Excerpt from Page 47Published April 14, 2017
Most accounts of Elias Howe and his sewing machine are well suited for schoolchildren, who may learn through them the traditional story of success in the land of opportunity. They begin with the humble farm life of Howe’s childhood, where poverty and rural simplicity instill in him the appropriate Yankee values. Then they describe the pivotal moment when young Elias overhears a capitalist promise riches to anyone who will invent a sewing machine, and he resolves that he will invent one himself. Years of experiments and frustration follow, but when he is near despair, the solution suddenly comes to him in a dream. The machine is patented, but a long struggle with adversity follows. The next scenes prominently feature the ailing but ever-faithful wife and the children dressed in rags, who show their thrift and stoicism in many situations of picturesque poverty. After mistreatment by an unprincipled villain, heart-rending tragedies, and coincidences heavy with irony, the inventor is finally vindicated, and rewarded with fabulous wealth. He now amuses himself with anonymous acts of charity and patriotism. Through it all, the significant moments are punctuated by memorable aphorisms, and the moral is firmly pointed out to us–that in a democracy, virtue (defined as thrift, industry, and perseverance) is rewarded in the end by public recognition, and lots and lots of money.