November 01, 2010

An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

One day, at the very end of the nineteenth century, three trim gentlemen stepped out of the first-class carriage and onto the station platform in the ancient Russian town of Serpukhov, located just a bit less than 60 miles south of Moscow. The gentlemen glanced around, appreciated the three-story railway station building, and, finding nothing more of note, proceeded to a very important meeting. Later, it would become known that two of the gentlemen were representatives of the American company Singer, Mr. Georg Neidlinger and Mr. Frederick Brown, and the third was the U.S. Consul in Moscow, Mr. Smith.

The year 1899, when this scene occurred, was a time when ladies had just abandoned the bustles that caused them so much trouble when walking, the first automobile had been imported to Petersburg, and rural doctors had begun to spout revolutionary ideas when they made their rounds of typhus- and cholera-plagued villages. The vast Russian world had begun to stir, very slowly, into motion, urged on by the hum and thunder of change.

Singer’s enterprise in Russia was part of this change, and by the 1890s the scope of the company’s operations was truly ambitious. Its distributors and stores could be found in dozens of Russian cities, selling not only sewing machines (on payment plans) but also various paraphernalia emblazoned with the firm’s logo. In 1896, “Manufacturing Company Singer” became a Russian corporation; its postcards, sent to every corner of the country, pictured a Russian beauty in a kokoshnik* operating the foreign technological marvel with the caption, “THE REAL sewing machine.” The Russian market looked just as good as Europe, except that transporting machines to Russia had proven unprofitable. After initial hesitation, the company’s management decided to manufacture its machines inside Russia, and soon had the approval of the Ministry of Finances. All it needed now was a site for its factory.

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