Wheeler & Wilson in France

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Wheeler & Wilson in France


By Rijnko Fekkes

One of the sewing machines in my collection is quite a mystery machine. It is a “ Machine a coudre de Wheeler & Wilson , L.S. et Cie a Paris, brevetés s.g.d.g., nr. 170 “, the early 1853 model.

I wondered for many years who was L.S. et Cie ? Could not find this name in any book or on the web after I bought this machine. 

Recently I tried again and looked in Paris addressbooks from the 1850’s on the online French archives. Looked for persons or businesses with a “ S ” as surname and a ” L “ as firstname, related to sewing machines, which was quite a job. At last I found a person in a 1855 Paris addressbook named Léon Say, who was registered as “mecanicien machine a coudre“ (sewing machine mechanic), Rue Lepeletier 10 in Paris. Now I had to find out if this man had been selling Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines, but I could not find any evidence for that, so put his name aside. Some days later I looked further in the 1850’s addressbooks. I came across a name Villamil et cie. in the 1855 book, selling Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker machines for couture, which company was established at Rue Lepeletier 10 ! I remembered then I had seen this address before and yes it was the address of Léon Say ! Was he only a mechanic or also businesspartner in this company I wondered. Looked now at advertisements in journals and magazines in the 1850’s with the name Villamil et Cie as seller of Wheeler & Wilson machines and yes I was lucky to find two advertisements in the Revue Industrielle for 1857. In this advertisements Villamil et Cie states they have obtained the patents (brevets) from Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker and are offering these machines in their establishment Rue Lepeletier 10 in Paris. Also they mention that they were granted two medals on the Exposition Universelle 1855 in Paris. A picture was added of my 1853 Wheeler & Wilson model on a treadlestand! Now I had to find out if Villamil & Cie were present indeed on that Exposition. Searched all participants but alas no Villamil et cie. Could it be Léon Say was there to expose the machines ? I looked for his name on the exposition and yes in Classe 7, section 8, exposant nr.1624, was his name registered. So he was obviously more than a mechanic working for a company. Could have been he was the one who started the company and had to make the early registration for the upcoming exposition on the 5th of may 1855. Perhaps also for that reason was his name L.S. et Cie die stamped on the clothplate of my machine at that time. I found more evidence for this involvement when I later found an article in the “La Propiété Industrielle” for 1859 where Villamil et Cie, SAY and Sautter were mentioned in a lawsuit against Journaux for illegal use of their obtained Grover and Baker patent. I could make out Say and Sautter had bought the rights of this Grover & Baker patent and had passed them on to Villamil as concessionair. A question which also had to be answered is: Was Say/Villamil et Cie really the manufacturer of my machine or only the seller, so was my machine made in America and exported to France or made in France. In the 1857 advertisement Villamil et Cie named themselves only as the “depot“ of the Wheeler & Wilson company in France. This could mean they received the machines then from the factory in America and only sold them. Often French companies called themselves proudly “ fabricant “ (manufacturer) when they more or less built the machines. Many times it were only workshops getting machineparts from elswere and put these together to a working machine. Villamil et Cie did not mention the word ” fabricant” in their advertisement. It is possible my machine was in parts imported from the American factory and assembled in the “depot” by Say/Villamil, putting a clothplate with French text on her for the French market. This is not unthinkable as there is a number 673 stamped in the cast iron needlebararm, which could mean made 1853 in the American factory. As we know not many Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were produced then in America; in the first half of 1855 about only 2500 machines, so not many complete machines could have been exported over the world. There is evidence that Villamil actually has built sewing machines in the 1850’s, probably in a workshop on Rue Lepeletier 10. There is no factoryaddress known. Except the obtained Wheeler & Wilson patent ( in France nr.16578, dated 18 july 1853, granted 2 june 1853 to Wilson par Cardissal, Boul.St.Martin 29 Paris) I have found three other patents: Nr. 26281 on 30 jan.1856 to Villamil et Cie, represented by Basset, Rue Druot 2 Paris, for improvements in sewing machines. Nr.28972 on 30 aug. 1856 to Villamil et Cie, represented by Sautter, Rue Druot 2, also for improvements in sewing machines. Nr.35951 on 26 march 1858 to Villamil et Cie, Rue Lepeletier 10, for improvements applied to sewing machines. So actually quite activ in manufacturing. In couturecircles they even have used the term “systeme Villamil” when they had to carry out specific sewing designs. It is of interest to know how many years Villamil et Cie were in business. Looking at the facts I think they have started in 1855 (Villamil acquired the patentrights late 1855). I found Villamil et Cie in the Almanach du commerce for 1861 still at the address Rue Lepeletier 10, now with a branche on Boulevard de Sebastopol 80. In the Almanach for 1862 Villamil et Cie is not mentioned at all, so obviously no longer existed. Léon Say had returned to his former home address at Rue Boursault 11 in Paris. The brancheaddress Boulevard de Sebastopol 80 was taken over by C.M.Martougen, where he was established as only depositaire/agent général of the Wheeler & Wilson company. His address was changed in 1863 to Boulevard de Sebastopol 70. He had a workshop in Raincy near Paris, where all the machines he received from America were examened for good functioning (so obviously no manufacturing machines in his workshop anymore). The last advertisement from him I could find was by 1870 on a new address Boulevard de Strasbourg 57, where he sold sewing machines named “ La Perle” with the system of Wheeler & Wilson, Willcox & Gibbs, Weed, E.Howe and A.B.Howe. In the Almanach du commerce for 1871/72 he was no longer mentioned. The depot Boulevard de Sebastopol 70 seems to have been closed for a short time late 1868, possibly due to a dispute between the Wheeler & Wilson company and Martougen. In the L’illustration for 2.1.1869 in fact appeared an advertisement in which M.F. Armstrong announced that the depot Boulevard de Sebastopol 70 was reopened and a second magasin was opened at the address Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle 37. A brancheaddress was situated at Rue de Neuve-des-Petits-Champs 37.

