Jan Ernst Matzeliger
"Now Everyone Can Afford Decent Shoes."
shoe lasting machine.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-1889) was born in Paramaribo, Surinam (Dutch
Guiana), South America. His father was a Dutch engineer who married a native
Black Surinamese woman. At the age of ten, young Jan worked in the machine
shops supervised by his father, where his talents and mechanical aptitude
was nurtured. In 1871, at the age of 19, he sailed the world and settled
in Philadelphia 2 years later.
Hearing about the rapid growth of the shoe industry in Massachusetts,
Matzeliger went to Lynn in 1877 in search of a better job. Since he seas
a Black foreigner who spoke very little English. he had trouble finding
employment. A determined young man, he quickly learned the English language.
He eventually landed a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory operating
various shoe making machinery during time when most white people would
look down on him because of his Black ancestry, he did manage to make a
few friends in town. He was a devout Christian, teaching Sunday School
at The North Congregational Church, one of the few churches in the area
that would accept Blacks.
In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For
proper fit, the customer's feet had to be duplicated in size and form by
creating a stone or wooden mold called a "last" from which the
shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making
was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great
skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that
such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands. As a result,
shoe lasters held great power over the shoe industry. They would hold work
stop-pages without regard for their fellow workers' desires, resulting
in long periods of unemployment for them.
Matzelinger set out to try to solve the problem of this strangle-hold
by developing an automatic method for lasting shoes. It took many years
and much sacrifice before he came up with a prototype that was successful.
Matzeliger's machine was able to turn out from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes
a day versus an expert hand lasters fifty.
By 1889 the demand of the shoe lasting machine was overwhelming. A
company was formed, The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, where Matzelinger
was given huge blocks of stock for his invention. His machine had revolutionized
the entire shoe industry in the U.S . and around the world.
Unfortunately, Jan Matzelinger didn't live to see the fruits of his
labor. Because he had sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on
his invention and not eating over long periods of time, he caught a cold
which quickly developed into tuberculosis. He died at age 37 on August
Jan Ernst Matzeliger's invention was perhaps "the most important
invention for New England." His invention was "the greatest forward
step in the shoe industry," according to the church bulletin of The
First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part
of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. Yet, because of the color
of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently.
Reference: Hayden, Robt. C., Eight Black American Inventors.
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