Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Paramaribo, Surinam (Dutch Guiana) to a Dutch engineer father and a native black Surinamese mother. The enterprising youngster showed early mechanical aptitude, and at just ten years old, he was already working in the machine shops that his father supervised. When he was 19, he left Surinam to sail the world and later to seek work in the United States. In 1873, he settled in Philadelphia.
By 1877, Matzeliger had learned to speak English. He moved to Lynn, Massachusetts to look for work after he heard about the town’s rapidly growing shoe industry. There, he became an apprentice in a shoe factory.
At that time, shoes were made mostly by hand. For proper fit, molds of customers’ feet had to be made with wood or stone called “lasts” from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Though the cutting and stitching of leather involved some degree of mechanization, the final process of shaping and attaching the body of the shoe to its sole was done entirely by hand with “hand lasters.” This was considered the most difficult and tedious part of the assembly, and it presented a major problem in that workers could not complete the assembly of a shoe as quickly as a machine could produce its parts. In effect, a bottleneck was created.
Matzeliger set out to find a solution to this problem. He thought that there had to be a way to develop an automatic method for lasting shoes. He started to develop designs for machines that could do the job. He experimented with wooden models, then iron models, and finally, in 1883, he applied for a patent on a “lasting machine.”
On March 20, 1883, Matzeliger received patent number 274,207 for a machine that held a shoe on a last, gripped and pulled the leather down around the heel, set and drove in the nails, and then discharged the completed shoe. His machine could turn out between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes per day, versus a typical skilled hand laster’s fifty.
The machine caught on very quickly. By 1889, demand for the shoe lasting machine was overwhelming. The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company was formed to manufacture the devices, and Matzelinger was given a large amount of stock in the organization. That year, at just 37 years of age, Matzeliger lost his life to tuberculosis. The United Shoe Machinery Company acquired Matzeliger's patent and company stock.
Meanwhile, the advantages of Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine lived on, increasing shoe production a thousand-fold, which, in turn, made high-quality footwear more affordable for people around the world. A Black Heritage postage stamp was issued in Matzeliger’s honor on September 15, 1991.