MOTEL’s tailor shop. MOTEL and CHAVA are in the shop. GOLDE and the VILLAGERS crowd around MOTEL, congratulating him. They fall back, revealing a used sewing machine. (Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof)
In honor of #MotelMonday, I’ve decided to look into Motel Kamzoil’s sewing machine, the object that plays a crucial role in the eventual success of his marriage to Tzeitel.
Early in the script, while discussing the realities of their love, Motel says, “Don’t worry, Tzeitel. I have found someone who will sell me his used sewing machine, so in a few weeks I’ll have saved up enough to buy it, and then your father will be impressed with me …” Later, Motel finally gets up the courage to stand up to Tevye, once again citing the sewing machine as proof that he’ll make a good husband:
I have wanted to ask you for some time, Reb Tevye, but first I wanted to save up for my own sewing machine.
Stop talking nonsense. You’re just a poor tailor.
That’s true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness. (Looks at TZEITEL triumphantly.) I promise you, Reb Tevye, your daughter will not starve.
(Impressed, turns to the audience.)
He’s beginning to talk like a man.
(Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof)
That sewing machine changes the future for Motel and Tzeitel both financially and romantically, but we know nothing about it. In the context of the show, that’s just fine—no one cares what kind of sewing machine it was—but I’m curious as to what the sewing machine might actually have looked like.
To start this search, I immediately looked into the first sewing machine company I could think of: Singer. After all, Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia in 1905, and Singer has been making and selling sewing machines since 1851 (source), so it is quite possible that Motel’s prized machine was made by Singer. Interestingly, Singer had just built and started production in a new factory in Podolsk, Russia, in 1902 that “was intended to supply the entire Russian market as well as those in Turkey, the Balkan states, Persia (Iran), Japan and China” (it became fully operational in 1905) (source). Surprisingly, “Russia was Singer’s largest foreign market at the beginning of the twentieth century” (source).
Assuming, then, that Motel’s sewing machine was a Singer, the search must be narrowed to those machines that were in production in the years leading up to 1905 (since he bought a used machine), did not run on electric, and had a treadle (the part of the machine operated by the foot); after all, Motel brags to Golde, “See, it’s an amazing thing. You work it with your foot and your hand” (Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof). This significantly narrows the search within Singer’s history, leaving us with only a few options in the Singer family:
Another viable option would’ve been the No. 6 Machine (later known as Bradbury’s Spool):
Of course, since Fiddler‘s creators didn’t specify what type of sewing machine Motel buys, there’s no way to know, for sure, what machine he used. That being said, I was able to find a photo of “Tailors, seamstresses, and apprentices in a sewing workshop, Tarnow, Galicia (in present-day Poland), 1905” that gives a good idea of what the machines of Motel’s time would’ve looked like: