Read Life at the Dakota Online
Authors: Stephen; Birmingham
But when Isaac Singer set about to peddle his device, he immediately found himself in legal trouble. It seemed that his invention really amounted to a successful amalgamation of bits and pieces of other, earlier inventions, most of which were protected by patents. Without incorporating the patented property of others, Singer's machine would not work at all. Altogether, some twenty-five different patents were involved. At least three of them belonged to Elias Howe, who threatened to sue for patent infringement. Singer approached Edward Clark, then a lawyer practicing in New York. Singer had come to Clark at least once before to help patent a slicing machine that had turned out to be a complete failure. Just why, after that first unsuccessful venture with Singer, whose reputation as an unsavory character was by then widespread, Clark agreed to take him on again is unclear. But Clark accepted Singer's very complicated case and, in return, asked for a 50 percent share of I. M. Singer & Co.
Edward Clark's background was altogether different from Isaac Singer's. Clark had been born in 1811, in the upstate New York village of Hudson, where the Clarks had been respectable middle-class residents for several generations. Coming to New York in the 1840's, Clark made a fortunate marriage to Caroline Jordan, the daughter of Ambrose Jordan, a prominent attorney who later became Attorney General for the state of New York. Mr. Jordan took his son-in-law into his firm, making him a junior partner, and the firm became known as Jordan, Clark & Company. Thus established, the young Clarks began to make their way into New York society.
It wasn't easy for them, thanks to Edward Clark's somewhat chilly personality. He was already a frustrated capitalist. In an era when one of society's most inviolable rules was, “Never talk about money, and think about it as little as possible,” Edward Clark seemed interested in talking and thinking about nothing else. “His eye is always on the dollar,” a contemporary had noted. Clark was slope-shouldered with a large nose and a skimpy beard, and wore tiny steel-rimmed spectacles and a thoroughly unconvincing wig. His demeanor was that of a
small-town accountant, and he spoke in a flat and nasal upstate voice. Though he was devoutly ProtestantâClark taught a regular Sunday School classâhe was at heart a tough-minded huckster with a promoter's instinct and no small talent for making deals. This was what no doubt drew him to the unlikely character who was to become his partner and make him a splendidly rich man.
With Clark's help, the company was able to buy up most of the patents needed to produce the Singer machine. A number of the inventors involved were impractical, unbusinesslike types who, for small sums, were willing to part with their patents. Others had died, and their widows were happy for the tiny windfalls that selling their patents produced. But one holdout was the stubborn Mr. Howe. What ensued was known at the time as “The Great Sewing Machine War.” The war was fought first in the press, in acrimonious and insulting newspaper ads in which Singer and Clark called Howe a charlatan, and Howe called Singer and Clark knaves, scoundrels, liars and thieves. This mudslinging led to more threats of lawsuits for libel, and the case eventually went to the courts.
At first, ingeniously, Clark tried to defend Singer's machine on the grounds that, in fact, the sewing machine had been invented centuries earlier by the Chineseâsince the Chinese at one point seemed to have invented nearly everythingâand that therefore Howe's patents had no validity. This argument failed to persuade the court, however. At the height of the rancor, Howe appeared in Clark's office and demanded $25,000 for his patents. Clark, in a rare, unwise move, threw him out. He should have paid Howe's price because, in the end, in a court-negotiated settlement, Singer and Clark were forced to agree to manufacture their machines under a license from Howe, for which Howe was to be paid a royalty of twenty-five dollars per machine sold. By the time Howe's patent expired, in 1867, Howe had earned over $2,000,000 in Singer royalties.
Though the settlement with Howe marked the end of the company's conflicts with the inventors, it was only the beginning of troubles between Clark and Singer. The two men could not have been more mismatched. Clark tried hard to play the role of a polished, old-family aristocrat. Singer was a bully and a roughneck. Clark was cool and logical, Singer was hotheaded and impulsive. And yet from the outset it was clear that the two men needed each other badly if the Singer
sewing machine was to succeed. Singer needed Clark's business acumen and what would turn out to be Clark's extraordinary ability as a promoter and salesman, and Clark needed Singer's suddenly apparent mechanical genius. According to Isaac Singer's biographer, Ruth Brandon,
“Neither could do without the other, and so for years they were irretrievably and unwillingly bound together â¦ However â¦ at the beginning of their association, each may have asked himself several times whether he had really got such a good deal as all that.”
