaii. The youngest of the group, age fourteen and possessed only of the given name Manjiro, stood out as curious and smart. He was befriended by the ship's captain, and in the spring of 1843 he was brought for a proper Christian education to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, next to the whaling port of New Bedford, and renamed John Manjiro. After his schooling, this extraordinary young man embarked on a three-year voyage on a whaling ship, followed by a gold-rush journey to California, before he returned to Japan in 1851.

In the early years of Japan's famous "opening" to the West in the 1850s and '60s, Manjiro's mix of experience and talent allowed him to play a fascinating minor role in Japan's relations with the United States. His facility with English and his knowledge of American customs and technology won him a position as advisor-interpreter on the first official Japanese mission to the United States, undertaken in 1860 by the Tokugawa regime to ratify the trade treaty earlier negotiated by the American envoy Townsend Harris. One episode in that journey neatly represents the spirit of an era of extraordinary fascination (mixed, to be sure, with fear) about the outside world, especially the world of the "barbarians" from across the sea. Several members of the mission found their way to the laundry room of their hotel in Washington, D.C. A drawing in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (figure 1) captured the "curiosity of the Japanese at witnessing the girl working one of Wheeler and Wilson's sewing machines in Willard's Hotel laundry," vividly depicting a time when even proud samurai were willing to poke around the backstage of their lodgings, and when Americans were no less curious about their visitors. The accompanying article noted that "their curiosity was greatly excited, and their inspection was close and minute into the modus operandi of that wonderful machine, ... and it was understood that one of Wheeler and Wilson's sewing machines would be prominent among the most valued articles they would take back with them to Japan." Manjiro was not among these men. After crossing the Pacific, his compatriots grew suspicious that Manjiro was spying for the Americans, and they left him in San Francisco when they continued east. It is not known whether any of these curious travelers actually brought home a sewing machine, but we do know that Manjiro was no less excited by this mechanical wonder; while awaiting the delegation's return to San Francisco, he bought a sewing machine to bring home to his mother.

Contrary to popular belief in Japan, this was probably not the first sewing machine to enter the archipelago. Documentary evidence suggests that Townsend Harris presented a sewing machine as a gift to the shogun's wife early in 1858. It is virtually certain that some of the Westerners coming to Japan in 1859 to take up residence in the treaty ports brought the machine with them as well. Woodblock prints from the early 1860s that depict treaty-port life show large-nosed Western seamstresses serving the foreign community with sewing machines (figure 2). But Manjiro's sewing machine was certainly the first to find its way into an ordinary Japanese home. (More precisely, it was the first to be turned away from a home.)

Manjiro's extraordinary story helped to establish a narrative of Japanese-American relations as a history of uplift and enlightenment featuring generous American tutors and eager Japanese tutees. It also exemplifies a process explored throughout this book: the transport, together with goods and technology, of new ways of life—and new ideas about daily life—in a world of two-way but asymmetrical exchange.

Why did Manjiro bring back this machine? At first glance the answer is simple: filial piety. But while such a sentiment was surely part of the story, a fuller and more interesting answer must recognize the modern spin he would have given to this time-honored concept. Manjiro returned from the United States in 1851 with a deep understanding of industrial technology; his enthusiastic explanations of steam engines, locomotives, and telegraphs had won him the respect of no less a figure than the daimyo of Satsuma. He had clearly embraced an American faith in the power of machine technology. Although the sewing machine was not yet being produced for household use on a large scale during his first American sojourn through 1851, by the time of his second journey to the United States, sewing-machine manufacturers were proudly touting the product for reducing the weight of women's household labor . An 1858 ?yer for the Ladies' Companion Sewing Machine "call[ed] attention of the public to these CHEAP LABOR SAVING MACHINES." The Family Sewing Machine Company in 1861 called its product "the great time-saver and benefactor of our race" As Manjiro shopped for a machine for his mother , he surely encountered such claims and would have found them persuasive.

If so, he was moved in his gift-giving not simply by a Japanese family morality of the Edo era, but by the modern idea that material progress would uplift humanity. This was not an idea his mother would embrace. We are told she responded with disappointment, not pleasure, when she discovered that the tight stitching of the machine was poorly suited to sewing of a kimono, whose outer piece and inner lining had to be loosely stitched so the garment could be taken apart to be cleaned, and then resewn.

