Nanaimo’s war of the sewing machines turned to print

His competitor’s machines, sneered John Hilbert, “are like the razors of the old song, made for sale and not for use.”

His competitor’s machines, sneered John Hilbert, “are like the razors of the old song, made for sale and not for use.”


Truth, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. And truth in advertising, well, it can take on a whole new dimension, as was shown by some Nanaimo merchants in the old days.

“FOR FIFTEEN DOLLARS” reads the 136-year-old headline in the Nanaimo Free Press, you could buy a “bogus and counterfeit” Singer Sewing machine from the firm of T.W. Fletcher. Suffice to say, this ad wasn’t placed by Fletcher, but by his Bastion Street competitor, Singer agent John Hilbert. The alleged Singer rip-offs (to use modern parlance) were “without doubt, the most trashy and inferior machines ever turned out of a manufactory, and have all the appearances of old and worn-out machines revampered [sic] and rejuvenated.

“They,” Hilbert continued, giving it both barrels, “are like the razors of the old song, made for sale and not for use.”

The established and reliable Singer Manufacturing Co. in New York “would not disgrace themselves or their machines by permitting a man of Fletcher’s well-known character to sell them in any capacity. The Genuine Singer Sewing Machine, by its superiority, has driven Fletcher out of the market with his Osborn, Osborn A. Wheeler & Wilson, New Wilson’s, Wanzer F.R.A.U.D. and numerous others, and he now resorts in his death struggles to force a genuine bogus Singer Machine on the people of this district, hoping by thus misleading the public to effect a few sales…”

Incredibly, as it seems to us now, Hilbert was just warming up! He recommended that Nanaimo residents compare the GENUINE Singers on sale at his emporium to “the perfectly useless bogus Singer” being sold by his unscrupulous competitor, who also carried the inferior New Home and Wanzer brands. Both these models, Hilbert sneered, would “live but a month, when Fletcher will go to the ‘Old Folks at Home’ and by the fireside go down the declining years of his life in knitting stocks, making tin cans and cursing the Singer…”

Genuine Singers cost from $50-200, depending upon features, and to show his disdain for competing products, Hilbert offered a late model Wanzer, taken in trade, for $10. He closed his outrageous advertisement published in the form of a letter, by reminding citizens to “beware of scratched tinkers, and dealers in emery and yarn — very long yarns at that.”

Fletcher wasn’t the only merchant carrying the Wanzer line. Victoria Crescent dealer J. Horner advertised it (in the same column as Hilbert’s tirade) as the lightest running and quietest machine on the market because it was built without cogs or cams. He noted that one million machines had been sold over a quarter of a century.

Hilbert’s broadside had been sparked by a small ad placed by Fletcher, in which he pointed out that a U.S. court had ruled that, as the Singer patent had expired, “anybody can manufacture these sewing machines”. He’d imported a supply of knock-offs “warranted to be precisely the same as the Singer Manufacturing Co.’s machines in their workings, but…much handsomer and better than those made by the mother company”.

He urged the public not to be taken in by misrepresentations of his unprincipled rival, Hilbert.

Hilbert followed with a smaller, much tamer notice to the effect that more than 500 genuine Singer sewing machines had been sold in the province, and he’d prove this by publishing the names of purchasers in a forthcoming issue of the Free Press. His list took up the best part of a column of fine type and concluded with the statement that more than three-quarters of a million Singer machines had been sold through 1880. Hilbert scornfully advised citizens not to be lulled into purchasing a clone even at $15, “for it will be $15 thrown away”.

The last word, at least in print, went to Fletcher: “Read the advertisement of my defeated opponent, and note his statement of sales. I could if truth would allow state that my sales of sewing machines during the last few years have amounted to 5,000 in this province alone, but I cannot do because I am not a Yankee Touter.”