Soapy Joe’s sewing machine

With well over a hundred sewing machines in our collections we generally no longer accept them, although I receive several offers a month. So what made us want to collect this one? And what could it possibly have to do with soap!

Although it was not made in Leeds (it is a Jones model, made in Manchester) this sewing machine was given as a promotional prize by one of Leeds’ most successful companies, Joseph Watson & Sons, often affectionately referred to as “Soapy Joe’s”. Printed prominently in full colour is the following: “Presented with the Compliments of Joseph Watson & Sons Limited, Whitehall Soap Works, Leeds, Competition 1906”.

Joseph Watson & Sons were one of largest soap manufacturers in the country and their leading brands were Watson’s Matchless Cleanser and Venus soap. They employed about 750 people and were producing six hundred tons of soap a week in 1893. However they were in a very competetive market with well-known rivals such as Pear’s, so needed to have inventive ways to publicise their brand. This sewing machine was one of the top prizes in a newspaper advertising campaign to promote Watson’s soap. Customers were encouraged to save and send in their soap wrappers, with the best prizes going to those who sent in the most. The top prize in 1906 was £50 cash and there were 500 of these Jones’ hand sewing machines (valued at £6) on offer. Every customer was sent something, even if just an unspecified “consolation prize”.

The company did not have an entirely clean reputation. As well as soap, the company also dealt in oil, resin, tallow, animal skins and hides, some of which caught fire in 1892 at their warehouse under the Dark Arches. The company’s waste helped to pollute the river Aire and one of their less household-friendly products was dynamite!

The sewing machine is on display at Abbey House Museum for the next few months, part of a small display of objects acquired by the museum during 2010 and 2011.

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