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Black History Month


Devoted to lasting shoe-making

Like most people living at the end of the Industrial Revolution, Jan Ernst Matzeliger could not afford more than one pair of shoes. Shoes were still made one pair at a time, by hand, and were very expensive.

But he would change all of that with his invention, the shoe lasting machine.

Born in Guyana, South America, in 1852, Matzeliger worked in his father's machine shop, learning how to operate furnaces and lathes. But when he was 19, Matzeliger became a seaman.

In 1873, he settled in Philadelphia. Matzeliger discovered discrimination against black people as he tried to land a job. Eventually he found work in a shoemaker's shop.

With his boyhood experience running lathes, he found it easy to operate the machine that sewed pieces of leather into shoe soles.

Four years later, Matzeliger moved to Lynn, Mass., often called the ''shoe industry capital of the world,'' and found work at a shoe-making factory.

It did not take long for Matzeliger to master the different machines. One machine cut and sewed leather into shoe uppers. One made buttonholes in the finished uppers. Another machine attached the finished uppers to the outer soles.

But the hitch in shoemaking lay in the most important step, lasting. The leather upper had to be stretched by hand over a wooden foot form called a last and then separately tacked onto the inner sole.

Matzeliger decided he would invent a machine that would perform all of the steps.

On March 20, 1883, the United States Patent Office awarded Matzeliger patent number 274,207 for his do-it-all shoe lasting machine. It could make hundreds of pairs of shoes a day.

But the years of sacrificing sleep and even food to work on his machine affected Matzeliger's health. On August 24, 1889, he died at age 36.

In 1992, the United States Postal Service issued a special stamp to honor the inventor.

-- By Emily Bell

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