The Singer Featherweight 221 Model Sewing Machine first debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. This Exposition was held from May to November 1933 and May to October 1934 with the motto “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”. The official theme was “A Century of Progress” commemorating Chicago’s 100-year anniversary. Technological innovation with advanced aircraft, dream cars and “Homes of Tomorrow” all drew large crowds with exhibits featuring many modern conveniences.
(Click photo below for a panoramic aerial view of the Chicago World’s Fair.)
By this time, foot-powered treadle machines were being replaced with electric models — but even those were usually mounted in a sewing cabinet. Some were sold as portables but were still so heavy being made of cast steel that bringing them out from the hall closet or “downstairs” was cumbersome. Therefore, the portable and lightweight construction of the Featherweight was a welcome addition to Singer’s ingenuity and surpassing lockstitch design.
Featherweight history begins a few years prior, however, when in 1928
the Standard Sewing Machine Company began marketing their Sewhandy Sewing Machine. This machine offered portability and convenience in a small carrying case. Although the Featherweight clearly owes much to the earlier Standard Sewhandy portable, it is probably not true to say that the Singer company specifically bought out Standard in 1934 just to get its hands on the Sewhandy design.
It would be difficult to deny, however, that the Sewhandy wasn’t the inspiration for the Featherweight. The Featherweight has the same unitary design with the “works” hidden in a deepened base and built to sell first and foremost as a portable. The improvements that Singer built into the new Featherweight made it succeed where the Sewhandy had failed. The new machine featured a flip-up extension table that increased the work area and an easily-selected reverse feature. Maintenance was made easier with a single thumb screw releasing the bottom pan for lubrication (the Sewhandy had a series of screws holding a hefty wooden base). Its greatest improvement, however, was the aluminum base and arm components which drastically reduced the weight of the machine (the Sewhandy had a cast-iron arm). This became one of the main features to highlight with a machine weighing only 11 ¼ pounds. Known as the “Featherweight”, it was definitely “progress” and worthy of public accolades as part of the “Century of Progress” exposition. The Singer Featherweight model 221 continues, to this day, to be one of the best sewing machines Singer ever made.
Innovative and compact as it was, it was still a pretty expensive household tool for those in the midst of the Great Depression. The original price was about $125.00 in 1934. That may not seem like a lot in the year 2015, but in 1934 unemployment was at 22%, a gallon of milk was 45 cents, a gallon of gas was 10 cents, and a loaf of bread was 8 cents (and bread lines were found throughout the country for those who couldn’t afford their next meal). Considering inflation, a similar machine today would cost over $2,200.00. Nevertheless, having quality goods that were built to last was an important mindset in those days. Singer customers saw value in owning something that would be easy to use, store and maintain for many, many years – and for some, an investment worthy of making small payment installments over a period of time. This new lightweight design proved to be very successful for Singer with over 2 million machines sold worldwide from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. They marketed this little machine with clever advertisements and featured accessories throughout the years.
On October 3, 1933, 10,000 Featherweight 221 models were commissioned. The earliest machines in that first run were in the testing phase and will have slight variations from machine to machine. Decal differences, throat plate styles, drip pan textures, hook assemblies, etc. are just a few examples that Singer was fine-tuning with their new design. Many of these adjustments were standardized for the debut at the Chicago World’s Fair, seven months later in May 1934.
To find a Singer Featherweight with the rare “Century of Progress Chicago 1934” badge is quite scarce today and special to its class, but more specifically to its model. No records have surfaced as to the exact number of Featherweight models sold at the fair. Therefore, with the exposition having been open only five months in 1934, there are only a handful of Chicago World’s Fair Featherweights reported today, with only a handful on record with historians. As of 3/25/2020 there are 29 Chicago World's Fair Featherweights known to exist.
A bona fide Chicago World’s Fair Featherweight has a lovely oval badge with the commemorative indication around the rim.
The original case to a first run 1933 Featherweight would have had a teal green interior lining (Style #1) with a compartment top tray. This type of tray has a hook built into the right “compartment” which allowed the foot controller to hang in position. You will see this in the photo above. The bracket in the top lid of the case has a rubber washer on the base of it. When the lid has closed this presses down onto the machine holding it in place.
By 1934, however, a second style case was already in production and is now referred to as Style #2. It does not have the lid bracket or hanger for the foot controller and the tray has a different compartment design. Both cases have brass latches and the key style is different than most Featherweight case keys.
You’re actually not seeing double, because we had two Chicago World’s Fair Featherweights on consignment at one time!
#1 — The first one we had was discovered quite by accident earlier this year – a diamond in the ruff so-to-speak. Graded a 7 and in good condition for such a rarely badged machine. The machine sold for $4,695.00 in 2015. There are only a handful of these machines reported, so while fetching a collector price tag, the owner has one of the most sought-after Featherweights in the world.
#2 — The second one we had was unique in its own right and sold for about $6,000.00 in 2015. Not only was this machine so unique because it was a Chicago badged Featherweight, but because the original owner knew what she had and meticulously cherished her machine from the day she purchased it at the fair. Original Chicago World’s Fair booklet and paperwork were also included. In addition, an original 1934 “Century of Progress” Singercraft Guide – another commemorative from the exposition - accompanied the machine. Be sure to take note of how the original owner typewriter-typed her name and information and affixed them both to the machine and case. Although she used and enjoyed her machine and sewed many things over the years, she was fastidious about maintaining it. I am sure the original owner would be delighted to know that her sweet little Chicago-native Featherweight was passed on to another fellow sewist or quilter, who will also love and cherish this machine for many, many years.
*A special thanks to Tre Perry and J.C. Elliott for compiling this list!