Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Over the past decade, I have been working on this history of the selling, buying, and using of the household sewing machine in Japan. As I pursued this project, I was impressed to learn in conversations with numerous friends and colleagues how common it had been to own a Singer sewing machine, at least for middle-class city-dwellers in Japan of the 1930s or later, the generation of my colleagues’ parents. and as I began to present preliminary thoughts and results of my research to academic and broader public audiences, I was further impressed by the emotional resonance the sewing machine held for so many.

One colleague, for example, wrote in a letter after he heard me speak, “Listening to your talk the other night, I felt as if I was hearing my own history…. My mother supplemented the family income as a dressmaker. She made clothes on order from neighbors or acquaintances and also sold through a local retail clothing store…. If I am permitted to exaggerate slightly, the sewing machine is an object that links to memories of my mother a bit like the sled ‘Rosebud’ in the film Citizen Kane.”

Another colleague—I cannot recall who it was—came up to me after a talk and said that, influenced subconsciously, he was sure, by knowledge of my upcoming talk, the previous night he had dreamed of his deceased mother sitting at her sewing machine. in more than twenty years of writing and speaking on the history of (mainly male) industrial workers, I received no such emotionally linked reactions. I began to realize this was a topic worth pursuing seriously in part because of the long-lived . . .

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