Faces of Black History – Jan Ernst Matzeliger

image When a young, slim and rather handsome Jan Ernst Mazeliger arrived in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1876, he could barely speak a word of English. No one knew him; he was poor and friendless, having been a sailor for two years. When he died thirteen years later, his name was not only known in Massachusetts, but wherever shoemakers gathered. During the years left to him, he laid the foundation of the shoe industry in the United States and made Lynn, Massachusetts the shoe capital of the world.

Before Matzeliger, hundreds of inventors and thousands of dollars have been spent in an effort to make a complete shoe by machinery. Inventors such as Thompson, McKay and Copeland have developed crude shoe making machines but the final problem of shaping the upper leather over the last and attaching this leather to the bottom of the shoe stymied them. The “Hand-lasters,” as they were called, performed this crucial and final step. They were the aristocrats of the shoe industry and, in effect, had control of the shoe manufacturing industry. They were highly paid and temperamental but no matter how fast the other portions of the show were completed, they could turn out only forty to fifty pairs each per day.

Matzeliger heard of the problem. Already extremely competent with mechanical things felt such a challenge suited him perfectly. As he worked in shoe factories around Lynn and Boston, he heard it said many times that it was impossible to last shoes by machines; the job simply could not be done. In secret he started experimenting, first with a crude wooden machine, then with a model made out of scrap iron. For ten years he worked, steadily and patiently, with no encouragement. Indeed, when the news of his tinkering finally reached the public, there were jeers of derision. Metzeliger only smiled and continued working.

Meanwhile, after being denied membership in several churches, he finally joined a young adult group which made his days less lonely. Little did he hear of his Dutch father or Surinamese mother in his native Dutch Guiana. There is no record of his courting or marrying. Yet when he was working on his invention, acquaintances and friends would drop in to chat and perhaps smile condescendingly.

Finally in 1882, Metzeliger felt he had perfected his machine to solve the impossible problem. When he applied for a patent and sent his diagrams to Washington, patent reviewers could not even understand them. They were so complicated that a man was dispatched from Washington to Lynn, Massachusetts to see the model itself. On March 20, 1883, patent number 274,207 was granted to Jan E. Matzeliger. Matzeliger’s machine was able to turn out from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day versus an expert hand lasters fifty.

By 1889 the demand of the shoe lasting machine was overwhelming. A company was formed, The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, where Matzelinger was given huge blocks of stock for his invention. His machine had revolutionized the entire shoe industry in the U.S . and around the world.

Unfortunately, Jan Matzelinger didn’t live to see the fruits of his labor. Because he had sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention and not eating over long periods of time, he caught a cold which quickly developed into tuberculosis. He died at age 37 on August 24, 1887.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s invention was perhaps “the most important invention for New England.” His invention was “the greatest forward step in the shoe industry,” according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. Yet, because of the color of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently.

Be sure to read about how other African-American inventors helped shape our history and make our world what it is today. So the next you buy a pair of $200 Air Jordans take the time to remember the African American inventor that made it possible.

Information Sources: Sidney Kaplan. “Jan Ernst Matzeliger and the Making of the Shoe,” Journal of Negro History, XL (January, 1958), pp. 8-33; Hayden, Robt. C., Eight Black American Inventors, Addison-Wesley, 1972.

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