In facing this question of the ?t between the sewing machine and her accustomed dress, Manjiro's mother was among the first people in Japan to argue by her actions that Japan's material culture was an impediment to the spread of the sewing machine. Over the next century, a vigorous debate took place over the suitability of sewing machines for the stitching of what came to be called wafuku (lit., Japanese clothes). This neologism inscribed in Japanese culture a sharp contrast to a second new coinage, yofuku (lit., overseas clothes, or Western clothes) alongside a parallel linguistic divide between Japanese styles of sewing (wasai) and Western ones (yosai).

The list of objects and practices defined in Meiji times as Japanese or Western by the first syllables of wa or yo ranged from food and drink to books and music. The incipient debate over the suitability of the sewing machine for Japanese dress focused quite specifically on the fact that one of the great merits of machine stitches—their tightness—was a demerit for a customary mode of dress that required loose stitching. This debate unfolded over the years as part of a larger discourse on the place of cultural forms and practices often newly de?ned as "Japanese" in a modern world understood to originate in the West. This modernity was understood at times as a threat fromaWestwith power to colonize, at times as a resource to resist that threat, and at times as an irresistibly attractive new way of life. Contributors to the discourse of modernity in daily life, as we will see, explored the dilemma faced by Manjiro's mother as they debated the merits of what came to be called the "double" or "two-layered" (ni-ju) life combining practices marked "Japanese" with those marked "Western."

The sewing machine was therefore among those objects that carried into Japan new and at times contentious ideas concerning women's roles, the idea of progress, and the roles to be played by technology, by individuals, and by nations on the march toward an improving future. At the time of Manjiro's voyages, the idea that new technology and machines would transform both the world and individual lives for the better had been articulated clearly in American culture, but was not yet widely spread or deeply rooted in Japan. By the start of the twentieth century, the positive value of progress and the need for all individuals to contribute to the advancement of civilization and nation (or empire) was well established on both sides of the Pacific. The sewing machine would become explicitly linked to the possibility of progress for women in particular . As increasing numbers of women began to use the machine in Japan, they gave these ideas an impressive, at times surprising, range of meaning.


Until the end of the nineteenth century, actual users of the sewing machine in Japan were for the most part limited to three groups and locations: tailors and dressmakers in the handful of treaty ports where Western traders and their families had been allowed to live and work since the late 1850s; garment factories producing Western-style uniforms for the military and for the modest number of men working in modern industries, especially the railroad; and an elite world of Japanese gentlemen and ladies in Tokyo. But interest in the object and the new modes of dress that came with it extended well beyond these locales.

In the treaty ports, tailor and dressmaker shops equipped with sewing machines began to appear in the 1860s and early 1870s. Early tailors and dressmakers were Western men and women, followed by immigrant Chinese tailors from Hong Kong or Shanghai, who first appeared in 1868. Starting in Yokohama, the first Japanese tailors and dressmakers opened shops in the 1880s, almost all of them men who had learned their trade as apprentices in Chinese or Western businesses. The clientele for the tailors gradually came to include elite Japanese men. Following the Meiji emperor , who first wore a Western suit in public in 1872, "the leaders of the new Japan" had adopted a style—"the top hat and black morning coat"—of recent British and North American origin that conveyed the "responsibility and self-discipline" of the rulers of a modern nation. These were the men whom Basil Hall Chamberlain memorably described in 1891 as the "modern successor[s]"to the samurai, "fairly fluent in English and dressed in a serviceable suit of dittos."

Female demand for the dressmakers' services increased, with a time lag of about fifteen years, as Western dress became fashionable among aristocratic Japanese women in the mid-1880s. This was the Rokumeikan era, named for a ballroom in Tokyo where elite Japanese men and women danced and mingled with the Western community. To meet the demand, Japanese-owned shops opened in the capital. Records exist for thirty-four tailor shops and just one dressmaker in Tokyo in 1880. By the decade's end, one finds more than 130 garment makers, fourteen of which served women.

These were modest numbers. Similarly, the sewing machine itself had as yet found only a limited market in Japan. Worldwide in the 1850s and 1860s, no single manufacturer stood far above others. Manjiro's machine was made by Wheeler and Wilson, one of several leading American manufacturers competing as well with German and British producers. By the 1880s, however , the Singer Sewing Machine Company had emerged as the unchallenged champion of this extraordinarily popular good. It sold eight hundred thousand machines annually, accounting for fully three-quarters of the global supply.

