Jan Ernst Matzeliger

(1852 – 1889)

Jan Matzeliger invented the first machine that could make an entire shoe.  It took him twelve years of hard work to do what experts said was impossible.  Many had tried and failed. His machine was so complicated that people could not believe their eyes.  Yet it could make a perfect shoe in one minute.

Jan was born in Dutch Guiana now Surinam, in South America. His mother was black and his father was a wealth Dutch Engineer. At the age of ten, Jan went to work in a machine shop. When he was eighteen, he got a job on an East Indian merchant ship and spent the next two years at sea. When the ship docked in America, he decided to stay.   

After working at various jobs in Philadelphia and Boston, in 1877 he settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, there he worked in a shoe factory, where it took time and a lot of skill to make a shoe.

When he told people what he intended to do, many laughed at his idea, but in the end it was Jan who had the last laugh.  At first, he used bits of wood to make parts for his machine.  Later, he made metal parts in a blacksmiths yard that was no longer in use.

People called this invention “The Niggerhead Machine.” Within five years nine out of ten shoes were being made by his machine.  Lynn became the shoe capital of the world.  The price of shoes fell by half and wages doubled.     

Millions of dollars were made, but not by Jan Matzeliger.  Sadly, he died soon after with TB – brought on by overwork.  He was only 37 years of age.

Read more about Jan Ernt Matzeliger

The Matzeliger Lasting Machine history

History of shoemaking and how Matzeliger revolutionised the process How Shoes are Made by Machine.