Girl At Sewing Machine (1921) – Edward Hopper

Girl At Sewing Machine, 1921


Edward Hopper was an American realist painter. He was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York. He was raised in a middle class, Baptist family, mainly by his mother, grandmother, sister and even maid. He died in 1967. Hopper depicted contemporary America, capturing the feel and mood of the time. The main feelings in all his paintings are solitude, introspection, secrecy and silence, mirroring Hopper’s own personality. He met his future wife Josephine Nivison Hopper in 1923, who from then on would be his only model.


His oil painting Girl at Sewing Machine from 1921 depicts a young girl sewing by a window in a sunlit room. It appears to be in New York as we can see typical yellow bricks through the window. It is one of the first of many of Hopper’s “window paintings”. Hopper’s decision to pose a young woman against her sewing is said to be his commentary on solitude.

The painting measures 48cm x 46cm and is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

My fictionalisation

This is painted two years before Hopper met his wife. So who is this Girl at the Sewing Machine? I’m going to call this New Yorker ‘Betty’.

She seems young, perhaps 20 years old. She’s not married. She daydreams about Rudolph Valentino she saw in The Sheik the other day, and laughs at this new funnyman Charlie Chaplin. Out on the streets she can sometimes hear jazz, who has just reached New York from Chicago and New Orleans.

Her sewing machine is a treadle, a Willcox & Gibbs Automatic, which was a very successful chain-stitcher brand from United Kingdom.

Willcox & Gibbs Automatic

Willcox & Gibbs Automatic.
Read an incredibly detailed history here.

These were manufactured from 1857 (when the partnership began) to 1917. I’d like to think hers is from 1881, as it would then be as vintage for her as my Elna SU 62C from 1973 is for me.

One advert claims:
“Beyond all comparison, the HANDIEST Household Sewing Machine, Quiet, Elegant and Useful – it does the BEST WORK, and does it MORE EASILY than any other Machine – Hand or Treadle.
Testimonial: Miss Headdon desires to state that she has used Willcox & Gibbs machines for over 20 years, and she’s had the utmost satisfaction”.
(She’s also the one to send your orders to, so she would say that).

This machine is said to be tricky to use. Look how straight Betty’s back is: she is alert, concentrating hard on getting the seam straight and even. I can only hope she had the manual:

So what is Betty making?

The fabric is cotton, and has quite a bit of weight. God help Betty if it’s wool in this heat. Rayon is only a few years into the future. She will be hot in it, it’s a glorious summer, and she’s working in only her petticoat and is sleeveless. Luckily for Betty, breathless-making corsets are now a thing of the past.

Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The Queen are the fashion magazines for Betty. What she sees around her are loose waistlines (placed on women’s natural waists, but will in a few years have dropped considerably for what we now associate with the 1920’s), long hemlines, full skirts. Free, floaty, baggy styles. Although the zip had been invented, it was still all about buttons.

She has a copy of Pictorial Review, a magazine showcasing dress patterns:

She’s picked the apron dress (2nd page, top left). It’s going to be utilitarian, yet stylish enough for going about her daily business and perhaps Sundays spent in Central Park.

So long, Betty! Hope you can overcome your feeling of solitude and enjoy the decade that is the first one to emphasise youth over the older generations!

My paternal grandmother aged 18 in 1921.

My paternal grandmother aged 18 in 1921.