Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jan Matzeliger brings lasting joy

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.


Kristi Bernard said...

This is a very interesting story. Thank you for sharing.

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Kristi, thank you so very much for visiting my blog. It is so fascinating to see how much we owe to courageous and inventive people of the past.


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at