WERTHEIM Manual Sewing Machine. Made in Germany! Ca. 1920.

“Made in Germany! Y’know the Germans always make good stuff! Y’followin’ me, camera-guy? It sews, it patches, it fixes, it goes forwards and backwards! It can even sit on your shelf and look a darn sight more decorative than the modern junk you could buy today! Ain’t that right, Charlie!? Charlie says ‘Yes indeed, folks!'” 

Wilkommen, mein damen und herren!

This post is all about…this:

I picked up this beauty at my local auction-house. I also picked up a mini-hernia trying to lug it home afterwards! Isn’t it a beauty?

What we have here, my curious compadres, is a German-made sewing machine, manufactured sometime in the 1920s. It was produced by the Wertheim company, which was one of the major European competitors to big-name American brands like…I dunno…SINGER. Or WHITE. Or NEW HOME.

Along with big names like Frister & Rossmann, and Seidel & Naumann, Wertheim was one of the most popular manufacturers, during the 1800s and early 1900s, of German-made sewing machines. While many people would swear by Singer, the Germans were giving the Americans a serious run for their money in the sewing machine department! And in cars! Radios…typewriters…hey, you just can’t beat German engineering, guys…

Unlike American companies, where sewing machine manufacturers made…sewing machines (Duuuuuuuuuuuh!)…German manufacturers made much more! Seidel & Naumann, for example, also made bicycles…and typewriters! Wertheim made sewing machines…and pianos! Wertheim pianos were extremely popular in Australia, where a factory was set up to manufacture them. This machine may not sound like a piano, but certainly is as sleek as one!

What Made German Sewing Machines Different?

German-made machines differed from their American cousins in a number of ways, both good, and bad. German machines had gears which were more precisely cut and fitted, than their American counterparts. This made the machines smoother, quieter and easier to operate for longer periods of time. They also had features which most American machines wouldn’t have for a good long while!

The back of the machine, revealing the detail of the decorations and gold-leaf applications.

Features like an auto-stop bobbin-winder, or a forward-reverse lever (something which SINGER didn’t have until WELL after the Second World War, but which German machines had back in the Edwardian era!), or even built-in measuring tapes on the bases of the machine-beds, for convenience in measuring, or even – built-in pin-cushions!

Another feature common to German sewing machines, and seen only occasionally on American ones, was what I like to call the ‘shuttle-launcher’. After advancing the shuttle through the race to the point of extraction, sliding back the plate to take out the shuttle would catch a lever inside the race. This would flick the shuttle out of the machine to make it easier to extract, to refill the bobbin. Depending on the machine, the extraction lever might just nudge the shuttle up, or it might flick it up into the air!

It was little touches like this which made German machines popular, and American machines seem…I dunno…’adequate’…by comparison. I mean in theory, they’d all do the same thing – they all sewed, but like those ads for ‘V’ energy-drink, the German ones had that massive hit, which improved them a bit.

What Do We Know about This Machine?

Not a gigantically-enormous amount, but we do know a bit. First: it was marketed for the English-speaking market. Secondly, it would’ve been one of the company’s later machines. We know this, because it’s a vibrating-shuttle machine, and not an older transverse-shuttle machine (which were still being made in the 1930s in Germany!).

Although German machines were highly innovative in some areas, in other areas, they rather tended to lag behind the competition.

In the 1920s and 30s, companies like White, or Singer, in America, were producing compact, easy-to-use, round-bobbin machines, very similar to the types of domestic sewing machines still manufactured today. They were easy to operate, easy to load, easy to understand.

By comparison, even in the 20s and 30s, German companies like Wertheim, or Frister & Rossmann, were still manufacturing machines like this – vibrating shuttle machines.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great machine. But when you consider that the invention of the vibrating-shuttle mechanism PRE-DATES the American Civil War…you’ll get some idea of just HOW outdated this technology WAS by say, 1925. On top of that, the Germans were still making transverse-shuttle machines, as well! Now the technology behind that is even more ancient! It gets its roots from the shuttles which rolled back and forth between the warp-and-weft layers of threads which made up old cloth-looms…which dated back CENTURIES! All the way to the Middle Ages!

