Issue 5, 2013. October-November

   

SINGER GEORGIA: A TOUCH OF THE WEST IN THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE

Singer Sewing Machines, a rags-to-riches American success story, has deep roots in the South Caucasus where it was one of the largest Western foreign direct investments of its time.

Emil Avdaliani



Thousands of Machines, Millions of Rubles

Credited with ending women's servitude to sewing around the world, the Singer Sewing Machine also introduced production, sales, and marketing in the Russian Empire on a scale previously unknown in the region.

Singer Sewing Company was founded in the United States by Isaac MerrittSinger (1811-1875) who exhibited his first creation in 1851. In the 1880s the company spread its offices all over the continental Europe.

The sewing machine giant opened its first store in the empire in 1897 at a high point of Russian-American trade. Two years later the first Singer manufacturing plant opened near Moscow and, as it expanded, plants were opened in Tbilisi and Baku.

Singer was one of the largest foreign enterprises on Georgian soil: no other company had such a large number of workers — or agents, as they were known in the Russian Empire. According to statistics compiled just before the start of World War I, at the height of production, there were 30,328 Singer employees stretching the length of the empire - 800 of whom were in the South Caucasus, 388 of those in Georgia.

The Singer sewing machine was quick to catch on in Georgia, where people were eager to save time - and flaunt the fact they could afford the 75-83 ruble price tag — ordinary salary was just 3-4 rubles per month.

In 1905, the first year statistics were available, 8,344 sewing machines were sold — 586,317 rubles worth of sales — in the South Caucasus. By 1912, sales had nearly doubled in the region to 15,675 sewing machines, worth 1.38 million rubles.

The popularity of Singer sewing machines withstood even political instability - the uptick in demand was unabated despite political unrest that even threatened Singer management in Georgia.

Beginning in 1906, revolutionary views spread among the Singer workers in Tiflis (Tbilisi). Several German directors were forced to flee; one chief executive was murdered on December 12, 1906.

His successor managed to alleviate the situation. Nevertheless, the central Singer office in Hamburg decided to put the Tiflis department under its direct control. This continued right to the October Revolution of 1917 when Singer was forced out by the Bolsheviks.