Jan Matzeliger was a nineteenth-century inventor and machinist who revolutionized the shoemaking industry and made a fortune for his financial backers. Over a period of several years, during which he sacrificed everything for the sake of his invention, Jan Matzeliger conceived, patented, built working models, and factory-tested a machine known as a shoe-lasting machine, and he eventually became a stockholder in the company that manufactured it. As revolutionary and beneficial as Eli Whitney's cotton gin or Elias Howe's sewing machine, Matzeliger's shoe-lasting machine could produce 150 to 700 pairs of shoes aday--compared with 50 pairs of shoes per day by hand-lasting methods.
By the 1870s, most of the steps in manufacturing shoes were already automated. In 1790, Thomas Saint, a London cabinetmaker, had invented the first sewingmachine designed for use on shoe leather. In 1810, Marc Isambard Brunel, a Frenchman working in London, set up machines to mass produce nailed army shoes. In 1841, Thomas Archbold, an English machinist, applied the principle of the eyepointed needle to shoe production. A variety of other specialized machines sped the process of creating and manufacturing shoes in quantity.
It was the final step in the shoemaking process that proved to be the most difficult to automate. This final step involved connecting the upper part of the shoe to the inner sole, a process called lasting. Lasting, crucial to the quality of the shoe, determines its fit, walking ease, and look. A lastwas a wooden model of the foot, and stretching the shoe leather over the last took a great deal of skill. Tacking the finished shape into place was alsodifficult. When Jan Matzeliger came to work in the shoe factories, no machinehad been invented that could complete the lasting process.
Jan Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852, in the port city of Paramariboin Dutch Guiana, now known as Surinam. His mother was a native Surinamese ofAfrican descent, and his father, a Dutch engineer who had been sent to the island colony to take charge of the government machine works, was a well-educated man and a member of a wealthy and aristocratic Dutch family.
Jan served as an apprentice in a government machine shop supervised by his father. He developed an interest in machines, eventually becoming a skilled machinist. At the age of 19 he signed on as a seaman with the Dutch East IndiesCompany and went to sea. He helped fix the engines on the steamship to whichhe was assigned. He spent two years sailing to the Far East, then came to North America with his ship. When his ship docked in Philadelphia in 1873, Matzeliger left the Dutch East Indies Company and looked for work as a machinist in Philadelphia.
In the 1870s Philadelphia was a busy center of commerce, with many factoriesoffering opportunities to skilled machinists. Unfortunately, skilled jobs were not open to blacks in the segregated job market of the city. Matzeliger wasalso hindered by the fact that he spoke little English, since Dutch was hisnative tongue.
Eventually Matzeliger found a shoemaker's shop in Philadelphia, where he learned to use a McKay sole-sewing machine that sewed the seam of a shoe sole. Hebecame fascinated with the shoemaking process and was advised to go to Lynn,Massachusetts, the shoe manufacturing center of North America. Matzeliger left his job in Philadelphia and arrived in Lynn on a winter day in 1877.
The social climate for African-Americans in his new home made it difficult for Matzeliger to become established in the community. It took him quite some time to find a job in the shoe factories. Finally, Harney Brothers hired him to sew shoes on the familiar McKay sole-sewing machine. While working, Matzeliger went to night school to improve his English. He was filled with a desireto learn more about machines. After some time, he managed to save enough money to buy a set of drawing instruments. He used these drawing tools to put hisideas for new kinds of machines down on paper. He observed the automated process of shoemaking in the factory in which he worked. There were specializedmachines for each step of the process, except for the shoe-lasting operation.There were machines for upper work, stock fitting and bottoming, buttonholing and buffing. Each worker had his or her own part of the shoe to work on, and a machine to operate.
Matzeliger also closely observed the final step of shoelasting. Most of the time, the shoe lasters could not keep up with the machines in the factory. Thelasters had a strong union and were considered kings of the shoemaking trade. It was said they often worked slowly on purpose, and they often went on strike. One day, Matzeliger said he could make a machine to do their job. His claim was greeted with skepticism.
Matzeliger was determined to learn all he could in order to enable him to invent a shoe-lasting machine. He requested a job as a millwright in the HarneyBrothers factory. His new job would be to circulate through the factory and check on, and repair, all of the machines. The new position also gave him theopportunity to watch the lasters at work.
