R. M. Wanzer & Company

Location: 128-130 King Street East, Hamilton, Ontario

R. M. Wanzer & Company advertisementThe first factory to manufacture sewing machines in Canada was opened in Hamilton and was owned and operated by Richard Mott Wanzer, who came to the area in the fall of 1859. His business eventually expanded to international markets and Wanzer became one the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the country.

Richard Mott Wanzer was born of Quaker parents on September 3, 1818, on a farm near Ithaca New York. Before coming to Hamilton, Wanzer taught for several years in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He subsequently worked as an unpaid clerk in a bookstore in Rochester, New York, where he was eventually offered a permanent position. He declined the position and purchased the store. Some time later, Wanzer became a partner with O.G. Steel, president of the Buffalo Gas Company, in a publishing firm which was very profitable and who was one of the earliest printers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Wanzer sewing machine manufactoryIn 1859, Wanzer rented a stone building at the corner of James and Vine Streets where he started his manufacturing company. From this small building, Wanzer’s business skyrocketed. His production grew from an initial one machine a week in 1859, to no less than 2,000 machines a week being manufactured in six to seven factories in full operation across the country. In 1859, Wanzer acquired sewing machine patents for Canada and Europe, however the first machine made under the Wanzer name did not appear until 1861. The Wanzer fabrication was a combination of the Singer and the Wheeler & Wilson machine, with just enough changes in the construction and appearance to avoid an infringement of the patents of those original companies. Wanzer was not so much an inventor or innovator as he was a salesman.

"Oiling the Stand" from Instructions For Using the Improved Little Wanzer 'C' Lock-Stitch Sewing MachineIn the early days, Wanzer peddled his machines around on a wagon, travelling door-to-door, enticing farmers’ wives to purchase his machine. He even created an installment payment plan to ease the burden of the purchase for often cash strapped farmers.

The factory eventually moved from its James and Vine Streets location to a larger facility at King and Catharine Streets in the early part of the 1860s. In 1878, Wanzer decided that his business was in need of a newer and larger factory, which he later built on Elgin and Barton Streets. The total cost of the land and building was $300,000. Wanzer borrowed heavily to build a new factory on Barton Street. In the larger facilities, Wanzer, with the aid of 800 highly skilled workers, produced some 2,000 machines a week.

Over the years, Wanzer established branch offices and warehouses in Austria, Germany, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, and Brazil. His name received international recognition both as a sign of quality and durability. Between 1871 and 1873, Wanzer travelled the world, attending international exhibitions, showing his products, winning medals and making a reputation for himself. In 1873 Wanzer received a medal from the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria for the best sewing machine in the world. The jingle adopted by the company attests to their uniqueness, popularity and innovative spirit:Advertisement for R. M. Wanzer & Company

Of all the comforts of this life
That there can ever be
There’s nothing ever pleased my life
Like the improved Wanzer C.

I don’t complain of my daily task
It’s light as ever a one could ask
I’d make up a dress fit for a queen
In half the time on my Wanzer Machine

R. M. WanzerWhen the sewing machine business faltered due to an unexplained decline in demand, over-production and strong competition from American manufacturers, Wanzer attempted to diversify. In 1885, he purchased the franchise of the Royal Electric Company established earlier that year to provide electric arc lighting for the streets of Hamilton. Wanzer later acquired the Oneida Lamp Company of Niagara Falls and began manufacturing lamps for England. He then travelled to England where he formed a company with a capital of 40,000 pounds for the manufacture of what would be called the "Wanzer lamp" which was an important contribution to the lamp technology associated with kerosene. The Wanzer lamp was a mechanical lamp, which did not require a chimney and therefore did not need constant cleaning. Advertisement for The Little Wanzer sewing machine, 1870.The lamp had a winding mechanism which drove a small fan for up to thirty hours. The fan produced a controlled stream of air around the burning wick of the lamp. The lamp burned very efficiently and used very little fuel. Furthermore, they were more stable than earlier mechanical lamps and were harder to knock over. The lamp could be used for more than just lighting. It could also be equipped with a cast-iron rack for heating and cooking food.

In the late 1880s Wanzer encountered severe financial difficulties. By the 1890s his company was so financially strapped that bankruptcy was inevitable. By 1892, Wanzer was bankrupt and his holding and home were attached by his creditors. In a gesture of friendship, W.E. Sanford purchased the rights to the lamp from the creditors and gave them back to Wanzer as a gift. Wanzer continued to operate the lamp company, as well as the Oneida Lamp Company in Niagara falls.

In 1898, Wanzer returned to Buffalo where he opened the Wanzer Lamp and Cooker Company.

Only two years later, while in New York seeking investors for his lamp company, Wanzer fell ill with pneumonia. He died on March 27, 1900 at the age of 82. Arrangements were made to have Wanzer’s body lie in state in the City Council Chamber in Hamilton. The reason he was given such a ceremonial burial was due to the fact that his life had been so closely identified with the progress of the City. Although he had never been a public official, his contribution was as great.



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