May 19, 2011

Sorite Sewing Machine Co. - A Sordid Tale

Word has gotten around that I am a collector of old sewing machines. It seems that about once a week I receive a call email or text from someone wanting to unload a sewing machine. Usually they are free or just a few bucks, and commonly they are grandma's machine, an estate sale find and just not wanted.

This month I received a Sorite Sewing Machine from a co-worker who moonlights as an auctioneer. I paid a whopping $4 for it sight unseen. Upon arrival, I found it to be badged "Sorite Sewing Machine Company". This was a new one. A cursory search of the internet for "Sorite Sewing Machine Company" yielded nothing - nada - zip. Google even asked me if I meant "Sortie". It was a mystery I had to solve. So I dug in my heals and put on my research cap. While it wasn't as simple as putting the machine name in a search engine, it wasn't long before I found a little history on the Sorite Sewing Machine Co.


The Sorite Sewing Machine Company, Inc. (hereinafter SORITE), was a corporation existing under and by virtue of the laws of the State of Maryland. Officers of the corporation were named in the FTC FINDINGS as Samuel Berenson, Solomon Berenson and Etta Berenson. They were also officers of the Cleanrite Vacuum Stores, Inc (hereinafter CLEANRITE).

A complaint was filed Sept. 26, 1952, by the Federal Trade Commission (hereinafter FTC) and states SORITE enganged, among other things, in the sale and distribution of sewing machine heads imported from Japan, while CLEANRITE engaged in the wholesale and retail sale of sewing machine heads imported from Japan. Specifically, the complaint alleges violation of Sec. 5 of an act of Congress approved Sept 26, 1914.

The story gets interesting, as the FTC FINDINGS state SORITE and CLEANRITE offered items for sale that were not marked or were not adequately marked showing that they were of foreign origin. When the sewing machine heads were received by SORITE/CLEANRITE, the word "Japan" appeared on the back of the vertical arm. However, before the heads were sold to the public, it was necessary to attach a motor to the head and accordingly the word "Japan" was covered by the motor and not visible. In some instances, a medallion was placed on the front of the vertical arm upon which the word "Japan" appeared. The FINDING state the words were so small and indistinct that it did not constitute adequate notice to the public that the heads were imported. The FINDINGS note that when articles of merchandise, including sewing machines, are exhibited and offered for sale by retailers and are not marked to show foreign origin, or if the marks are insufficient, the public might assume the product to be of domestic origin.

The FINDINGS further allege SORITE/CLEANRITE advertising, letterhead and invoices made the following statement and therefore inferred the sewing machines were manufacturered by SORITE/CLEANRITE, when in fact they only imported the heads and did not own or have a factory of any kind:

Deal directly with the manufacturers.
Eliminate the middlemen and save the distributors markup.

In addition, the FINDINGS state SORITE/CLEANRITE placed medallions on the sewing machines that had the following inscription, thereby implying their machines were manufactured in Washington, D.C. when they were truly manufactured in Japan:

Simplex Sewing Machine Compnay
Washington, D.C.

It was also stated that SORITE/CLEANRITE used the name "Admiral" and other well-known domestic sewing machines names as trade and/or brand names for their imported machines.

To make matters worse, the FINDINGS state SORITE/CLEANRITE shipped many of their machines in boxes on which was stenciled or printed "Singer", thereby making false representation to the packages contents and company of origin.

Other statements in the FINDINGS assert SORITE/CLEANRITE made false statements in advertising, including using the words "20 year guarantee bond" and inflating the actual retail price of their sewing machines. Advertisements from the day state the retail price to be, $149.40, $179.50 and $189.50.

The FINDINGS states, "As a result of respondents' practices...substantial trade in commerce has been unfairly diverte to respondendts from their competitors and as a consequence thereof substantial injury has been and is being done to competition and commerce."

On April 28, 1953, the FTC issued the following ORDER:

SORITE/CLEANRITE must cease and desist from:

* Offering for sale, selling or distributing foreign made sewing machines without clearly and conspicuously disclosing country of origin;

* Use of the word "Admiral" or any simulation there of as a brand or trade name;

* Using cartons or boxes or cases for shipping which bear or contain the name or portion of the name of any well-known manufacturer of sewing machines;

* Making representation that they are the manufacturer of the sewing machine; and

* Representing, directly or implied, that machines are guaranteed by the manufacturer, unless the manufacturer is obligated by a guarantee which sets forth clearly and conspicuously the nature and extent of the obligation.

A single charge was dismissed: The charge of inflating retail price in advertising was dismissed for lack oof evidence.

SORITE/CLEANRITE had 60 days to file a written report stating they had complied with the cease and desist. As of this writing have not been able to locate any additional information.

Source: Findings, Order & Stipulations Volume 49 (1953) Docket 6049, pp1323-1334.

So what's your Sorite sewing machine worth?

Well, post-WWII Japanese clones are a plenty. And if it was grandma's machine, it has more sentimental value than currency value. Keep it around and teach the kids how to hem their pants, shorten a hem on a curtain or even make your own placemats. They can even whip up pillowcases for Christmas gifts or to use as your gift wrapping. You'll receive more enjoyment than the $20 bucks.

For those that want to sell their machine, there are collectors out there who will pay $50-$75 for a rare or perfect machine, but those are few and far between. You will find many Japanese clones for sale at yard-sales and thrift stores for $15-25 dollars, and on online auction sites. But keep in mind, they don't require a lot work or investment to get them running again. Usually all you need is a can of air to get rid of dust, some good sewing machine oil and a new belt (available at your local fabric store or sewing repair shop).

But beware ! Check the wiring. If the cords are brittle or cracked, it is best to replace them. Alternatively you can convert them into a handcrank machine.

The Japanese clones of post-war are solid machines, sew a fantastic straight stitch and are the closest thing you will get to industrial. I have a few working ones on hand that I use to hem jeans, repair duck blinds and sew canvas bags for backyard bean bag toss games.

If you are looking to buy a post-war Japannese clone, don't get sucked in with the statement "industrial" machine that is a common 'hook' on many of the online auction sites. Just because the machine is heavy does not make it an industrial. All machines, including Singers, New Home and the Japanses clones, were intended solely for home use. Although they are far more sturdy and durable than many of today's machines, a true industrial machine will cost you more than $500 (yes even an old one) and will require a large table for the specific machine, a separate motor and comes with no bells or whistles. Most industrial machines are made to do one thing - either straight stitch, zig zag or coverstitch. Rarely do you get all in one.

Happy stitching!