Mr. M.F.Armstrong was appointed as “ the agent général pour toute la France “. There was later an acte s.s.p. dated 30 december that year published in a newspaper about an agreement between Armstrong and H.Seeling and in the Almanach 1870  was announced that Armstrong and Seeling were agents for the entire France for the genuine sewing machines of Wheeler & Wilson New York  and the depot was situated at Boulevard Sebastopol 70. 

Seeling kept this agency until his death in 1878. His widow and (her later husband) H.Vigneron continued it. In the almanach for the year 1879 was already an advertisement published in which H.Vigneron announced he was the successor of H.Seeling. They kept the agency only for a short time as Wheeler & Wilson withdraw it. In the 1883 issue was announced that a new “dépositaire général pour la France et les colonies “ had been appointed: Mr. G.Saltzman, Boulevard de Sebastopol 105. I could follow him selling Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines at this address until the first World War 1914 ! POSTSCRIPT As mentioned Léon Say ( 6 june 1826 – 21 april 1896) was registered in the 1855 addressbook as sewing machine mechanic. I doubt if he had received a training for this. Possibly he could have thought it is not appropriate to call myself a manufacturer as a depotholder so better use the name mechanic in the addressbook, like others did with a sewing machine business. Léon however was a member of a very important family in Paris with high positions in the industry, economic- and political field. His homeaddress Rue Boursault 11 was a wellknown house in Paris where high society often had their meetings. Léon was sent by his parents to the prestigious College Bourbon where many children from the upper class were sent. One of his friends at the college for example was baron Alphonse de Rothschild. After he left this college he studied exact science, particularly chemestry, travelled a lot and studied politics and social institutions. The rights he obtained (together with Louis Sautter (manager of a lenticulair headlights manufacturing company) for using the patents from Grover & Baker and Wheeler & Wilson, may be essentially have been intended as an investment in the new promising sewing machine industry. From 1850 to 1852 Léon had been employee of the banque d’Eichthal, working on the mechanisme of the stock exchange. The patentrights were then passed on dec. 1855 to Villamil as concessionair. Léon Say had a very impressive career in the economic and political field in France during the rest of his life (among others minister of finance); all described in Wikipedia and in many books and other documents). It is remarkable that the participation of Léon Say in the early development of the sewing machine industry in France is not mentioned at all in his biography in any book or publication. Anyway the fact that Léon Say was registered in 1855 as sewing machine mechanic, Le Peletier 10, have made it possible for me to reconstruct the earliest history of Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines in France. Also I am of cource glad to know now what the letters “L.S.“ mean om my sewing machine and the importance of the man behind them.

R.F. 25-6-2020 / update 5.2.2022