Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Early 1950s Nelco Sewing Machine

My Nelco badged vintage sewing machine from Japan.

Sometimes, importers and distributors selling identical models all built by Japanese factories offered several choices of brand names.  It was up to the dealers to choose between 2 or 3 brand name plates sent along in product envelopes.

I inquired about casting numbers underneath the bed,  but only one number was a significant clue--the one number under the lip said JA-13 indicating KOYO was the manufacturer in Japan.  My Nelco is model 1603, serial number 0070.  

She runs beautifully.  I'm calling her "Miss America."

When I bought her at a thrift shop, she was covered with an orange-y ear wax consistency of kitchen grease inside and out.  It took warm water, a bit of Murphy's oil soap, soft cloths, soft toothbrush, cotton swabs, and round toothpicks to gently remove the sticky film.  

The internal cleaning/oiling took some time to accomplish.  Supervised by my husband Jon, he enjoyed showing me areas that required more cleaning, and single drops of oil in each of the moving parts.

I let the oil sit for 24 hours.  The following day, I did short test runs.  Eeeeee--I wasn't expecting the machine to run so noisy at first, but I'd been advised to let her run for at least 5 minutes steady.  As I continued to run the machine for longer and longer periods I wasn't worried any more--the oil was getting distributed throughout the machine and sounding smooth.  I am really impressed how great it is running now.  

I tested the upper tension many times, but always ended up with intermittent loops forming underneath.  I turned the bobbin case screw clockwise 1/2 turn from 12 o'clock position to 6 o'clock position to adjust the lower tension.  The stitches are looking great now.  

Tags indicate my machine was likely imported by Nick Tacony who was still operating as Western Distributors, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri before he changed the company name to Tacony.  Tacony Corporation makes the modern Babylock sewing, serging, and embroidery machines. 

My machine has conflicting badges/tags.  Both Nick Tacony and Leon Jolson were both importers of Japanese manufactured sewing machines.  Jolson started his own sewing machine company/brand name Nelco.  I am puzzled how or why my machine could have both Nelco (Jolson) and Western Sewing Machine Dist. Inc. (Tacony) labels.   

Interesting history of Leon Jolson--a Polish immigrant to the U.S. in 1947--arrived penniless, but eventually developed a distributor deal with Necchi an Italian sewing machine company, and then another similar business deal with Elna, Tavaro Geneva Switzerland.  Both of those relationships dissolved unhappily, as Leon Jolson crossed the line so to speak, creating his own company NELCO derived from the letters NE from Necchi, L as in sounding like Elna, and Co.  This infruated Necchi and Elna.

Jolson was able to keep his company name NELCO after a legal suit settled out of court.  But bold Jolson continued to advertise to his dealers using every angle to mix together the names Nelco, Necchi and Elna, finest makers of sewing machines. 

Later on, rivals Elna and Nelco imported identical machines from a Japanese manufacturer. The problem was Jolson named his identical machine Nelco Prima Vera after Elna had already named their machine Elna Primula.  Elna sued Nelco.


  1. Hi, Mrs. D. — What an interesting story; I could see a TV mini-series on the theme of such name borrowing. I'm betting that Jolson might have gotten a different ruling today.

  2. Thanks for the info! My neighbor just gave me her mother's Strawbridge and Clothier's Super Deluxe ZigZag machine that looks just like yours, right down to the model number/serial number plate. I'm glad to hear that you're so satisfied with yours. I wasn't sure how much effort to put into cleaning this one up. It's in pretty good shape, but hasn't been used for 30 years, so everything is very sludgy inside. Clean as a whistle outside, though. That helps a bit. Thanks again for sharing the info of your machine!

  3. Hi thank you for the history of this machine. I'm starting a mini collection of vintage machines. I'm at two ( a kenmore and a singer) and came across a third for $30 with the table and had never heard of Nelco. It's an interesting history. I really like the photos you've included too. Thank you for taking the time to share. Hoping to contact the seller today to pick up the Nelco. ( another challenge for myself as I learn the art of maintaining and fixing sewing machines).

  4. Hi - I loved reading this article. I recently purchased a JOLSON sewing machine from a thrift store. It is clean and runs very smoothly - it weighs a ton! I can't seem to figure out how to sew a straight stitch - this chrome beauty is equipped with several zigzag options and a built-in buttonholer to boot. The model is SAM B...I thought that was really neat!
    Any insights greatly appreciated,
    Jan C

  5. Hi Jan C,

    Regarding your question: How do I sew a straight stitch on a Nelco SAM B? - here's a video that will answer your questions.

    Your Nelco and mine are EARLY engineering designs for zig zag sewing machines. And guess what? Our machines require a special presser foot to sew a straight stitch.

    It is called a "high shank straight stitch left needle position foot". You can buy one through Sew-Classic LLC online for #5.99. Copy and paste link below.

    So glad you asked this question. Have fun sewing on your new/old Nelco machine. I love mine. By the way, after I collected several early vintage zig zag machines I discovered they ALL required the special high shank straight stitch left needle position presser foot in order to sew a straight stitch.

  6. I recently purchased Nelco machine for only $7.00 at an auction. To my surprise it was very clean and works like a dream. All I had to do was adjust the tension slightly and away I went sewing. Your history about this brand of machine was wonderful since I had never heard of it before and was very interested in finding out more. I now know that this will be my go to machine for all my future quilting projects. The sewing machine that I have now is very loud and has a few issues, this Nelco is so quiet and sews so wonderfully, I know that I will love having it in my sewing room!