In Japan, sewing machine sales were low, and Singer was not yet dominant. The company operated through a Belgian agent, Edward Sang, whose territory ranged from India and Ceylon to Japan. Only scattered and inconsistent records of Singer's Chinese and Japanese sales activity survive from this era, but the company clearly sold only modest numbers through Sang or other agents. An 1884 report notes the sale of 635 machines over a six-month period in Yokohama (490), Nagasaki (90), and Hiogo (Kobe; 55), while an undated "Summary of Business, China and Japan, 1882–1886" lists total sales in both countries as only 117 for 1884, 355 for 1885, and 924 for 1886. The discrepancies in the 1884 reports may reflect the fact that Edward Sang was pocketing proceeds that he should have remitted to New York and covering up the related sales. Sang's malfeasance was uncovered in 1888, and Singer cut ties with him, but sales did not increase over the next decade. Until the turn of the century, German producers held the largest share of the small Japanese market. Customs records from the late 1890s show the total value of sewing machine imports from Germany to be triple that of those from the United States, with British makers in third place.

Compared to the modest presence of tailors or dressmakers and the limited sale of machines, the cultural impact of this object from the 1870s through the turn of the century was substantial. The history of the Japanese word for sewing machine offers semantic evidence for its centrality in defining what contemporaries called a new era of "civilization and enlightenment." In the earliest documents that mention it, from the 1860s, the sewing machine is named prosaically enough, either with Japanese characters that literally mean "sewing tool" or with Japanese phonetic symbols that approximated the pronunciation "sewing machine" (shuu-ingu ma-shee-nay).

The phonetic label took hold. As it did, the adjective sewing dropped from colloquial use, and the word mas-shee-nay was distilled into just two syllables: mishin. In the early 1870s, this term began to appear in newspaper advertisements and articles (in 1872 with a parenthetical Japanese gloss), and the mishin became a sideshow attraction in Tokyo's Asakusa entertainment district. About thirty years before it began to make its way into Japanese homes in relatively large numbers, the sewing machine had become an object of popular curiosity. With the name of machine, pure and simple, it stood as the emblem of a new era of wondrous technology.

By the early twentieth century, no less a personage than the Meiji empress was reported to desire this object. In September 1905, the London Times correspondent in New York described "the ?nest sewing machine ever made in this country ... just completed at the works of the Singer Sewing Machine Company." That July, Alice Roosevelt, the famous twenty-year-old daughter of the president, accompanied Secretary of War William H. Taft on a large diplomatic mission to Japan. According to the Times, Miss Roosevelt met with the Meiji empress, who "expressed a desire to possess an American sewing machine." Informed by his daughter of this illustrious person's wish, the president placed an unusual order with Singer , asking the company to be sure that "every part of the ma chine where there is no friction is gold-plated ... A special messenger will probably carry it to Japan."

No follow-up report of the actual delivery can be found in the London Times or other sources, but that the Meiji empress desired this good makes sense. The surprise is that she had not yet secured one. For two decades, she had been encouraging women, at least those of status and wealth, to adopt new modes of dress and new techniques of dressmaking. Both the timing of her advocacy and its ambivalent articulation reveal that Japan's rulers were acutely interested in and anxious about the daily-life impact on women of their modernization program.

The empress had moved a good bit more slowly than her husband in changing her clothes and those of the women around her . In 1872, the emperor donned Western dress for occasions of state. In 1873, the conscription law imposed military service and Western uniforms on all classes of young men. But into the 1880s the empress continued to wear Japanese clothing exclusively, even at ceremonies to inaugurate Western institutions, such as the Tokyo Normal School's kindergarten. In historian Sally Hastings's nice formulation, the imperial couple was "a mismatched pair."

Women were gradually but cautiously brought into the circle of modernizing practice. In 1886 the empress began to wear Western dress in public, and the next year she issued a famous "court circular" requiring her attendants to do the same. Published in newspapers and magazines, this document had an impact beyond the aristocracy. It set out model behavior not only for court ladies but for all who aspired to high social status. With a logic that may strike contemporary readers as stretched beyond the breaking point, the circular invoked ancient precedents to legitimize this change. Court regulations and changes in dress dating back to the seventh century were said to have "paved the way for today's clothing style," because Western dress resembled ancient Japanese dress, even as it was "convenient for action and movement" appropriate to the new era.

With changes in dress came a call to change dressmaking. From the time of its arrival, the sewing machine had been linked to Western dress for both men and women. Like Manjiro's mother, users continued to consider the machine's tight stitching poorly suited to Japanese clothing, whether ceremonial or for daily life, but well suited to Western garments. The empress's circular echoed and reinforced this connection between modes of dress and sewing by telling women that along with new clothing, it was "only natural to adopt the Western method of sewing."


Excerpted from Fabricating Consumers by Andrew Gordon. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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