Jan Matzeliger and the History of Shoe Production

Jan Matzeliger and the History of Shoe Production

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Jan Matzeliger was an immigrant cobbler working in a shoe factory in New England when he invented a new process that changed shoe-making forever.

Early Life

Jan Matzeliger was born in in 1852 in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (known today as Suriname). He was a shoemaker by trade, the son of a Surinamese homemaker and a Dutch engineer. The younger Matzeliger showed an interest in mechanics and began working in his dad's machine shop at the age of ten.

Matzeliger left Guiana at age 19, joining a merchant ship. Two years later, in 1873, he settled in Philadelphia. As a dark-skinned man with little command of English, Matzeliger struggled to survive. With the help of his tinkering ability and support from a local black church, he eked out a living and eventually began working for a cobbler.

A "Lasting" Impact on Shoe-Making

At this time the shoe industry in America was centered in Lynn, Massachusetts, and Matzeliger traveled there and eventually landed a job at a shoe factory operating a sewing machine for soles that was used to stitch different pieces of a shoe together. The final stage of shoemaking at this time--attaching the upper part of a shoe to the sole, a process called “lasting” -- was a time-consuming task that was done by hand.

Matzeliger believed that lasting could be done by machine and set about devising just how that might work. His shoe lasting machine adjusted the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranged the leather under the sole and pinned it in place with nails while the sole was stitched to the leather upper.

The Lasting Machine revolutionized the shoe industry. Instead of taking 15 minutes to last a shoe, a sole could be attached in one minute. The efficiency of the machine resulted in mass production-a single machine could last 700 shoes in a day, compared to 50 by a hand laster-and lower prices.

Jan Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in 1883. Tragically, he developed tuberculosis not long after and died at the age 37. He left his stock holdings to his friends and to the First Church of Christ in Lynn, Massachusetts.

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