Jan Ernst Matzeliger (September 15, 1852 – August 24, 1889) was an African-American inventor in the shoe industry.
Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer. He was very wealthy and very well educated. His mother was a black Surinamese slave. He had some interest in mechanics in his native country, but his efforts at inventing a shoe-lasting machine began in the United States after a life of working in a machinery shop. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 19 after working as a sailor. By 1877, he spoke adequate English and had moved to Massachusetts.
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. As a result, shoe lasters held great power over the shoe industry. They would hold work stoppages without regard for their fellow workers’ desires, resulting in long periods of unemployment for them.
After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “hand laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.
After five years of working Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in 1883.His machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.He 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.When a shoe was made by hand, in a day they would make 50 pairs of shoes. But when Jan created the shoe making machine, Jan made 700 pairs of shoes a day.His early death in Lynn, Massachusetts from tuberculosis meant he never saw the full profit of his invention. 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.In recognition of his accomplishment, he was honored on a postage stamp on September 15, 1991.