Inventor Jan Matzeliger (pictured) placed his name in the history books by inventing and patenting the shoe lasting machine in the late 1800s. Matzeliger filed his patent on this day in 1883, and for a short while he enjoyed the fruits of his success.
Born Jan Ernst Matzeliger on September 15, 1852, in Paramaribo, Suriname, then known as Dutch Guiana, his Dutch father and Surinamese mother gave him a comfortable life. Matzeliger’s engineer father taught him the tools of his trade and by age 10, Matzeliger was working in those shops.
At age 19, he left home to find other opportunities, although he faced difficulty because of racism. After a few difficult years in Philadelphia, Matzeliger headed north to Lynn, Mass., to work in the shoe industry. Matzeliger became a shoemaker’s apprentice, learning the trade of cordwaining, which was a painstaking handcrafted fashion of making shoes.
In the cordwaining trade, the shoemakers would make molds of the feet of potential buyers with wood or stone, then would shape the shoe to their liking. These molds, known as “lasts,” would take shoemakers countless hours to perfect the fit by hand. Matzeliger then began experimenting on a device that could complete the lasting process and speed up production of the shoes.
After several attempts, Matzeliger finally created the “lasting machine,” a device that essentially held a shoe on the last mold and fitted the leather around the heel then attached the heel using nails. After the heel was placed firmly in the last, a new shoe would be produced.
Matzeliger’s machine could produce up to 700 shoes per day.
In 1889, the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company manufactured the lasting machine, giving Matzeliger significant stock in the company. The shoes were a global success and employed many laborers at the time. However, Matzeliger would only see a scant bit of success as he succumbed to tuberculosis on August 24, 1889, at age 37.
Matzeliger’s legacy lives on in the city of Lynn, and his likeness was placed on a Black Heritage postal stamp in 1991.