A poor immigrant scrounged materials from junkyards to invent a device that worked five times faster than lasting by hand, making shoes affordable for millions
By the 1870s, much of shoe manufacturing was performed by machine. One intricate operation continued to defy mechanization: lasting, or fastening the upper part of a shoe to the inner sole. Shoes took on their final appearance while being shaped by hand over a wooden model of a foot called a last, and much manipulation was required to accurately form the leather around the last, especially at the heel and toe. It would take the poor immigrant Jan Earnst Matzeliger to build a lasting machine where a prominent inventor, his engineering organization, and a quarter of a million dollars had failed. Matzeliger’s machine would transform an industry, build a great corporation, produce several millionaires (himself not among them), and create work for thousands of Americans.
An efficient laster could process only 50 or 60 pairs of shoes a day, so shoe parts made by machine piled up while waiting for his attention. This bottleneck kept shoes expensive. Gordon McKay, a pioneer of early shoe mechanization, organized the McKay Lasting Association in 1872 to build a machine that could form, shape, tug, pleat, hold, and tack like a human laster. His company spent $120,000 developing one and an additional $130,000 fighting an alleged infringer for four years before dropping the case and joining with the competitor. But while the resulting Copeland-McKay lasting machine was fairly effective with heavy shoes and boots, it was useless for pointed toes or the thin leather used in fine women’s shoes, the mainstay of factories in the national shoe capitol of Lynn, Massachusetts.
Jan Earnst Matzeliger, a poor immigrant from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also aspired to build a lasting machine, but had few resources besides a quick and inventive mind. He had arrived in Philadelphia in late 1873 or early 1874, and found a temporary job working a McKay stitching machine, which sewed the outer soles of the shoes to the inner. Two years later he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, taught himself English, and took up work in a shoe factory. He invested much of his nine-dollar-a-week wage on books and instruments.
Every night after his ten-hour workday, Matzeliger thought over and drafted his ideas on building a lasting machine. By 1880 he had built a model mechanical laster out of wooden cigar boxes, elastic, and wire. He kept the details of the design secret. The next step was to fabricate a far more ambitious and expensive working model.
A metal model would require greater working space and access to machine tools, so he capitalized on his mechanical abilities to get a job at the shoemaking factory of Beal Brothers, where he was given a secure working area for his project and permission to use the company’s machine tools.
He scrimped on food to have more money for the working model. Occasionally he got supper at a local restaurant in return for sweeping floors. Matzeliger searched through junkyards and factory dumps for good parts from broken machinery—forgings, gears, pulleys, levers, and cams— and spent long hours altering existing parts to fit his requirements. After two years of unaided effort, all the while denying himself proper food, rest, and warmth, Matzeliger had completed his second machine.
It was a crude prototype, but it was quite capable of pleating the leather around a toe, the most difficult lasting task. He filed for a patent on January 24, 1882. By one account, the officials at the Patent Office could not understand Matzeliger’s 15 pages of complex text and drawings, and an inspector had to visit him to have the invention explained. The inventor attracted two investors.
Matzeliger took three years to build an experimental machine and in the process made various engineering changes that would be reflected in his second patent several years later. The machine was finally ready for its first demonstration on May 29, 1885. Its main working component was a single pincers resembling an ordinary pair of pliers with the jaws thinned and bent. A worker placed an insole and an upper on a last and positioned the last on the machine. The machine drove a tack, turned the shoe, pleated the leather, drove another tack, and continued until the shoe was finished, exactly reproducing the technique used by hand lasters. The job took one minute.
Those who saw it could hardly believe their eyes. Working five times faster than a human worker, the device perfectly lasted 75 difficult pairs of women’s shoes. Other machines had performed parts of these operations; this was the first to combine so many complex steps and produce shoes indistinguishable from handmade ones. And it could handle all shoe styles and any grade of leather.
Around 1885 Matzeliger sold the company all rights in his patents for stock worth more than $15,000. By the next year 225 workers were manufacturing lasting machines at a plant in Beverly, Massachusetts, and could not keep up with the demand. The Matzeliger laster became so popular that for 40 years after 1885 nearly every shoe factory in America had at least one. In the hands of a competent operator, it could last as many as 700 pairs of shoes a day, although two to three hundred was a more typical production rate. Shoe prices dropped by half. For the first time in America, inexpensive well-made shoes became available.