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Elias Howe, Jr. was born on July 9, 1819, to Dr. Elias Howe, Sr., and Polly (Bemis) Howe in Spencer, Massachusetts. Howe spent his childhood and early adult years in Massachusetts where he apprenticed in a textile factory in Lowell beginning in 1835. After mill closings due to the Panic of 1837, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work as a mechanic with carding machinery, apprenticing along with his cousin Nathaniel P. Banks. Beginning in 1838, he apprenticed in the shop of Ari Davis, a master mechanic in Cambridge who specialized in the manufacture and repair of chronometers and other precision instruments. It was in the employ of Davis that Howe seized upon the idea of the sewing machine.
He married Elizabeth Jennings Ames, daughter of Simon Ames and Jane B. Ames on 3 Mar 1841 in Cambridge. They had three children: Jane Robinson Howe, Simon Ames Howe, and Julia Maria Howe.