He took a room in the old West Lynn Mission to work on his plans for a shoe-lasting machine in secret, because others were also trying to develop the samemachine. He worked in a cheap room at the Mission, and his quarters were notwell-heated. It took six months for Matzeliger to make a model of his machine--it was made only of old cigar boxes, wire, nails, and scrap wood, but another inventor offered him fifty dollars for it. Wisely, he refused the offer.
Matzeliger then set out to make a working model made out of metal. Some partshe was able to salvage from junkyards, others he had to fashion himself frompieces of scrap metal. To do this, he needed a forge to heat the metal and alathe to shape it. There was one shoe factory in Lynn, Beal Brothers, that had a forge Matzeliger thought he could use. So, he left Harney Brothers and went to work for Beal Brothers. His new employer gave him a workspace and theuse of their forge and lathe. Both machines were old and difficult to use buthis determination carried him through several years of hard work and personal expense to complete his project. In the meantime, Matzeliger also took a part-time job driving coaches that transported young people to a local park forrecreation.
By 1882, Matzeliger had completed the scrap-metal model. He knew he was on the right track when another inventor offered him $1,500 for just a part of themodel. He again refused the offer. Since the scrap-metal model would not stand up to factory testing, he needed to make a good working model made of newparts and with real precision. He approached businessmen in Lynn to finance his invention, but was turned down--one investor had already lost $100,000 ona shoe-lasting machine that failed.
Finally, he found two backers, C. H. Delnow and M. S. Nichols, who agreed toback him in return for two-thirds of the profits the machine would realize. Together, the three men formed the Union Lasting Machine Company, and Matzeliger set about making his third model. With a good model underway, Matzeliger could apply for a patent by submitting detailed drawings and a complete description of his invention.
In Washington, D.C., the patent officials could not understand the complicated drawings, and they didn't believe the machine could do what its inventor claimed it could. As a result, the patent office sent an examiner to Lynn to inspect the machine. Matzeliger demonstrated how the machine worked. It held the last, gripped the leather, drew the leather over the last, fitted the leather at the heel and toe, moved the last forward, fed the nails, and drove thenails. The patent official was satisfied, and on March 20, 1883, Matzeliger was granted U.S. Patent No. 274,207 for his shoe-lasting machine.
The machine fully proved itself in a factory test set for May 29, 1885, lasting seventy-five pairs of women's shoes with no trouble. Later, the machine would be able to turn out 150 to 700 pairs of shoes in one day. To begin manufacturing the machine, Delnow and Nichols needed more money. They obtained funds from George W. Brown, the northeast agent for the Wheeler Wilson Sewing Machine Company, and Sidney W. Winslow, who became known as the machinery king of New England. In exchange for their funding, Winslow and Brown took over themachine's patent from Matzeliger, who was given a block of stock in the newcompany, the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company.
Production of the shoe-lasting machine began in the mid-1880s and expanded rapidly--every shoe manufacturer in Lynn wanted to buy one. Shoe manufacturingboomed in New England, and exports reached a new high. Shoe prices were cut in half, and many more people now found them affordable. It was a revolution in the shoe industry. Rather than putting the shoe lasters out of work, Matzeliger's machine gave them more work to do, and it was easier work, too.
By 1897, Winslow brought together the major lasting machine manufacturers andorganized a holding company, the New York Machine Company. In 1899, Winslowcompleted the consolidation of machine manufacturing companies to form the United Shoe Machinery Corporation with a capitalization of $20 million and himself as president. From 1899 to 1910, the United Shoe Machinery Corporation earned over $50 million and held 98% of the shoe machinery business. By 1955, the company was worth more than a billion dollars.
Demand for Matzeliger's machine was worldwide by 1889. He continued to improve the machine and received four additional patents. In spite of his success,he made few changes in his simple lifestyle. He taught oil painting classes and Sunday school, and became the leader of Christian Endeavor at the North Church. During one of their summer picnics in 1886, Matzeliger developed a coldthat was later diagnosed as tuberculosis, possibly contracted from his earlyinventive days at the West Lynn Mission. He went into a hospital, unable toafford more expensive treatment at a sanitorium. He was bedridden for three years and died on August 24, 1889, at the age of 37.