Jan Matzeliger


Jan Matzeliger
Jan Matzeliger
Paramaribo, Surnam
Death date
Associated organizations
Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, United Shoe Machinery Corporation
Fields of study
Mechanical Engineering, Shoe Manufacturing
The Gold Medal and Diploma at the Pan-american Exposition of 1901, 1991 Postal Stamp in his dedication as part of the Black Heritage Collection


Jan Ernst Matzeliger was an African American inventor who revolutionized the shoe manufacturing industry with his invention of the Lasting Machine, a device that was able to shape and attach the body of the shoe to the sole without the need for hand labor. Though he died at an early age and was never able to profit from his invention, the Lasting Machine is noted for being a pivotal device that significantly impacted American commercialism and society.[1]

Jan Enst Matzeliger was born September 15th, 1852 in Paramaribo, Surnam to a very wealthy Dutch engineer and a native black Surinamese mother. His mother was of African decent, and his father had been sent to Surinam by the Dutch government to oversee work. At a young age, he was known for showing remarkable mechanical aptitude, and at the age of ten he began to accompany his father in the machine shops. [2]

At the age of 19, he left Surnam to sail and explore the world in 1871. Two years later in 1873, he eventually decided to settle in Philadelphia to look for work after hearing about the town's growing shoe industry. Being foreign and black he had a difficult time finding work, but in 1877 he eventually learned to speak English fluently, and took a position as a shoe apprentice at a shoe factory in the town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Here he operated and managed shoe making machinery and taught Sunday School at The North Congregational Church. [3]

As an apprentice within the Harney Brothers' Shoe Factory, Matzeliger had took up the cordwaining trade which involved crafting shoes by hand. Cordwainers made the molds of the customer's feet with wood or stone. The shoes were sized and shaped with the molds in place; eventually the body of the shoe was attached to sole by hand with "hand lasters." This was considered the most difficult and time-consuming stage of the assembly, as the final step in hand lasting the shoe took a significant amount of concentration and time. This created a problem within the shoe industry as the first aspect of the process of measuring the foot and creating a mold was completely mechanized and often took little time to complete. The latter half was done by hand and took significantly longer, creating a bottleneck effect in production, and an excess number of soles were produced at a rate that encumbered hand lasters. [4]

Operating a McKay sole-sewing machine, he noticed this issue within the industry. Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of the shoe to the sole, and many thought it to be impossible to create a machine of such nature. Watching hand lasters all day, Matzeliger began to understand how they were able to join the upper parts of a shoe to a sole. After work he would devise mechanisms to complete the task, and began to sketch out rough drawings of machines that might work in the same manner.

Soon, Matzeliger began to develop a few crude working models of his invention. Lacking in proper materials, he used whatever scraps he found, including cigar boxes, discarded wood, scrap wire, nails, and paper. After 6 months of development, he felt he was on the right path, but needed better materials to continue. As he slowly improved his device, people began to take notice and offered him prices as high as $1,500. Jan could not bear selling the device he had worked so hard on, and instead reached a deal to sell a 66% interest in the devices to two investors Charles H. Delnow and Melville S. Nichols, retaining the other third for himself. With the influx of revenue, he was able to finish the machine. [5]

On March 20th, 1883, Jan received a patent for the lasting machine which could adjust a shoe, drive in the nails, and produce a finished product in one minute. Continuing to improve the design, the first public operation took place May 29th, 1885, when the machine broke a record by lasting 75 pairs of shoes. Matzeliger, Delnow, and Nichols secured additional capital from George A. Brown and Sidney W. Winslow to finance the production of the lasting machine, and formed the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company. Matzeliger sold his patent rights to the investors in exchange for stock that saw rapid growth. In the late 1890s, it merged with several small companies to form the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, dominating the U.S. shoe making industry. The company went on to be worth over one billion dollars. [6][7]

In the summer of 1887, Matzeliger had fallen ill with what he originally believed to be a cold. Later it was confirmed that he instead contracted tuberculosis. Matzeliger remained active in bed despite being sick, continuing to tinker with inventions and paint as a hobby. He passed away from illness on August 24th, 1889 in Lynn, Massachusetts, a month shy of his 37th birthday. Due to his premature death, Matzeliger was unable to see the true impacts of his lasting machine, which allowed for the turn out of 700 shoes a day. Conditions of the shoe industry improved and many workers saw raises within their wages and Lynn, Massachusetts came to be known as the shoe capital of the world.

Matzeliger was recognized after death for his contributions, and was rewarded the Gold Medal and Diploma at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. In 1967 a series of radio dramas called "The Great Ones" produced a broadcast that features the life of Jan Matzeliger. The U.S. Postal Service eventually issued a stamp in his honor in 1991 as part of the Black Heritage Collection. [8]