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Wertheim Superba Sewing Machines

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                Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide. Book by Alex Askaroff

 

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Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

 

 
 

Josef Wertheim & Co


The classic Wertheim Sewing Machine advert. I love her white fox fur. Not PC today a bleached dead fox around your neck to enhance your beauty and attract admirers!

The Superba Sewing Machine is one of those names that crops up from time to time and I have always been fascinated by it. I will tell you what I know but cannot guarantee it is all 100% accurate. It is just learnt from a lifetime in the trade and stumbling across the bits and pieces of a long broken puzzle.

The Superba is one of the names given to several Victorian machines. Adler and Haid & Neu may have also produced a Superba. Also Davies Sewing Machine Co of America used the Superba name on one of their early models. 

However, the most likely Superba that you will come across was made by Josef Wertheim & Co of Frankfurt, Germany. They produced the Superba (models A, B, C, D and E).

The sewing machine firm of ’Wertheim’ was founded in 1868 by Joseph Wertheim. Joseph was the Frankfurt city delegate for the Democratic Party and, as a business man, was looking to invest in the future. Sewing machines were the latest technology. Some people saw them as almost magical and shows were set up where you could pay to see a sewing machine work its magic and join two or more pieces of fabric together simply by turning a handle.

The Wertheim Dwarfs

The factory was a great success and grew and grew. Within a few short years, Wertheim sewing machines gained a reputation for being among the best quality that was available. At its height, the factory employed around 650 people. They also made baby carriages, mail carts and wringer/manglers.

 

The firm’s logo originally had a dwarf with a hammer; however this was replaced much later by a Star of David.

 

 


The original Wertheim trademark on the bed of their machines up until around the 1920's

The German plant produced their first model around 1869. It was Model A a direct Elias Howe copy (probably under licence from America).


The Wertheim Model A sewing machine circa 1870, now in my Sewalot collection. Similar to the Haid & Neu model.


The Superba Sewing Machine Model B made by Wertheim circa 1870-90 now in my Sewalot Collection. It is smothered in Mother of Pearl and gold work.

My favourite Wertheim is the model B which was a beautiful fiddlebase model almost identical to the Singer New Family model 12 of 1865 but made by Wertheim between 1870-90. I have one in my collection from the Glyndeborne Opera House in East Sussex. The base was riddled with woodworm when they phoned me. I was delighted to take it of their hands.

Wertheim Spain

In 1870, a subsidiary was formed in Barcelona, Spain, under the Wertheim name. Locals began to call the sewing machines "las rapidas", and the wholesale storage premises became known as "la casa de las rapidas."

From 1870 Wertheim were sold in Spain but it gets a bit tricky for Wertheim sewing machines may have also been produced in Spain (possibly Australia as well). I shall try and explain but don’t worry if I make a mess, it won’t be the first time...

Complete sewing machines were imported into Spain and sold there until 1915, when apparently production of a fully Spanish Wertheim machine was commenced. I have found no proof of Spanish manufacture so if you come across any please do mail me alexsussex@aol.com

The unbeatable performance of Wertheim sewing machines is their absolute guarantee of the finest materials produced by the finest workforce. Each machine is micro-engineered to give the fastest and highest performance of any sewing machine on the market today. Wertheim, Spain 1920


This is the Spanish Wertheim sewing machine model 20. Most of the Wertheim models in 1920 were similar except the cases and stands so a model 22 may have had a slightly different base or extra drawers but the machine was the same.
 

The Models C-D were high-arm transverse shuttle models much like the Singer 48k produced around 1890-1910.

Mother of Pearl sewing machines
&
Japanning

Many early sewing machines were covered in a tough black gloss, a process known as japanning. A black liquid is applied to all the surfaces of the sewing machine from a mixture of turpentine oil and gum ashphaltum. Then the machines are baked in an oven to harden the surface. Japanning has proved to be one of the best ways of protecting the cast iron sewing machines with a luxurious and hard wearing surface.


Even on this worn bed you can get an idea of how the Mother of Pearl shines through lifting the black of the Japanning

Now, after japanning the machines were decorated, some with gold leaf, some hand-painted, some with transfers and decals. But also some had Mother of Pearl, which was hard wearing and looks beautiful. It made the few sewing machines that were chosen for 'pearling' more a thing of beauty than just an object of work.

