Bessie the Beast

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I found Bessie on the side of the road in her cabinet on Saturday night. I was on my way home from a friend’s house with my little dog when I saw it. I love sewing cabinets, I even have an empty one in my living room that I refinished a few years ago, so I was pretty interested in it. I pulled up and looked the thing over. It’s in rough shape. It’s probably lived in a garage for at least a few years, and even looks like it was being dripped on. I may not have taken it for just the cabinet, but I reached under to it’s nether regions and felt there was a machine there. I tied the little dog to the front seat and stuffed the beastly thing in the back of my hatchback, no further questions.

When I got her home my fiance helped me carry it in, the cabinet is awkward and weighs close to 40#! Imagine the excitement when I pulled open the top, and this here popped up!! I think I said “No really, this is kind of a big deal” to my fiance more than once.

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I could hardly believe it. An antique cast iron machine in what was looking to be it’s original cabinet. It was fucken beautiful. I didn’t have time to play with it that night, we had a secret map party in the woods that we had to get to, but I had to plug her in and see… Sparks were a’flyin, but this baby ran!

The “secret” map party was cut short by the boys in blue, so I was up bright and early Sunday to play with my new toy. Upon closer inspection, the machine had pretty clearly been neglected for years, if not decades. It ran hard and slugishly, and smoke and sparks flowed from the motor like lies cascading from the lips of politicians… Too much? Maybe.

Dirty girl! The center pic shows the spark while running, of course capturing just a split second of that isn’t as dramatic as the ongoing flow, but you get the idea. I started the clean just straight up with a vacuum, then a toothbrush and down to q-tips. Everything was taken apart, cleaned and oiled. There were a few spots of rust that had to be sanded off, and the entire outside of the hand wheel was rusted.  The motor was the biggest beast, not only was it a mess but the little conductor brushes are worn way down and the motor was full of black carbon dust and hardened black grease. 5hrs total, the whole time was a party.

For now I put the old brushes back in, but I have new ones on the way. The wiring will also have to be re-done, though functional the fabric covering is literally crumbling off. As of now with the cleaning, oiling and old brushes still in she runs much smoother with no smoking, but still small sparks in the motor. Hopefully the new brushes will remedy that.

Playing around with her… the threading seems way more complicated than it needs to be, but hey I’m not an engineer! She does of course only straight stitch with no reverse so as far as costuming goes her usefulness will be limited, but I’ve already got the cabinet set up in the studio as a permanent sewing station. I figure I’ll just use my 1980 Kenmore 10 Stitch (Chester) on top of the cabinet for whatever Bessie can’t do.

So what I found out about the machine is that it’s a White Rotary, dated somewhere in the late 20’s. The cabinet is a Martha Washington, which was original to these machines. The cabinet itself is very cool, even being in rough shape. I haven’t decided if I’m going to try to save the existing finish or re-finish the cabinet, at the very least the top is fer sher going to be re-done.There are little fold-outs and drawers on each side. The only thing left in the cabinet were a few spare feet, some odds and ends, and a set of screw drivers that seem sized to the machine so I assume they came with it. The only reason I think even these things were left is the people getting rid of the machine couldn’t figure out how to open that part of the cabinet, it was kind of stuck!  An interesting tidbit a very knowledgeable (read-garage full of sewing machines) friend told me about the White company is that they had their own forest that they used for fancy woods for the cabinets!


I’m of course thrilled with my find, and it’s crazy to me that people would literally put this out in the street (it wasn’t even up on the curb!) after keeping it in a garage for years! Trash and treasure and all that I suppose…

Also worth mentioning, it was strange how her name came to me since I’m usually not one for naming tools (Chester being the exception of course!). When I first sat down with her Sunday morning I turned the hand crank some which was a hard turn, and without much thought my inner voice said, “Geez, Bessie needs some oil!”

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