But Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889), was determined to automate this task. And with persistence, he was successful. He revolutionized the industry of shoemaking with his lasting machine. It cut the cost of manufacturing shoes in half, thereby making shoes more affordable.
The craft of shoemaking was at one time difficult and manual work. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, cobblers and cordwainers cut, sewed, and tacked shoes with machines.
The inner and outer soles were attached with machines and other devices were used to sew uppers to lowers. The final part of the process though remained manual: the lasting.
A cordwainer is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather. Lasting is the part of the process that sets the final shape of a shoe and holds it in place so that the outsole can be permanently attached.
Little is known about Matzeliger’s early life. He was born on the northern coast of South America in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now the Republic of Suriname). By age 10, he was apprenticed in the machine shops. He had an interest in machinery and mechanics, and at the same time, desired to see the world.
At 19, Matzeliger went to sea on an East Indian merchant ship. When reaching America, he decided to stay in Philadelphia. There he worked odd jobs, one being a shoemaker’s apprentice.
Being a Black man limited his professional options; he struggled to make a decent living. By 1876, he would relocate to Boston. After a brief stay, he settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where shoemaking was an established industry.
Matzeliger was soon hired at Harney Brothers’ shoe factory, where he operated a McKay sole-sewing machine and ran a heel-burnisher and a buttonhole machine.