The Mother of Pearl was mainly made from several natural shells such as Abalone, edible sea snails, oyster shells, Nautilus shells, nacre and many more. They have a similar makeup to oyster pearls and shimmer with an iridescent light. Mother of Pearl is also extremely hard wearing.

The Superba High Arm circa 1890


This beautiful machine set a new record at auction in Nov 2013 but it is easy to see why

Craftsmen would cut delicate shapes in the pearl shells and place them, in many designs, onto the sewing machines. Then several coats of japanning were added, completely covering the Mother of Pearl.

After baking and cooling several times the laborious task of scraping and polishing down the japanning takes place, until the Mother of Pearl is revealed. This task can take up to 20 hours of polishing but leaves the Mother of Pearl and the black japanning perfectly level. The Mother of Pearl shines out of the blackness like stars in the night sky.

The whole machine is then decorated around the Mother of Pearl with gold. The result is a stunning piece of work looking more like jewellery than a sewing machine.

Only the most expensive sewing machines had Mother of Pearl added as the time, work and cost was enormous. Today you get plastic. What a difference.


The Superba Sewing Machine high-arm transverse-shuttle model of 1890 Wertheim model D. There is some question as to who made this Superba, Hengstenberg may have produced this model for Wertheim as it has their winder and decoration on the right side of the hand wheel cover.

The early models B-D machines uses the same needle as the Singer 12. The main agent and exporter in England for some time was John G Murdoch of Farringdon Road, London.

John G. Murdoch

John G Murdoch originally had premises at 41 Castle Street before moving to larger premises with showrooms at 91-93 Farringdon Road, London. Just north of the River Thames in East Central London. The building sold not only sewing machines but everything including prams, violins and bibles. In fact their Family Bible which sold for over £4 in 1900, a small fortune, was their best seller, selling over 30,000 bibles a year! WOW.

With his enormous wealth John G Murdoch went on to collect one of the finest collections of British coins in the world which, in 1903, sold for the equivalent of over 100 million pounds in today's money.

After John G Murdoch died his family carried on with their cheap violins and went into the record business founding the Beltona record Label.

 

 
The Superba sewing machine model B made by Wertheim Frankfurt Germany circa 1880

T. Simister
Wertheim Agents
Colquitt & Bold Streets
Liverpool

One little point to mention is that I have came across a few much later Superba machines possibly made around 1920-30’s that looked very much like the Singer model 17/27 but with the same shuttle as the Singer 12 and an even later model E using the Singer 15 system and 705 needle. 


Now to make things a little more awkward distributors like J. Silberg of Hamburg above would put their badges on imported machines that they supplied across Europe. The Silberg badge appears on many early Superba sewing machines from various suppliers.

Wertheim Australia


The Wertheim Piano Factory Richmond 1910

Now Murdoch & Co, the importers and agents, were a British company with an Australian subsidiary with premises in Melbourne and Canberra, Australia. They also sold musical instruments which is a funny mix but it makes sense and I will explain why. I would love to have walked into their shop in London to hear music and see sewing machines.

Later on in Australia Josef Wertheim machines were also distributed by Hugo Wertheim (Josef’s nephew) who emigrated there in 1875 aged 21.

Hugo was born on 12 July 1854 at Lispenhausen, in the German electorate of Hesse-Kassel, son of Meyer Wertheim and his wife Minna, née.

Hugo was born into wealth and had travelled extensively before deciding that Australia had everything he would ever need. In 1874 Hugo married his cousin Sophie Emilie and brought his new wife to Melbourne aboard the SS Great Britain.

Sole Agents for
Wertheim Sewing Machines
H. Oscar Hewett & Company
Wellington
New Zealand

Initially he set about advertising and selling German Wertheim machines across Australia from premises at 39 Flinders Lane East. I am not sure if both John Murdoch and Hugo were both selling Wertheim machines in Australia at the same time or if the agency was handed to Hugo as part of the family! Well blood is thicker than water unless you have drunk a bottle of gin!

Hugo Wertheim originally was just an agent for Josef Wertheim and initially he imported harmoniums, pianos, bicycles and sewing machines and also began to import Electra bicycles, Hapsburg Pianos, described in his brochures as Sweet Hapsburg Pianos and organs.

 

 

 

 

 

Hugo also displayed in his showrooms the latest 'Patented Wertheim Home Wringer and Mangle'. Just the perfect way to spend an afternoon wringing out clothes! Ah how they lived then. The good old days. The mangle was also advertised as the Stirling Wringer & Mangler.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From what I can ascertain most of Hugo's goods that he later had made in Australia were direct copies of his European counterparts. Of course few manufacturers from America an Europe bothered to take out patent protection in Australia so copying would be no problem.

 


Early woodcut of the Josef Wertheim High-Arm model of 1890-910

Hugo opened showrooms in Bourke Street and Collins Streets. Wertheim initially re-badged his imported pianos as "The Planet sewing machine" and "Habsburg sewing machine."

Hugo also opened premises at 173 William Street, Melbourne and he was certainly there in 1881. There was also a sales outlet at 107 Rundle Street, Adelaide. He soon established a successful business and was apparently an excellent salesman. While researching Wertheim I have come across seven addresses so he moved around!

Wertheim sewing machines
New Zealand distributor
Robert Lochhead
Dunedin, NZ.

 
The Wertheim High-Arm Transverse Shuttle sewing machine of 1890-1910

It became obvious that importing machines from across the world was no easy task. Communications were slow and laborious and stock was impossible to get right. Can you imagine with Victorian communications trying to get the correct stock from one side of the world to another. When the supply ship arrived it was probably carrying too much of some stuff and not enough of others. Hugo would have to wait months for more replacements. Something had to be done.

Wertheim Mangle


The real deal sent in from Chantelle in Australia.

Octavius Charles Beale (1850-1930), was, for a time, a business partner of Hugo and worked with him in Melbourne. Beale moved to Sydney and started his own piano and sewing machine factory. They produced a small range of sewing machines such as the 'Beale Torpedo' and some beautiful pianos.
Beale had an agreement with Hugo to distribute sewing machines under the Beale name in New South Wales.

To make or not to make that is the question?

The answer was to manufacture the goods that he was importing. Now some say that Wertheim sewing machines were not made in Australia and some say of course they were, the 400 plus workers at the factory could not just have been making pianos and prams or could they?

I don't know the real answer yet. It may seem obvious that they were manufacturing sewing machines but as yet I have no positive proof. If you have any evidence please mail me: alexsussex@aol.com

Barbara in Australia kindly sent me some information in December of 2015. The paperwork with her 1902 Wertheim Griffin has a receipt in it from Hugo Wertheim, Adelaide. The receipt and the machine clearly say Made In Frankfurt, Germany. SO we can say that at least in 1902 the machines were still being imported from the fatherland.

 


Wertheim carriages, steel sprung with India rubber tyres, were also sold under the Minerva brand as Minerva Baby Carriages and could hold up to three kids.

About the same time around, the turn of the century, Wertheim sent his eldest son, Herbert, to learn the piano manufacturing trade in the United States and tour the continent before returning to run the new Melbourne enterprise. His newly gained knowledge would have been a terrific boost to the designs of their own goods.

 


The Wertheim Planet was a a vibrating shuttle machine circa 1920. Note how it clearly states Agent, not manufacturer.

In 1903 Hugo opened new retail depots at 296 Bourke Street, Melbourne, and 175 Chapel Street, Prahran. The Wertheim Piano Factory was built in Bendigo Street, Richmond in 1908 and became an enduring landmark in the area. For the last 50 years part of the old factory had been used by Heinz and part by GTV9 TV studios but in 2013 the building was sold for redevelopment into flats.

The new factory cost some £75,000, intending to produce 2000 pianos a year. There must be a fair number of them still playing away today.

 

It is said that Dame Nellie Melba would not perform on stage unless she was accompanied on a Wertheim piano! WOW. Fussy or what! Legend goes that the Australian pianos had a richer quality sound to them. A Model 5 inlaid with cherubs and a sailing ship was sold at Young's Auctions in Hawthorn in the 1980's for $5,000.

In Brisbane, the Wertheim Company set up a showroom in Queen Street near the Customs House. They sold and serviced pianos and sewing machines there until the late 1920s.

