Whole Lota Sole
March 20, 1883: Matzeliger Patents Lasting Machine
It’s been said that Jan Matzeliger’s invention was the most important invention for New England and the greatest “step forward” in the shoe industry.
Before his invention, shoes were made by hand at a painstakingly slow pace. A customer’s feet had to be duplicated in wood or stone creating a mold. The step that took the longest was attaching the soles to the upper. It required great skill to tack and sew the two together. Intricate work that could only be done by skilled human hands. As a result shoes were expensive and not readily available to the growing population.
Enter Jan Ernst Matzeliger.
Jan was born in Dutch Guiana. His father was a Dutch engineer, his mother was a native black Surinamese. As a youngster he showed early mechanical aptitude and was working in machine shops at 10 years of age. At 19 (1873) he moved to the States and settled in Philadelphia.
He heard of the town’s growing shoe industry and became an apprentice in a shoe factory. Jan quickly recognized the bottleneck as uppers and soles were produced much more quickly than the ‘lasters’ could attached them.
Matzeliger set out to find a solution and began coming up with designs for machines that might work. After experimenting with wooden models then iron models he applied for a patent in 1883 for his “Lasting Machine”.
He received patent number 274,207 on March 20th and changed the shoe industry almost overnight. A skilled laster could maybe put out 50 pairs of shoes in a day. His lasting machine could do up to 700 pairs of shoes in a day. That’s a whole lot of soul sole.
By 1889 the demand for the lasting machine was overwhelming and the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company was formed. Matzelinger was given a large amount of stock in the organization.
Unfortunately Jan never saw the full profits from his creation. He developed tuberculosis and died at the early age of 37. A Black Heritage postage stamp was issued in Matzeliger’s honor on September 15, 1991.