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Researching Your Treasures: How Our Trade Literature Collection Can Help

This is the first post in a new ongoing series, Library Hacks. It will feature library and online resources we think you will find useful, interesting, or just plain cool.

Your grandmother left you an antique sewing machine that she used to make her own clothes when she was a girl. You treasure it, but you don’t know much about it -– just that it has the name Norwood on it and that it’s pretty old. You ask yourself, “Who knows about old stuff like this?” The Smithsonian comes to mind immediately! But what resource does this venerable institution offer to help you research Granny’s sewing machine?

As with so many questions, the library is a great place to start finding answers. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) has a “hidden gem” in its vaults -– a vast collection of trade literature with more than 500,000 catalogs, technical manuals, advertising brochures, price lists, company histories and related materials representing more than 30,000 U.S. companies. It is a valuable source to learn about products that were “made in America,” primarily covering the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. We have highlighted items from this collection previously here in the SIL blog.

To begin a search for information on Granny’s sewing machine, you’ll find a link for Trade Catalogs on the left side of the SIL homepage, which will take you to the screen shown below. Type “norwood sewing machine” in the search box you find there.

This search taps into the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center, which provides information on items not only in the Smithsonian Libraries but also in the museums and archives located within the institution –- a really powerful resource! Since we started from the Trade Literature search page, our search is already narrowed to only trade materials. And we find two items that mention Norwood sewing machines.

The first item (framed in red) is a 1904 catalog of Norwood sewing machines, manufactured by the Standard Sewing Machine Company. This looks promising! To learn more about this item, click on the Expand link on the right side of the screen to view the full record.

This expanded record tells us in the Notes field that this catalog has both images and text, and that it has information on two different styles of Norwood machines. We also see that there appears to be a related Electronic Resource. By clicking on the grey box “Click to see other media,” we find an interesting online exhibit produced by SIL about historical trade literature on sewing machines from the Smithsonian Collections.

SIL is in the process of scanning and digitizing items from its extensive collections, including trade literature materials. If you are interested in seeing a trade catalog that is not yet available online, like this Norwood catalog, you are welcome to submit a question via our free Ask a Librarian service. The friendly and knowledgeable Smithsonian librarians will be happy to help you learn more about your family treasures!

— Trina Brown, Instructional/Reference Librarian, National Museum of American History


  1. I wonder if there are any ads for the spinning Jenny?

  2. Trina Brown

    Jason — Thanks for your question!
    The spinning Jenny was invented in the 1760s in England by James Hargreaves. (There is some debate over whether he originated the idea for the machine, but he appears to be the first who patented it.) According to a book in our library collection titled “James Hargreaves and the Spinning Jenny,” the machine was used widely until the 1820s when it was superseded by newer spinning machines that used more spindles and were “self acting” (fully automated).
    I did a search of our trade literature, as outlined in my blog post, for the spinning Jenny. Since our trade literature collection coverage begins in the mid-1800s and is focused on American manufacturing, I didn’t find any related catalogs or ads. The Wikipedia article on the spinning Jenny provides some good information along with a diagram and photo (

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