By comparison with this, the Americans surged ahead with the latest and greatest – electric machines, more compact designs, built-in electric lights, attachable electric motors! The Germans, on the other hand, tended to stick with more traditional, dare-I-say, antiquated designs, and then over-engineer and over-develop them until they were absolutely the very best that they could be…and then just keep on making them! Germany was still producing machines like this when the Second World War broke out, at the end of the 1930s.

Where Does This Machine Come From?

The lands across the oceans, where rain sings and clouds mourn and flowers dance in the sand…

…I dunno! I was the only bidder on this machine at the local auction-house, and managed to get it dirt cheap (or as close to dirt as I was able to, given the setting)! I packed it up, paid for it, and then lugged it home by hand, almost putting my back out in the process! They didn’t do things by halves in those days! This thing weighs a ton!

What did the machine come with?

A bad attitude, a drinking problem, and a string of angry ex-wives.

Probably, but not this machine. No, it came with four bobbins, one shuttle, the original green-and-gold (how Australian!) tin machine-box, the original lid, key, and a beautiful set of intact decals and decorations! It really is a beauty!

What’s wrong with the machine?

Not too much. The bobbin-winder needs a minor repair, but apart from that, the machine works perfectly. Or it did, once I’d lubricated it, and adjusted all the relevant thread-tensions. This machine comes with a forward-back lever on it, which I was eager to test – I’d never had a vintage sewing machine with this feature on it before. I’m pleased to report that it works perfectly! In my eagerness to test the machine, I completely forgot all about thread-tension and as a result, of course, it wouldn’t sew! I adjusted the tension-nut on the side of the machine, and then adjusted the tension-screw on the shuttle as well, to get it working right.

Once I’ve repaired the bobbin winder itself, it’ll work wonderfully!

What Type of Machine is This?

Machines using this type of technology, involving a bullet-shaped shuttle with long, barbell-shaped bobbins, which swings back and forth, is called a ‘vibrating shuttle’ sewing machine (usually just called a ‘VS machine’ in collector circles).

In sewing machine evolution, it’s the second stage in sewing machine design, one step up from the older ‘Transverse shuttle’ machine (‘TS’).

VS machines were made from the late 1800s (about 1860s and 1870s), right up to the 1960s, although they were already outdated by about 1910. VS machines are popular because they hold large amounts of thread, and are fun to operate.

What is the ‘Wertheim’ Company?

The Wertheim company was established in 1868, by Joseph Wertheim. By the turn of the century, the machines were being sold in England, Spain, Germany, and even Australia! This last, was made possible by Hugo Wertheim (Joseph’s nephew), who migrated to Australia in 1875.

To say that young Hugo (and he was young, in his early 20s at the time), had buckets of money, is putting it mildly. As with any family which delved successfully into sewing machines in the 1800s, the Wertheim family, just like the Singer family, made an absolute fortune in manufacturing, distributing, exporting and selling these beautiful machines. This advertisement is all the proof you need!

Determined to make a name for himself, young Hugo became an importer of his family’s sewing machines, and made a deal with his Uncle Joseph to be the family’s representative in the colonies! Hugo started with an emporium in the Australian city of Melbourne, with his shopfront opening onto Flinders Lane, in the middle of the Melbourne Central Business District. In time, he would also expand into Bourke Street, William Street, and Collins Street, nearby.

Apart from sewing machines, Hugo, and his growing Australian branch of the wealthy House of Wertheim, also sold anything else with the Wertheim name on it, including bicycles, laundry-mangles, infant perambulators, and most famously of all – Pianos! And you can still buy Wertheim pianos easily in Australia today. They even had a factory manufacturing them in Richmond, a suburb east of the Melbourne CBD.

So what does this say about my Wertheim sewing machine? It proves that it was imported by a family which came to Australia, and made it big, in a big way! It’s a part of Australian, and Melbournian history, and I for one, am very glad to be its latest owner!


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