Week 4 – Sewing Machines and Mower-Reapers

Brockmann, R John. “Chapter 5: The Emergence and Development of a Technical Communication Genre, the Instruction Manual (Part 1. Sewing Machines and Mower-Reapers: 1850-1915).” In From Millwrights to Shipwrights to the Twenty-First Century: Explorations in a History of Technical Communication in the United States, 153-85. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1998.

According to John Brockmann, the development of technical communication as a genre has its roots in the 1850s.  Indeed, the creation and marketing of both the sewing machine and the mower-reaper were complex enough in nature to require detailed instructions in order to use the devices properly.  Additionally, these pioneer manuals incorporated far more information and served a variety of purposes which have now been excluded from the modern-day manual.  Brockmann states that “the instruction manual in its early years was more like a short story than the instruction manual described in the 1880s” (161).  In part, this was because the manual was serving the dual purpose of, 1) instructing the reader on its operation, and 2) persuading the reader of the product’s credibility.

In order to establish how this genre has evolved over time, Brockmann examines sewing machines and mower-reaper manuals for elements of brevity, plainness, profuseness of illustration, and correlative illustrations.  His results indicate that in the span of 20 years, sewing machine instruction manual authors “quickly dropped secondary concerns” (such as maintenance, advertising, testimonials, patent information, etc.) and focused on instructions, “[coming] to adhere fairly strictly to the quality standard of textual brevity” (183).  In comparison, mover-reaper manuals never achieved quite the same standard.

One element of Brockmann’s research that especially intrigued me was his emphasis on understanding audience in the time period when the manuals were first produced.  He indicates that the target audience for sewing machines were women and that the technology involved was new and potentially unnerving for the consumer.  In fact, “early manuals had to convince readers as well as instruct them” in how to use the machine (188).  Therefore, the nature of the language and the purpose of the manuals was to teach and convince women who were deemed “fundamentally unsuited to the working of complex machinery such as the sewing machine” (189).  These sexist views carried on as an indicator of how these manuals ought to be written; in fact, the sewing machine manuals “embody the social relations of women” (203).  Brockmann’s observation of a cartoon with “Ma” reading the manual and “Pa” turning his back on the audience still lingers in our society today.  In fact, my own mom, upon buying a new phone, sat down and dedicated her time to reading the manual in order to figure out how to use it properly whereas my dad immediately begin trying different functions on the phone to determine its capabilities.

Brockmann quotes Paradis and Bazerman at the end of his chapter, stating:  “Writing is more than socially embedded: it is socially constructive.  Writing structures our relations with others and organizes our perceptions of the world.”  Do you think that is was the writing that influenced how different sexes respond to instruction or do you believe that it was the accepted gender roles of the time which prompted that particular style and purpose of writing?


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