As a businessman, Isaac Singer was completely without scruples and, to get what he wanted, thought nothing of resorting to threats and lies. Once, when one of his shareholders, whom Singer wanted to buy out, was taken ill, Singer visited the man at his sickbed, drew a long face and said, “I've just talked to your doctor. He thinks you won't get over this. Don't you want to give up your interest in the business altogether?” Singer then persuaded the frightened man to sign over his shares for a mere $6,000. The shares were worth at least ten times that amount. Later, when the gullible ex-shareholder recovered, he learned that Singer had never even met his doctor.
It was not long before Clark and Singer had grown to thoroughly detest each other, and only the mounting success of their sewing-machine business kept them lock-stitched together. Noticing the expanded life-style that Singer and his New York “wife,” Isabella, were enjoying, Clark was once heard to cry, “Curse them! I am making them all rich!” Singer, in turn, frequently muttered, “If anything serious should happen to Clark, by God, I will give the family a tussle for the property.” Once, Singer buttonholed an associate and said, “Have you ever seen Clark with his wig off?” The bemused man replied that he had not, and asked why. “Because he is the most contemptible-looking object I ever saw with his wig off!” said Singer.
The situation between the two equal partners was not helped by the fact that as far as the Clarks were concerned, their association with the Singer company had become a social anathema. Though Clark and Singer were becoming equally rich, New York societyâwhich never would have accepted the unsavory Mr. Singer or any of his various
wives and lady friendsânow treated the Clarks as if they were tainted with the Singer curse. Socially, Caroline Clark considered Isaac Singer absolutely beyond the pale, and would not permit him inside her house. Once she told a woman visitor that she “wished Mr. Clark would sell out, and leave the low occupation that he was engaged in, and the nasty brute he was associated with.” Mrs. Clark clearly felt that her husband had left a respectable practice of law, lowered himself into “trade” and into a partnership with a genuine lowlife.
What Caroline Clark may not have realized was that her husband was becoming the true hero of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and was creating a marketâout of nothingâin which one day every American housewife, of every economic level, would want a sewing machine or, as she would call it, “a Singer.”
Clark embarked upon an advertising campaign that was nothing if not innovative. Who, he reasoned, could be considered a more ladylike person than a clergyman's wife? Churches, he also realized, inevitably had sewing circles, and if a minister's wife could be persuaded to try a Singer machine, it was likely that the other ladies of her circle could be similarly persuaded. Writing his advertising copy himself, Clark directed one campaign specifically to churches, offering Singers to ministers' wives at half price, saying with delightful candor, “Whenever one of our machines is put to use, and especially if it be in a prominent place where numbers of persons have an opportunity of seeing its operation, other sales are sure to be made in the same society or neighborhood. For this reason, it is a matter of importance to us to have one of our Singer machines employed within the circle of each religious society in the United States.” The campaign was so successful that even the widows of clergymen wrote begging for chances to buy half-price machines.
To potential purchasers who were members of the laity, Clark devised a different advertising tactic. Since the machines were still expensive, he addressed a campaign to husbandsâwho, after all, would probably be the ones to make the final decisions to buy. He played artfully on masculine guilt over the long hours of drudgery wives spent with their needles and their mending, and how these hours deprived wives of precious time they could otherwise spend with their children, their homes, their husbands and womanly cultural pursuits. “The great importance of the sewing machine,” stated a typical Singer brochure,
“is in its influence upon the home; in the countless hours it has added to women's leisure for rest and refinement; in the increase of time and opportunity for that early training of children, for lack of which so many pitiful wrecks are strewn along the shores of life â¦ in the comforts it has brought within the reach of all, which could formerly be attained only by the wealthy few.” If, in other words, a man was unwilling to buy a sewing machine for his wife, he ought to recognize himself as the cad he was.
