While visiting the Smithsonian Institution, we saw our Elias J. Howe sewing machine. Only theirs did not have the beautiful mother-of-pearl inlay that ours has. We find three patent dates on ours –– Sept. 10, 1846, Aug. 24, 1858, and April 2, 1867.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

While visiting the Smithsonian Institution, we saw our Elias J. Howe sewing machine. Only theirs did not have the beautiful mother-of-pearl inlay that ours has. We find three patent dates on ours –– Sept. 10, 1846, Aug. 24, 1858, and April 2, 1867. Also on the brass plate is the number 150195. Could you explain what these numbers mean? We would like to know the value as well.
-- W. and B.W., Vero Beach, Fla.

Dear W. and B.W.:

First of all, let us say that it is a myth that the sewing machine was invented by Elias J. Howe Jr. It is also a myth that everything found in a museum –– even one as prestigious as the Smithsonian –– is of great monetary value.

The story of the invention of the sewing machine is a long, convoluted one that begins, some say, with Thomas Saint, an Englishman, who patented some sort of device for sewing in 1790. In the early years of the 19th century, a number of Europeans patented devices for sewing, but these are of little importance, except for their novelty.

Perhaps in passing we should mention Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor who invented a machine that he patented in 1830 and used commercially to make clothes for the French army. But what we are really interested in is a practical sewing machine that could be used both industrially and in the home.

This is where Howe (1819-67), who was looking for a way to make a fortune, emerges from obscurity. In 1846, he received the first U.S. patent for a sewing machine using a lockstitch, but his idea was appropriated by others who sold similar machines.

The inventor's financial prospects did not improve until he won a lawsuit that earned him royalties from his imitators. Howe established the Howe Machine Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., in 1865 in a factory that was managed by his sons-in-law, the Stockwell brothers.

After Howe died, the brothers continued making Howe sewing machines until 1886, when the factory closed. A Scottish branch of this enterprise was founded in Bridgetown, Scotland, in 1872, and this did not close until a year later.

It should be pointed out that Howe's brother, Amasa B. Howe, founded the Howe Sewing Machine Co. in 1854, but the Howe Machine Co. –– the company that made the piece in today's question –– bought that company in 1873. This is a confusing subject that could be discussed all day, but what W. and B.W. want to know is what all the numbers mean.

The last patent date quoted is 1867, and this means that this particular machine could not have been made before that date. The other number is a serial number and suggests that 150,194 machines were made before this one. And that is a lot of sewing machines.

This machine was probably made in 1880, give or take 10 years. The mother-of-pearl found on this piece is a nice touch, but does not raise the value all that much, and the machine appears to be missing its cover.

This is not a rare machine (few treadle sewing machines are) and has an insurance-replacement value of approximately $250 to $300.
    
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at treasures@knology.net.