American Buttonhole, Overseaming & Sewing Machine Co. #7

This sewing machine was donated to Norwich Historical Society in 1965  by Louise Johnson who lived on Maple Hill Road. She told us that the machine had once been used by Lucy Ensworth Wadhams and Mrs. Albert Nye to make uniforms for the Norwich University cadets.

We are currently pulling together an exhibit on the history of Norwich University in honor of its 200th anniversary, and I had tagged this sewing machine for the exhibit.  When investigating it, however, I began to have doubts as to whether we should use it. Norwich University moved to Northfield in 1866 after the South Barracks burned. We had intended to only tell a story up to that date.

The list of patents on the machine reveal that this one was acquired after 1882. It was made by the American Buttonhole, Overseaming & Sewing Machine Co. (the No. 7) and marketed to women for home sewing. It possibly could have been used to sew uniforms, but for cadets in Northfield, not Norwich.

Who were Lucy Ensworth Wadhams and “Mrs. Albert Nye,” the two women who supposedly sewed the uniforms? Does anything in their background suggest they might have sewn uniforms for income?
Lucy Ensworth married Albert Ives Wadhams, a Norwich University graduate. She would have been 59 years old when the sewing machine was patented. The 1880 census shows Lucy living alone with her son in Lebanon, NH. She died in Norwich in 1896, still single. Sewing for an income makes sense.

Mrs. Albert Nye, or Abba, would have been 48 in 1882.  Abba was married to Albert Nye who was a Civil War veteran and a painter. His Civil War diary and account book are in the NHS collections. Last year, our intern Ella Lubell investigated the diary. Nye’s account book reveals a hard-working man, often on the verge of bankruptcy. In fact, in 1871 he recorded driving to Woodstock (it took 4 hours) to petition for bankruptcy.  The census reveals that he did not own his home and only had $100 in personal items. So, family finances indicate that it’s possible Lucy supplemented their income with sewing.

The NHS collection is heavily weighted toward the records of men. Albert Nye left behind a diary and account book, and appears in other financial documents in Rauner Library at Dartmouth. This sewing machine is a tangible reminder that women were also here, engaging in the economy as businesswomen and consumers. Indeed, it seems quite possible this machine was used to sew Norwich University uniforms.