Growing up, my brother was a collector of the latest Nikes. He was the Air Force One version of the Air Jordan lover. He’ll collect all kinds of pairs of “Air Ones” and stack them in his room or in the basement. It was truly a work of art and since he actually is an artist, sometimes he even drew on them! In any event, it’s no secret, black people love shoes! I don’t say that in a discriminatory way, for African Americans are known to set the trend. There’s nothing wrong with our love for fashion which is often mimicked all over the world. It makes sense then, why it was an African American man who helped to revolutionize the shoe making industry. Meet Jan Matzeliger.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Surinam, formerly known as Dutch Guiana, in South America. Of mixed ancestry, Jan’s father was a Dutch engineer and his mother of African ancestry. Naturally, since his dad was an engineer, Jan would accompany his father to work and developed a skill for repairing complicated equipment.
At nineteen, Jan left home to explore the rest of the world, and began work aboard an Indian ship. He found his way to America and settled in Pennsylvania where he became interested in shoe making and worked at a shoe making factory.
Though Jan was interested in improving how shoes were made, two obstacles were in his way: He could barely speak English and at that time shoes in the U.S. all came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts where “Hand Lasters” (people who could attach the different parts of the shoe together by hand), could only produce 50 pairs of shoes per ten-hour day. Though paid well, Jan had the discernment to see that what Hand Lasters were doing was not as good as everyone thought. There had to be a better way.
Specifically, there was no machine that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole and this is basically what the “Hand Lasters” were doing and they were the experts. According to them, “No matter if the sewing machine is a wonderful machine. No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the Laster, unless he can make a machine that has fingers like a Laster – and that is impossible.” Jan Matzeliger thought they were wrong and set out to build a machine that would do just that.
Jan is a great inspiration for setting out to achieve something that no one thought would work. He worked hard on this machine using whatever he could find – cigar boxes, nails, paper, scrap wire—and after six months had a workable model. Jan however, did not have much money. He also kept his project secret. Still, the “expert” Hand Lasters found out and made fun of him for his project. Someone offered him $50.00 for the machine but Jan wasn’t having it. They tried to play him, but he was smarter than that. He turned down more and more offers and continued perfecting his machine until a better offer came from which he could acquire the tools to perfect the machine even more.
In March of 1883, the United States Patent Office issued a patent for Jan’s machine, which could produce 700 pairs of shoes a day, to the Hand Lasters 50 pair and the rest is history. Jan had officially revolutionized the shoe making industry.
Some of my brother’s art, “The Shoe King”
How does Jan’s invention help us today?
Today, shoe making involves four departments: Clicking or Cutting, Closing or Machining, Lasting & Making, Finishing Department and the Shoe Room. The Lasting and Making part is where Jan’s invention would come in. “In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For proper fit, the customer’s feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a stone or wooden mold called a “last” from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands.” (Wikipedia)
That is until Jan’s machine. Today, soles, which were once laboriously hand-stitched on, are now more often machine stitched or simply glued on by shoe making manufacturing.
In Case You Missed It:
Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Now Everyone Can Afford Decent Shoes.”5 Dec 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20120821203314/http://www.users.fast.net/~blc/xlhome9.htm Archived from the original on August 21, 2012.
“Jan Matzeliger”. The Black Inventor Online Museum.
Jan H. Liedhard. “No. 522: Jan Matzeliger (transcript of radio show Engines of Our Ingenuity episode)”. University of Houston.
“Jan Ernst Matzeliger ‘Lasting Machine'”. Lemelson-MIT. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
Reference: Hayden, Robt. C., Eight Black American Inventors. Addison-Wesley, 1972