An advertisement of the period depicts a husband coming home from a day at business and saying to his wife that it is far too long since they have shared an evening together. Come, he says to her, put on your prettiest dress and we will go to dinner in a restaurant and then on to a concert. Ah, the poor soul replies, she cannot; she is far too behind in her sewing; seamstresses are hard to get, and expensive, and even with a seamstress one has to spend so much time explaining to the girl what must be done, and supervising her work. The husband smites his brow and says, “I cannot withstand that appeal! I must go and see these Machines! I must have one! Mary, you shall have your evenings, aye, and your afternoons, too, for relaxation and mental culture! I must have been asleep not to have seen through all this before!” Apparently this appeal shamed a sufficient number of husbands because Singer sales continued to climb upward.
Another of Clark's innovations was to employ women, always of the most genteel sort, to tour American cities and offer demonstrations showing how quick and easy it was to learn to sew by machine, and how much better were the results. (Singer demonstrators still offer free lessons on the machines today.) Even more important, Clark was one of the first to introduce a totally new selling conceptâthe installment purchase plan. Buying “on time” had rarely been tried before. Clark found that the system worked as successfully then as it works for the thousands of companies that have copied it since. Finally, though most of Edward Clark's sales pitches were male-oriented, he was shrewd enough not to overlook appeals to feminine independence and economic liberation. “The great popularity of the machines may readily be understood when the fact is known that any good female operator can earn with them
one thousand dollars a year,”
said one of Clark's ads.
In the twenty years since their 1851 alliance, the hostile partners, Clark and Singer, had both become very rich men. The Clarks had ensconced themselves in a huge mansion off Washington Square, for which Mrs. Clark may have partially forgiven the “nasty brute” whose tinkering was responsible for it all. Isaac Singer's life continued in its usual disordered style. When Singer died in 1875, all sorts of wives, mistresses and illegitimate children appeared to challenge Singer's will and lay claims to shares of the millionaire's estate. The court battles over Singer's fortuneâand the scandalous carryings-on that were revealed during themâmade headlines for months, as more and more details emerged about what the New York
solemnly called “A Very Ghastly Domestic Story.”
In his will Isaac Singer acknowledged twenty-five children, only eight of whom were legitimate. And since he had trouble remembering all his childrens' namesâegregiously misspelling them in the willâit is likely that he fathered a great many more.
To his credit Edward Clark put his personal feelings about Singer aside and came gallantly to the support of Isabella Boyer Singer, the wife with whom Singer had spent most of his final years, in her claim to be the legal widow. Isabella eventually won her case and went on to live a glamorous life in Paris, where she married a duke and became Bartholdi's model for the Statue of Liberty.
With Singer's death Clark became president of the Singer Company
and, freed from the burden of his unpleasant partner, found himself with time to devote to other money-making projects. One of these was his unprecedented apartment house, whose design he had entrusted to one of the most exciting young architects in New York.
“Clark's Folly,” however, despite all the ridicule and head-shaking it evoked, was not undertaken as a flight of fancy, nor was Edward Clark endeavoring to build a monument to himself, as some people assumed. He saw the Dakota, purely and simply, as a business investment. Life at the Dakota, he was convinced, could be sold to the New York public through the same selling techniques that had sold Singer sewing machines all over the world. Like a sewing machine, the Dakota would offer convenience, a short-cut route to opulent living with none of the problems of upkeep, and at a fraction of the expense that went with owning a private house. Like a sewing machine, the Dakota would offer “leisure for rest and refinement” and “comforts â¦ which could formerly be attained only by the wealthy few.”
Clark was now approaching seventy and had grown more than a little cynical about the public and what it wanted. The public could be made to want anything, if it were sold to them the right way. But one thing the public did seem to want in 1880 was to emulate high society and the way high society lived. Very well. The Dakota would provide such emulation. The Dakota was designed to convey the impression that, though one might be living in an apartment house, one was really living in a mansion. The Dakota would be an imitation of the rich-rich New York lifeânot the real thing, but a mirror image, an illusion. There were plenty of New Yorkers, Edward Clark figured, who would pay for that. For that, they would even sacrifice a good address.