Creation: Spring & Easter
With shoes you can get on in the midst of thorns. (Jamaica)
The price tag on a pair of shoes often determines whether we take the shoes home, though many of us will make the sacrifice for comfort and fashion. We have Jan Ernst Matzeliger to thank for an invention that made shoes affordable, especially in countries where going barefoot is not a wise option.
Jan spoke no English when he first arrived in the United States. He was born in Surinam, South America, the child of a Dutch engineer and Black woman who was a slave. He learned about machinery while an apprentice in his father’s shop. Jan left Surinam in 1871 when he was 19 years old, and worked as a sailor for two years before settling in Philadelphia He worked at odd jobs before moving to Massachusetts in 1976.
He settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where shoe making had started as a cottage industry and developed into factory production when the first shoe-sewing machine was introduced in 1848. Workers could make about 200 pairs of shoes by machine, but the bottleneck came with “lasting” - attaching the shoe upper and the sole. That job was done by hand, and many believed it could not be done by machine.
But not Jan. He watched the manual workers and tried to duplicate their activities mechanically with scraps he took from the factory. He created a simple machine in six months and his employer offered him $50 for it. Jan refused the offer. He took four years to create a machine from scrap iron, and this time rejected a $1,500 offer for his updated invention.
After ten years of experiments, Jan was ready to patent his invention on his own terms. His first drawings were so complex that the Patent Office had to send someone to see how the machine worked. On March 20, 1883, he received a patent for a lasting machine that would revolutionize the shoe industry. It would produce a finished shoe in one minute. Two years later, Jan’s machine was in factory use.
Jan seemed to have been a loner, with churchgoing his only known social activity. Mainstream churches rejected him on the basis of race, so he joined North Congregational Church where he could worship freely. On his death, he left much of his estate to his church. Years later, the church took itself out of debt by selling stock bequeathed by Jan.
He died at age 37, before he could enjoy the benefits and see the impact of his invention. Factories could now produce up to 700 pairs of shoes in a day, compared with 50 pairs at most by hand lasting. The machine cut manufacturing costs by half, and brought down the cost of shoes.
The US Postal Service issued a stamp in Jan’s honor in 1991.
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