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Sewing Advice from Cannibals

Dreamed 1845 by Elias Howe


Elias Howe was one of several independent inventors of the sewing machine; his key contribution, which made him rich, was the eye at the tip of the needle. Machines up to this point imitated hand-held sewing needles, whose hole is the last part to go through the cloth. Such machines could go faster than handheld sewing, but for the average family or business, they didn't justify their high cost. Yet hand-sewing ate up a major part of women's productive time; a fast, low-cost machine would be a huge boon, esepecially for poorer families.

One night in 1845, Howe fell asleep at his desk.


He found himself in Africa, being chased by cannibals. They caught him and put him into a huge stew-pot full of water, and built up a fire beneath him. He tried repeatedly to climb out of the pot, but the cannibals kept pushing him back into the pot with their spears. He woke in terror.


Later, though, a strange detail from the nightmare kept haunting him. Each warrior's spear had a hole through it, like some huge sewing needle--but with the hole near the head, not the tail!

And then suddenly he understood the dream--and envisioned the modern sewing machine.

If you'll pardon the pun, he, uh, got the point.


This account paraphrases "A Popular History of American Invention" (Waldemar Kaempffert, ed.) Vol II, New York, Scribner, 1924, p. 385.

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