“Why not rent a sewing machine to the housewife
and apply the rental fee to the purchase price of the machine?”

&mdash I. M. Singer & Co.’s Gazette, 1856

The idea of paying in installments is an ancient one. In 1641, when the Pilgrims consolidated the “heavy burthens” they owed London creditors, they arranged to pay their debts in four annual “estallments.”18 But it was mechanization and the mass production of consumer durables in the nineteenth century that made the installment plan available to the average person. Between 1840 and 1890, four products—furniture, pianos, farm equipment, and sewing machines—spread credit financing through the world. In their different ways, these particular products were regarded as exempt from the general disapproval of buying on credit.

Pianos and elegant furniture, though not new products, represented gentility and social aspiration: for many American families, going without a piano meant forfeiting membership in the middle class. Farm machinery could be justified as “productive” rather than “consumptive” credit, a purchase that would contribute to income rather than simply depreciate with time. A similar argument justified the purchase of a home sewing machine, which reduced average time for making a shirt from fourteen hours to just one.

The single firm that did the most to bring the installment plan to the world was Singer Sewing Machines. Singer’s machines were neither the best nor the cheapest products on the market. But the firm’s innovative credit plan, inspired by piano showrooms near company headquarters, tripled sales in just one year. By the 1890s, Singer Sewing Machine agents were notorious for their hard-sell “dollar down, dollar a week” tactics. The company’s aggressive salespeople and easy payments made Singer one of the first multinational corporations.19

18 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 36–46.

19 Robert Bruce Davies, Peacefully Working to Conquer the World: Singer Sewing Machines in Foreign Markets, 1854–1920 (New York: Arno Press, 1976).