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Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s Invention Revolutionized Shoe Manufacturing

A cordwainer is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather. Lasting is the part of the process that sets the final shape of a shoe and holds it in place so the outsole can be permanently attached. Designing a machine to perform the lasting was thought to have been impossible. But Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889), was determined to automate this task. And with persistence, he was successful. He revolutionized the industry of shoemaking with his lasting machine. It cut the cost of manufacturing shoes in half, thereby making shoes more affordable.

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Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Jan Ernst Matzeliger

By Tamara Shiloh

The craft of shoemaking was at one time difficult and manual work. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, cobblers and cordwainers cut, sewed, and tacked shoes with machines.

The inner and outer soles were attached with machines and other devices were used to sew uppers to lowers. The final part of the process though, remained manual: the lasting.

A cordwainer is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather. Lasting is the part of the process that sets the final shape of a shoe and holds it in place so the outsole can be permanently attached.

Designing a machine to perform the lasting was thought to have been impossible. But Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889), was determined to automate this task. And with persistence, he was successful. He revolutionized the industry of shoemaking with his lasting machine. It cut the cost of manufacturing shoes in half, thereby making shoes more affordable.

Little is known about Matzeliger’s early life. He was born on the northern coast of South America in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now the Republic of Suriname). By age 10, he was apprenticed in the machine shops. He had an interest in machinery and mechanics, and at the same time, desired to see the world.

At 19, Matzeliger went to sea on an East Indian merchant ship. When reaching America, he decided to stay in Philadelphia. There he worked odd jobs, one being a shoemaker’s apprentice.

Being a Black man limited his professional options; he struggled to make a decent living. By 1876, he would relocate to Boston. After a brief stay, he settled in Lynn, Mass., where shoemaking was an established industry.

Matzeliger was soon hired at Harney Brothers’ shoe factory, where he operated a McKay sole-sewing machine and ran a heel-burnisher and a buttonhole machine. He wanted to learn more about the craft, so he studied the hand lasters as they worked.

A hand laster pulls and secures lining uppers over lasts (a mechanical form shaped like a human foot) to form leather shoes of designated size, then trims away the excess material with a knife.

At night, Matzeliger began to duplicate the movements of the lasters. He secretly made drawings as he experimented with various materials. Six months later, his employer offered $50 for the unfinished machine. Matzeliger rejected it.

Four years later, after reconstructing the machine using iron, Matzeliger was offered $1,500. Again, he rejected it and continued to improve his machine. After 10 years, people began to laugh at Matzeliger and his efforts, but he refused to be discouraged. Eventually, when the time became right, he sought investors and was able to finance a patent.

In 1883, Matzeliger received a patent for his lasting machine. The first public operation of the machine took place in 1885, when the machine broke a record by lasting 75 pairs of shoes. He later received several other patents for shoe-manufacturing machinery.

Unfortunately, in pursuing his work, Matzeliger sacrificed his health working long hours and not eating for long periods of time. He died of tuberculosis three weeks before his 37th birthday, never reaping the profit of his invention.

Encourage your tweens to read more in Barbara Mitchell’s “Shoes for Everyone: A Story about Jan Matzeliger.”

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