Black inventor revolutionized shoe making industry

By Murphy Browne Wednesday March 18 2015 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

“To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that I, JAN ERNST MATZELIGER, of Lynn, in the county of Essex, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Lasting-Machines; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description of the same.

My invention relates to the lasting of boots and shoes.

The object of it is to perform by machinery and in a more expeditious and economical manner the operations which have heretofore been performed by hand.

My invention includes the mechanism for holding the last in place and allowing it to be turned and the last fed forward in proper position for the operation of the machine. It includes a feeding device for moving the last step by step at a proper distance, whereby the mechanism for drawing over the leather may operate successively and at proper intervals.

It includes pinchers or gripping mechanism for drawing the upper over the last, mechanism for turning the gripping mechanism in order to plait the leather at the heel or toe, mechanism for holding them in proper position for the operation of the feeding mechanism, mechanism for feeding the nails and holding them in proper position to be driven, and mechanism for driving the nails at the proper instant. The details of construction are all fully set forth hereinafter, and, together with the principles of my invention, are stated in the claims.”


Excerpt from the 15-page application for a patent by African-American inventor, Jan Ernst Matzeliger, in 1883.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was granted a patent for his shoe lasting machine on March 20, 1883 and revolutionized the shoe making industry. Matzeliger’s invention made it possible for White immigrants to America to gain employment in the booming shoe making industry by the early 20th century. Matzeliger, as many African-American inventors of his time, did not have the money to manufacture his invention so he was forced to go into partnership with two White men who demanded 2/3 of the profits from his invention. They did not do any work and had no knowledge of the workings of the invention but they had the money to strike a hard bargain and Matzeliger was forced to give them an equal share of his invention and he retained 1/3 of the “Union Lasting Machine Company”, the company that was founded to sell his invention.


African-Jamaican historian, Joel Augustus Rogers, in his 1947 book, “World’s Great Men of Color, Volume 2,” writes about the effect Matzeliger’s invention had on the revolution of shoe manufacturing: “Sales of shoes abroad increased approximately $16,000,000 annually. United Shoe Machinery Company machinery and shoe experts were sent around the world and American shoe manufacturing methods were adopted farthest north in Norway, in tropical Central America, in England and all the countries of Europe, in Africa, Australia and even in China, Japan and the Philippines.”


Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, (now the Republic of Suriname), South America on September 15, 1852 to an enslaved African woman and a Dutchman. Matzeliger began working for his father as a 10-year-old apprentice machinist. Slavery was abolished in Suriname on July 1, 1863 but Africans who had been enslaved by the Dutch were forced by law to continue working for their “owners” for a further 10 years so they were not free to leave their “owners” until 1873. As with the British, the Dutch slaveholders were compensated by their government for the loss of their “slaves”.


The Africans and their descendants have never received compensation for the centuries of coerced unpaid labour that enriched Europeans and their descendants, from which they continue to benefit even today. Matzeliger, born to an enslaved African woman, would have inherited his mother’s status unless his father “freed” him. This seems to have been the case with Matzeliger, as the documented history tells of Matzeliger working for his father as an apprentice machinist from 10 years old until he was age 19.


In 1871, a 19-year-old Matzeliger left Dutch Guiana as a sailor on a ship belonging to the “Dutch East Indies Company”. While working on the ship, which travelled mostly throughout Asia, Matzeliger, although employed as a seaman/sailor, was frequently called to work on the ship’s engines. After working on the ship for two years when they docked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1873, Matzeliger decided to remain and seek work as a machinist in Philadelphia.


Although by 1873, when Matzeliger arrived in Philadelphia, slavery had been abolished in the U.S. (1865), White factory owners would not hire an African-American machinist. As a stranger in segregated Philadelphia without a job, Matzeliger soon found an African-American church where he was welcomed, fed and given advice on where African-Americans could find work. After doing various odd jobs to which African-Americans were relegated, Matzeliger was eventually hired to work in a small shoemaker’s shop where he worked for two years, becoming skilled in operating the machine that sewed the top part of shoes.


In 1877, Matzeliger decided to move to Lynn, Massachusetts which at the time was considered America’s shoe manufacturing centre. Unlike Philadelphia, there were no African-American churches and Matzeliger was not welcome in any of the three White churches he attempted to enter. Trying to find a job in one of the 170 shoe factories that existed in Lynn at the time was just as difficult as finding a welcoming church. After pounding the pavement for days in search of employment, Matzeliger was eventually hired when he was allowed by a factory owner to demonstrate his skill on the sewing machine. Without having to spend time training this new worker the owner was smart enough to hire him immediately.


In 1877 there were no machines that could “finish” shoes by connecting the upper part of shoes to the sole of the shoes. The “lasters” who sewed the upper part of shoes to the sole of the shoes were skilled and well paid workers who did the job by hand. Matzeliger was convinced that he could design and make a “shoe lasting” machine, which did not endear him to the “lasters”, who were all White men. In 1880, while he was working on his invention, Matzeliger was offered $50.00 dollars for his invention by a White man which he refused, then another offer of $1,500 in 1882, but he was not interested in selling his invention.


Eventually Matzeliger was forced to join forces with two White men (C.H. Delnow and M.S. Nichols) who had the money and founded the “Union Lasting Machine Company”. Eventually the two White men formed a partnership with two other White men (George W. Brown and Sidney W. Winslow) who had even more money to invest but demanded that Matzeliger give them control of his patent in return for a block of stocks in a new company they founded, the “Consolidated Lasting Machine Company”. For Matzeliger it was either give in to the demands of the men with the funds or see his dream disappear since he had the knowledge but not the money to make the machines. The business was enormously successful because while a skilled “shoe laster” working by hand could finish 50 pairs of shoes in a 10 hour day, Matzeliger’s machine could finish 700 pairs in the same amount of time. Although Matzeliger’s machine made a fortune for White men and definitely made their worklife easier the machine was frequently referred to as the “N****r Head Machine”.


While he had been diligently working on perfecting his “shoe lasting” machine, Matzeliger had been living in poverty and forced to neglect his health. He contracted tuberculosis and on August 24, 1889 at almost 37 years old, Matzeliger transitioned. By then (1889) Matzeliger’s “shoe lasting” machine was in demand internationally and the same year (1889) the men who owned the patent to Matzeliger’s “shoe lasting” machine founded the “United Shoe Machinery Corporation” with a capitalization of $20 million. From 1899 to 1910, the “United Shoe Machinery Corporation” earned over $50 million and held a monopoly (98 per cent) of the sale of shoe machinery. By 1955, the company was worth more than a billion dollars.


Matzeliger did not live to reap the benefits of his almost lifelong work. He is hardly ever mentioned as the man who revolutionized the manufacture of shoes where in 2015, almost everyone can afford a pair of shoes although he probably would be mystified that there are people willing to pay upwards of $4,000 dollars for a pair of shoes.


A bridge was named in Matzeliger’s honour in 1984 and a statue was erected in his honour in Lynn, Massachusetts, the town that rejected him in 1877. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honour in 1991, as part of its Black Heritage Collection.

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