October 27, 2021

Jan Ernst Matzeliger – Inventor of One of USAs Most Prized Inventions – The Shoe Laster

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived a Black man named Jan Ernst Matzeliger who invented the shoe lasting machine, one of the most important inventions in United States history and which changed the manufacturing of shoes for generations.


Jan E. Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852 and raised on a coffee plantation on what is now known as the very small country of Suriname, previously known as the country Dutch Guiana, on the coast of South America. The city of his birth was Paramairbo.

His mother was an enslaved African descendant who worked on his father’s plantation located in Paramaribo. His father was a white man, descended from German background. Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s native tongue was Dutch, and his second language became English once he moved to the USA.

As a young boy in Suriname before he was a teenager, he ended up apprenticing in the Colonial Ship Works which was located in Paramairbo and found that he was mechanically inclined, a natural with knowledge of how things worked. Therefore, he became a mechanic on a ship in the Dutch East Indies and moved to Massachusetts at the age of 15 on November 1, 1867.

He became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America on October 29, 1878 at the age of 26 years old[1].

In the state of Massachusetts, he worked in the shoe industry, working with the Harney Brothers Shoe Factory on Alley Street. Harney Brothers Shoe Factory workers would go on strike time and time again for better wages, leaving people without shoes[2]. It was tedious work because shoes were made by hand in a process called lasting in the 1800s, so it was a fairly slow process that required much skill.

"Lasting" a shoe is when you shape and fit the upper portion of the shoe to the bottom mold, or the sole. Although other attempts were made to make lasting of shoes easier, it was Jan Matzeliger who sealed it with his invention.

While working crafting shoes at Harney Brothers Shoe Factory, he secretly began to work on a machine that could “last” the shoes together without the tedious task of having to do it individually and by hand.

For over ten years he worked on the lasting machine until finally in 1882, he succeeded, inventing the state of the art lasting machine – the first one the world has ever known. He had complex diagrams that even the US Patent Office couldn’t comprehend at all, so the inspectors had to go and see it for themselves from the Patent office. When they did, the patent was granted to Matzeliger on March 20, 1883[3].

With Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine, instead of a small amount of shoes molds being done by hand expensively, now up to 700 pairs of shoes could be done in one day, reducing the cost and speeding up production to provide more people with shoes at one time.

Unfortunately, this great inventor passed away at the age of 37 from Tuberculosis in Lynn, Massachusetts on August 24, 1889. He was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in the city of his passing[4]. It was only 6 years after his invention.

Though his invention is noted as one of the most important inventions in the shoe industry and the fact that Matzeliger is responsible for the way shoes are manufactured today, many white people didn’t ever want to credit a Black man properly for his invention in those times. Therefore, his name was revoked from history books. They even called his invention in the papers “nigger-head laster” instead of “Lasting Machine” when they were hiring for people in ads to operate the machine after his death.

It is only in the 1990s where the public was made aware and he was praised for his brilliance and his awesome invention.

Sources

[1]National Archives at Boston; Waltham, Massachusetts; ARC Title: Copies of Petitions and Records of Naturalization in New England Courts, 1939 – ca. 1942; NAI Number: 4752894; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: RG 85

[2]The Fall River Daily Herald (Fall River, Massachusetts)28 Mar 1894, Wed Page 3

[3]The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)· Sun, Feb 26, 1995 · Page 47

[4]Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 12 December 2020), memorial page for Jan Earnst Matzeliger (15 Sep 1852–24 Aug 1889), Find a Grave Memorial no. 31868269, citing Pine Grove Cemetery, Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave