Jan Matzeliger (1852-1889)


Jan_ernst_matzeliger

 

 

 

 

Jan Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Surinam. When he was 21, he traveled to the United States, though he spoke no English. He got a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory in Massachusetts. At the time, the shoe industry was held captive by skilled craftsman known as hand lasters. The hand lasters had the hardest and most technical job on the shoe assembly line; they had to fit shoe leather around a mold of a customer’s foot and attach it to the sole of the shoe. A good hand laster could complete about 50 pairs of shoes a day, and because the work was so skilled, hand lasters were paid very large salaries, which made shoes very expensive to produce. Matzeliger got tired of waiting for the lasters to do their jobs; because they worked so slowly, there were huge backups on the assembly line. He went to night school to learn English so that he could read books about science and manufacturing. He had no money, so he constructed models from spare parts and scraps. After years of study, he produced a shoe lasting machine, which produced between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day (as compared to 50 per day for a hand laster). Sadly, Matzeliger would only enjoy his success for a short time, as he was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1886 and died on August 24, 1889 at the age of 37. As a result of his work, shoe manufacturing capabilities increased as did efficiency. This allowed for lower prices for consumers and more jobs for workers. Matzeliger left behind a legacy of tackling what was thought to be an impossible task – making shoes affordable for the masses.

 

 

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