The factory and business was a huge success and at its height his factory in Richmond employed over 400 people. Many Wertheim pianos and sewing machines survive to this day in Australia and there is a lot of information on him and his machines available online so I won’t bore you here.

I believe Hugo Wertheim died in 1919 and was buried in Brighton Cemetery. The piano factory finally closed in 1935.

After the First World War any German name was frowned upon and few people bought German products. The solution for the Wertheim sewing machines were to be renamed The American National. There is some talk that the Wertheim Company did import sewing machines from America for a short period possibly from National.

Wertheim Germany

Back to Superba and the German Wertheim factory. All the Superba sewing machines made by Wertheim in Germany were of top quality and the name Superba survived for decades.


This little cherub is on the Superba Sewing Machine of 1890. Attention to detail was a strong point of Wertheim (and most of the German manufacturers) their machines were built to last a lifetime.

Wertheim also produced many models with there own brand name across the arm and carried on with model numbers relating to the alphabet A-M. production slowing down like many German manufacturers after the slump in sales post World War One (no one wanted to buy anything from Germany) but carrying on with minor exports, especially to South America.


The Superba Model D sewing machine circa 1890.

So if you have a Wertheim Superba you are the proud owner of a fabulous piece of early German engineering to the highest of standards. They say in 1900 a Superba would cost six months wages! Work that out today and you see why they have lasted so long.


The Wertheim Griffin Sewing Machine circa 1900 still using the obsolete transverse shuttle and 12k needle from 1865.

The Planet 'M' Model Wertheim sewing machine and the Central Bobbin or CB model were introduced prior to the first world war and the Planet sewing machine was equivalent to the Singer Model 27 vibrating shuttle machine.

Wertheim also produced other models such as, Electra, Planet, Griffin (above) and Hapsburg. In Australia there were names like Triplex, Family, Saturn and Electra sewing machines.   


The last Wertheim sewing machines were excellent copies of the Singer model 15.

Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

Book by Alex Askaroff

 
  Do drop me a line and let me know what you thought or at least if you found it mildly interesting: alexsussex@aol.com

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 Skylark Country

 

Hi Alex
I have just been reading your Wertheim site and thought you might like some further information about Hugo and his Australian business. His factory in Richmond Victoria is still in existence and after he closed it it became a tomato sauce factory and finally the Victorian headquarters of the channel 9 television station from 1956 until this year when they finally vacated to new premises.

The factory will probably become some sort of housing development if the building is to survive or it will be demolished which would be a shame. Hugo Wertheim is also the great grandfather of the former Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, whose grandfather manufactured ladders, Jeff himself had an advertising business before he went into politics.

Hope this is of interest to you.
regards,
Dennis Smith.

 

Hi Alex,
I'm Albert from Barcelona.I want to congratulate your web is a real tribute to the heritage of the European textile industry,an important part of our history.
Sincerely,
Albert Garcia Pifarré
Barcelona

Alex,
I found and read your fascinating website on the net. Thanks for all your work as although it can be personally rewarding it is still a lot of effort you have put in to get it there. I particularly like the way you have included the social history and the people as that is a much richer tapestry than just dealing with the machines and machinery. Isaac Singer what a man !!!!

Peter Allen
Henley Beach
South Australia 5022

 

Alex..........i was just reading about the Wertheim sewing machines on your site, the reason i looked was i unearthed an old sewing machine i have had many years, on the top of it, it says Planet..........My grand-daughter is absolutely amazed at it, the original needles are still in some old yellow paper underneath the machine, they are shiny like they are brand new, no rust at all after all the years its been sitting unused, however sadly, the belt is not there, it was there once, i must have misplaced it over the years.......The paint work and flowers are breathtaking.....I have a feeling my 16 year old grand-daughter is about to claim it, im sure she shall enjoy it, its so wonderful to find it after all these years, shes very busy washing it down with tender loving care, mesmerised by whom once used it many years ago here in Australia.....I got it from a friend who had pot plants sitting on it and was about to take it to the rubbish tip, glad i did ........Thanks for your wonderful site.....................regards.......Diana

Dear Alex,

I have really enjoyed reading your website and the vast information on sewing and machines.
My Great-great-great Grandfather, Octavius Charles Beale.
Kind regards,

Jane Preece
Sydney, Australia

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