Jan Matzeliger – Son Of A Slave – Surinamese Inventor In America


The story of Jan Ernst Matzeliger a very curious one as you will discover.

He was born as Jan Ernst Martzil, on the Plantation, Twijfelachtig, by the Cottica River in Suriname, in 1852.

His mother was a slave woman named Aletta and his father a white Surinamese engineer, named Ernst Carl Martzilger.

In Suriname it was forbidden for slaves to wear shoes! There are anecdotes told by my elders that the day after emancipation there was such a run on the shoe stores in Suriname that they ran out. This part of the story is important in light of the invention of Jan Ernst Matzeliger.


Scene of a Plantation owner and his wife going to Church in Suriname

Whether he was born free or made free after birth is unclear. About his mother unfortunately no further information is available, however according to oral tradition she was made free.

While his father did acknowledge him, it was not common for whites to give their children, born of slaves, the same last name. Often the children were given a variation of the last name, hence his birth name, Martzil. We do know that he grew up in the household of his father’s sister, Maria Jacoba Henriette Martzilger.

Jan did not receive formal education, but he did show mechanical aptitude early on and was apprenticed at the Surinamese Ship Yard (Today called SMS).

It was on one of these ships that Jan arrived in America. His name was changed according to sources because of the pronunciation of his last name sounded like Matzeliger.

After a few jobs in Philadelphia and Boston he landed in Lynn, Massachussets.

Matzeliger found work in the Harney Brothers’ shoe factory where he operated a McKay sole-sewing machine. He also ran a heel-burnisher and a buttonhole machine, and cleaned the floors. Matzeliger took night classes and studied English on his own to improve his fluency. He held great respect for learning and collected a personal library of scientific and practical books with which he educated himself, studying physics and other subjects. In addition to his mechanical ability, Matzeliger was a talented artist. He painted pictures, which he gave to his friends, and he taught classes in oil painting.

The methods of shoe production changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Shoemakers used machines to attach inner and outer soles with pegs, and used devices to sew uppers to lowers. Cobblers cut, sewed, and tacked shoes with machines. One part of shoe manufacturing, the lasting, remained a manual operation. Many believed that it was impossible to design a machine to perform this final and important step. In 1880, Matzeliger became determined to devise a machine to perform this manual operation. The lasting process involved the mechanical shaping of the shoe upper leather over the last, which is a block or form shaped like a human foot, and attaching the shoe upper to the sole. He refused to believe that it was impossible to automate the task.

Matzeliger watched the hand lasters in the shoe factory during the day. At night, with scraps he salvaged from the factory, he tried to duplicate movements of the lasters. Secretly, Matzeliger made drawings. He experimented with a simple machine made of wire, wood, and cigar boxes, which took him six months to construct. Matzeliger’s employer offered $50 for the machine, even before it was perfected. Matzeliger rejected the offer. He then tried making a lasting machine out of scrap iron, a project that took him four years. Matzeliger received an offer of $1,500 for his iron laster. Again he refused the offer and continued to perfect his lasting machine in a vacant corner of the factory where he was employed. He spent only five or six cents a day on food in order to conserve money for his experiments, and he sacrificed sleep. Matzeliger spent ten years in the development of his lasting machine and received little encouragement. When the secret of his project became known, in fact, the public laughed at him, but Matzeliger refused to be discouraged.


When the time was right, Matzeliger sought out investors to help finance a patent, and defray the cost of demonstrating and perfecting the machine. Charles H. Delnow and Melville S. Nichols agreed to provide capital for Matzeliger’s invention in return for two-thirds ownership of the device. With sufficient financial backing, Matzeliger applied for a patent. The first diagrams of the machine that Matzeliger sent to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. were so complex that officials could not decipher them. A representative from the patent office went to Lynn to observe the machine personally in order to comprehend how it worked. On March 20, 1883 Matzeliger received a patent for the lasting machine which could adjust a shoe, drive in the nails, and produce a finished product in one minute.

Matzeliger continued to improve his machine until it was ready for an initial factory test. The first public operation of the machine took place on May 29, 1885, when the machine broke a record by lasting 75 pairs of shoes.

Matzeliger, Delnow, and Nichols secured additional capital from George A. Brown and Sidney W. Winslow in order to finance the production of the lasting machine. Delnow, Nichols, Brown, and Winslow formed the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company. Matzeliger sold his patent rights to the investors in exchange for stock. The company grew rapidly. In the late 1890s, it merged with several small companies to form the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, which soon dominated the U.S. shoemaking industry. Sixty-five years later, the company was worth over one billion dollars.


United Shoe Machinery Corporation

Besides his lasting machine, Matzeliger patented several other inventions, including a mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc. in 1888. Additional patents were awarded after his death in 1889. In 1890, his nailing machine and a tack separating and distributing mechanism received a patent; in 1891 a patent was approved on another lasting machine.

Matzeliger attempted to join the Episcopal, Unitarian, and Catholic churches in Lynn, but every congregation rejected him for reason of his skin color. Eventually, he joined the Christian Endeavor Society at the North Congregational Church, where he regularly attended services and took part in many church activities. At the church he made many friends with whom he spent time in outdoor excursions-exploring ponds, climbing rocks, and visiting a nearby island. There are no existing records to show that Matzeliger ever courted or married.

In the summer of 1886, Matzeliger fell ill with what he believed was a cold. He learned later that he suffered from tuberculosis. He remained active; even when confined to bed, he continued to paint and experiment. Matzeliger died on August 24, 1889 in Lynn, Massachusetts, one month shy of his 37th birthday. He was buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn.


Matzeliger willed his stock to the North Congregational Church in Lynn, Massachusetts. 15 years after his death the church got into financial trouble and were not aware that he willed his stock to them. After they found out they were able to pay off the entire mortgage of their church with this stock! They held a service in his honor and made a plaque in the church in his honor as well.

According to the president of the United Shoe Company, they made many improvements on the invention of Jan Ernst Matzeliger, but the core principle of his invention remained practically unchanged.


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