Jan E. Matzeliger
"Inventor of the Shoe-lasting Machine, Jan Matzeliger not only revolutionized the shoe industry but made Lynn, Massachusetts, the "shoe capital of the world."
Before Jan Matzeliger came along, no one thought it was possible to make shoes entirely by machine. Other inventors had managed to create machines to cut out the different parts of the shoe and to sew together the leather that made up the top, but the last and hardest part still had to be done by hand. Skilled shoemakers would shape the leather upper part of the shoe over a foot-shaped wooden mold called a last and then sew it onto the sole, or bottom, of the shoe. An expert shoe laster could make about fifty pairs of shoes a day. When Matzeliger was thirty years old, he created a machine that could make 150 to 700 pairs a day…that’s fourteen times as many as a skilled person!
Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852 in Dutch Guiana (now called Suriname). His father was a white Dutchman and his mother was a black Surinamer. As a child, Jan worked in his father’s machine shop and developed an early interest in mechanics.
When he was 19, Jan set off to explore the world as a sailor. After two years, he arrived in the United States and began doing odd jobs in New England. By 1876, Matzeliger had settled in Lynn, Massachusetts and taken a job in a shoe factory. He worked ten-hour days there and spent his free time learning English (he was a native Dutch speaker) and joining in activities with his church.
When Matzeliger learned of the challenge of creating an automatic shoe lasting machine, he set to work on inventing one, using whatever materials came to hand—some wire, pieces of wood, and cigar boxes. His early mechanical experience and his observations in the shoe factory served him well. By 1883, he was the owner of a patent crediting him with the invention.
Matzeliger’s shoe-lasting machine was so efficient that it cut the price of shoes in half after it went into production in 1885. Thanks to him, new shoes became much more affordable for average Americans.
The success of his invention came at a price to Jan Matzeliger. Weakened by long working hours, he contracted tuberculosis and died when he was only 37 years old.
Information courtesy of Dean K. Anderson and Stamponhistory.com