Jan Matzeliger (1852-1889) revolutionized the shoemaking industry with his invention of the lasting machine. This invention reduced the cost of manufacturing shoes by one-half. He is remembered for his persistence and optimism in the face of prejudice and ill health.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born on the northern coast of South America in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now the Republic of Suriname) on September 15, 1852. He was the son of a Dutch engineer in charge of government machine shops and a Surinamese black woman, who was a slave. In 1855, Matzeliger went to live with his paternal aunt. At the age of ten, he was apprenticed in the machine shops run by his father, where Matzeliger developed an interest in machinery and mechanics. At 19, he went to sea on an East Indian merchant ship. When the ship docked in Philadelphia, Matzeliger decided to take up residence in the town. He worked at odd jobs including that of shoemaker's apprentice, and then moved to Boston in 1876. The following year, he settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, a manufacturing center on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay, ten miles northeast of Boston. Shoemaking began as a cottage industry in Lynn in 1635 and developed into factory production by 1848, when the first shoe-sewing machine was introduced.
Matzeliger found work in the Harney Brothers' shoe factory where he operated a McKay sole-sewing machine. He also ran a heel-burnisher and a buttonhole machine, and cleaned the floors. Matzeliger took night classes and studied English on his own to improve his fluency. He held great respect for learning and collected a personal library of scientific and practical books with which he educated himself, studying physics and other subjects. In addition to his mechanical ability, Matzeliger was a talented artist. He painted pictures, which he gave to his friends, and he taught classes in oil painting.
Persistance Paid Off
The methods of shoe production changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Shoemakers used machines to attach inner and outer soles with pegs, and used devices to sew uppers to lowers. Cobblers cut, sewed, and tacked shoes with machines. One part of shoe manufacturing, the lasting, remained a manual operation. Many believed that it was impossible to design a machine to perform this final and important step. In 1880, Matzeliger became determined to devise a machine to perform this manual operation. The lasting process involved the mechanical shaping of the shoe upper leather over the last, which is a block or form shaped like a human foot, and attaching the shoe upper to the sole. He refused to believe that it was impossible to automate the task.
Matzeliger watched the hand lasters in the shoe factory during the day. At night, with scraps he salvaged from the factory, he tried to duplicate movements of the lasters. Secretly, Matzeliger made drawings. He experimented with a simple machine made of wire, wood, and cigar boxes, which took him six months to construct. Matzeliger's employer offered $50 for the machine, even before it was perfected. Matzeliger rejected the offer. He then tried making a lasting machine out of scrap iron, a project that took him four years. Matzeliger received an offer of $1,500 for his iron laster. Again he refused the offer and continued to perfect his lasting machine in a vacant corner of the factory where he was employed. He spent only five or six cents a day on food in order to conserve money for his experiments, and he sacrificed sleep. Matzeliger spent ten years in the development of his lasting machine and received little encouragement. When the secret of his project became known, in fact, the public laughed at him, but Matzeliger refused to be discouraged.
When the time was right, Matzeliger sought out investors to help finance a patent, and defray the cost of demonstrating and perfecting the machine. Charles H. Delnow and Melville S. Nichols agreed to provide capital for Matzeliger's invention in return for two-thirds ownership of the device. With sufficient financial backing, Matzeliger applied for a patent. The first diagrams of the machine that Matzeliger sent to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. were so complex that officials could not decipher them. A representative from the patent office went to Lynn to observe the machine personally in order to comprehend how it worked. On March 20, 1883 Matzeliger received a patent for the lasting machine which could adjust a shoe, drive in the nails, and produce a finished product in one minute.
Matzeliger continued to improve his machine until it was ready for an initial factory test. The first public operation of the machine took place on May 29, 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 in order to finance the production of the lasting machine. Delnow, Nichols, Brown, and Winslow formed the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company. Matzeliger sold his patent rights to the investors in exchange for stock. The company grew rapidly. In the late 1890s, it merged with several small companies to form the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, which soon dominated the U.S. shoemaking industry. Sixty-five years later, the company was worth over one billion dollars.
Besides his lasting machine, Matzeliger patented several other inventions, including a mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc. in 1888. Additional patents were awarded after his death in 1889. In 1890, his nailing machine and a tack separating and distributing mechanism received a patent; in 1891 a patent was approved on another lasting machine.
An Early Death
Matzeliger attempted to join the Episcopal, Unitarian, and Catholic churches in Lynn, but every congregation rejected him for reason of his skin color. Eventually, he joined the Christian Endeavor Society at the North Congregational Church, where he regularly attended services and took part in many church activities. At the church he made many friends with whom he spent time in outdoor excursions-exploring ponds, climbing rocks, and visiting a nearby island. There are no existing records to show that Matzeliger ever courted or married.
In the summer of 1886, Matzeliger fell ill with what he believed was a cold. He learned later that he suffered from tuberculosis. He remained active; even when confined to bed, he continued to paint and experiment. Matzeliger died on August 24, 1889 in Lynn, Massachusetts, one month shy of his 37th birthday. He was buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn. Matzeliger left a large portion of his estate to the North Congregational Church. Years later, when the North Church suffered financial hardship, it was learned that the stock bequeathed by Matzeliger had increased greatly in value. The church was rescued from debt through the sale of that stock.
Honored After Death
Matzeliger did not live long enough to see the true impact of his lasting machine on the shoe industry. The revolutionary invention enabled production of 150 to 700 pairs of shoes per day. In contrast, hand lasters could complete no more than 50 pairs in a day. The lasting machine cut the cost of shoe manufacturing by one half and thus reduced the price of shoes as well. Conditions in the shoe industry improved for workers and wages doubled. Lynn, Massachusetts, came to be known as "The Shoe Capital of the World." A school founded in Lynn to train young men to run the lasting machine graduates more than 200 students each year who in turn educated others in the United States and abroad in the use of the lasting machine.
Matzeliger was recognized for his efforts only after he died, when he was awarded the Gold Medal and Diploma at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. In 1967, a series of radio dramas called "The Great Ones" was produced in recognition of the contributions of African Americans in science, art, and industry. The show broadcast a drama featuring the life of Jan Matzeliger. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor in 1991, as part of the Black Heritage Collection. A statue was erected in his honor in Lynn, and a life-size portrait of Matzeliger hangs on the wall of the North Congregational Church.
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