African American Biography Spotlight: Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852 -1889)

Inventor who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger: Inventer who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger: Inventer who revolutionized the shoe industry

Jan Ernst Matzeliger 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 were 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. He taught himself English and he eventually landed a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory operating various shoe making machinery during a time when most white people would look down on him because of his race. He was a devout Christian, teaching Sunday school at The North Congregational Church, one of the few churches in the area that would accept African-Americans.

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 stranglehold by developing an automatic method for lasting shoes. Over the course of ten years, facing much derision and sacrifice, he came up with a prototype for an automated shoe-laster. Matzeliger’s machine was able to turn out from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day compared to the 45 maximum limit completed by the expert hand lasters. 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 24, 1887.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s invention was perhaps “the most important invention for New England because it increased shoemaking speed by 900%.” 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. In 1992, the U.S. made a postage stamp in honor of Matzeliger.

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