In its heyday, South Bend, Indiana, was a prominent manufacturing hub in the Midwest, home to many companies including Studebaker Manufacturing, Bendix Manufacturing, and Singer Sewing Machines.
In the early 1900s, the South Bend Singer Cabinet Factory achieved the distinction of being the largest sewing machine cabinet operation in the world. At its peak of production, the factory produced about two million sewing machine cabinets a year and employed a workforce of 3,000 people.
The Singer Sewing Machine Company was established in 1851 by Isaac Singer. The company began in Boston, but later moved its headquarters to New York City, and eventually to New Jersey. In the early 1860s, production was mainly handled out East. However, after experiencing supply chain issues in Chicago, the company began to look at options for producing cabinets in the Midwest. In 1868, a site was chosen in South Bend, Indiana, in part because of the readily-available supply of hardwood lumber nearby.
Singer left the factory’s operations in the hands of its new manager, Leighton Pine. Pine would go on to become a prominent resident of South Bend, and except for a brief respite from the company in the 1870s, he successfully managed operations at the plant until his death in 1905.
The factory was initially located on Niles Avenue, but by the early 1890s, it became apparent that a larger factory was needed. In 1900, a 60-acre site on Division Street was developed into a huge Singer plant. It even had a factory railroad consisting of 5 miles of track that connected to the Lake Shore and Michigan Railroad.
The entire cabinet manufacturing process took place at the South Bend facility. Workers dried the lumber, cut pieces, applied veneers, and assembled the units on-site. By 1907, the factory was producing 10,000 cabinet sets per day.
About half of these were shipped unassembled to other Singer locations. The other half remained in South Bend, where sewing machines were installed then then sent to agents for distribution throughout the United States.
Production at the facility peaked in 1914. At that time, it was thought that 3/4 of all sewing machine cabinets sold worldwide had been manufactured in South Bend. Slowly, though, production shifted to other locations. Factories in Scotland and Germany were soon satisfying European demand. In the United States, the company began to consolidate Midwestern operations into its Cairo, Illinois, facility.
In the 1930s, South Bend operations plummeted, and the plant’s massive lumberyard and foundry were closed. During World War II, the South Bend plant shifted its production to wooden packing crates for guns and plywood sub-assemblies for airplanes and gliders.
Following the end of the war, production of sewing machine cabinets at the plant faltered. A 1949 strike at the main facility in New Jersey severely limited the supply of parts to the South Bend factory. Massive layoffs resulted. By 1955, the South Bend factory had closed.
Today, only one small building remains of Singer’s once-sprawling industrial facility. A fire in the 1960s destroyed most of the two-block-long factory. The Mary Crest Building, as it is known today, is a small reminder of the golden days of Singer’s presence in South Bend.