On this day in 1885, Jan Matzeliger, an African-American inventor in the shoe industry, began the first U.S. mass production of shoes, in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname) to a Dutch engineer father and a Surinamese slave mother. After moving to Massachusetts in 1877, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. At the time, there was no way to mechanically attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole – it had to be done manually by a “hand laster”. A skilled hand laster could produce 50 pairs of shoes in a ten-hour day.
He began work on designing a shoe-lasting machine, and after five years, Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in Mar 1883 (U.S. No 274,207). His machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.
Sadly, Matzeliger died from tuberculosis soon after, which meant he never saw the full profit of his invention.