The museum of oddities

The Swiss Sewing Machine and Unusual Objects Museum has more than 250 sewing machines from the 19th and 20th centuries along with other weird artefacts, writes Kalpana Sunder

An antique sewing machine

A huge cellar hall lined with vintage sewing machines on gleaming wooden tables, some with exquisitely crafted legs in wrought iron… I am at the Swiss Sewing Machine Museum, located in the 12th-century cellar of a patrician home, belonging to the Wassmer family, in the medieval town of Fribourg, in Switzerland. Besides sewing machines, the museum showcases more than 3,000 unusual objects and contraptions that made people’s life easier in the past centuries.

In the entrance hall of the museum, we are greeted by a beautiful kinetic sculpture which was created by Pascal Bettex, a Swiss Sculptor, out of random articles that were not needed around the house, from spoons to an egg beater. Marc Wassmer, the son of the founder of the museum is our guide.

Sew & reap

Marc explains that his father Edourd was in the hardware business, and also sold and serviced sewing machines. When a customer bought a new machine, quite often the old sewing machine was given to them for spare parts, and slowly, they had many old sewing machines gathering dust in their godown, which was the beginning of the collection. Soon, his father started buying odd objects from antique dealers and flea markets, and the museum was born. Today, the museum overflows with vintage posters, old workmen’s tools from the barber to the bee-keeper, machines, irons, and other contraptions and curiosities.

Marc first shows us the wide, winding staircase of the building that leads to the upper floors, and explains the reason why they were so wide — the women wore flounced gowns and they needed the space to go up, especially when two of them walked together. Below the stairs is a peculiar-looking metal tub - he explains that the tanners of the town would work in filthy conditions with the excrement of pigeons, and when they came home would soak in that special tub to remove the dirt. This tub belonged to the last tanner of Fribourg.

We walk through the collection of nearly 250 sewing machines from the 19th and 20th centuries, with beautiful feet made by companies like Singer and Bernina, and even Peugeot, ranging from the smallest one, to precise tiny versions of the machines, made for kids, so that they could stitch along with their mothers, and portable versions they could carry when travelling. Marc explains the reason why sewing machines were so ornate and pretty, it was because the lady of the house usually placed it in the living room. Besides the usual machines, there are special ones used by leather and fabric artisans, and small darning machines.

Recreating an age-old time

One room reproduces an antique laundry and showcases the washing of clothes and vessels. Vintage black and white posters and advertisements line the walls. Old wooden wash sticks hang on one wall. Clothes hang from lines strung above our heads as we look at antique washing machines — basic wooden barrels in which the clothes were just rotated with suds. The first electric washing machine made by Miele stands in one corner with a huge wooden drum that looks like a wine barrel.

Another room has an extraordinary collection of irons from the 17th to the 19th centuries — from ornate Chinese irons with carvings, made out of bronze, to iron ones that could be placed on the stove, some that used alcohol, and others that used coal. Marc loves to play the quiz master asking us what a particular object or its use is, and stumping us every single time. He also demonstrates most appliances which make it fun.

We see ‘a nécessaire de voyage’ vintage shaving kit that the gentlemen carried while travelling that could hold or heat the water for a shave. He holds up a wooden bucket with a whisk, and asks us to guess what its purpose was. “Butter maker, yoghurt maker,” we answer. “No,” he says triumphantly. “It’s an old Swedish ice cream maker, which used ice and salt in an outer compartment. Four minutes and you had fresh ice cream.”

In another showcase of oddities, there is a blue tear glass — a vessel that ladies collected tears in when a person died, and it was entombed with the deceased as a mark of respect; another container was used for smelling salts by ladies in the church. Marc shows us a boot with long spikes — it happens to be a chestnut hulling boots, for walking over chestnuts and peel them. Another gigantic straw ‘moon boot’ from Stalingrad was used by soldiers to avoid frostbite.

An oval porcelain container elicits laughs as Marc explains the use of it. “The ladies sometimes had to relieve themselves, in case the sermons got too long in church,” he says with a smile. He holds out a porcelain cup with a small bridge on top and asks us to guess its use. It was used by people with long moustaches (a fashion in those days) to drink their tea or coffee. A huge wooden cabinet with hundreds of tiny drawers stands in one corner, used by a carpenter to store the different parts needed.

Vintage shopping catalogues in black and white, the medieval version of Amazon, lie on a tabletop. Two mannequins dressed in exquisite black dresses stand in one corner. Marc explains that people once wore black dresses for weddings because it would not get dirty, and only the elite spent money on white dresses. I am amazed, as we always associate black with mourning today.

Marc has reserved the best for the end. He holds out a beautiful music box engraved with designs and as he presses a button, music plays and the box revolves, opening a cabinet holding cigars. A music box that doubles up like a cigarette case, for the wealthy in those times. We are entranced by the sheer creativity of the bygone days and taken over by nostalgia. The museum really feels like a time travel into the era before electricity, and the time of our great grandparents, when people’s ingenuity and creativity was in full play.

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