Matzeliger's Lasting Machine

Jan Earnst Matzeliger could speak only broken English and although there were many inventors and expert machinists with ample financial backing, in the 1880's, it was Matzeliger, working alone, who made the breakthrough of creating the first viable lasting machine. Working five times faster than a human laster, the device could perfectly last 700 pair of women's shoes per day. Other machines had performed parts of these operations but, Matzeliger's machine was the first to combine so many complex steps and produce a shoe indistinguishable from the hand lasted ones. 

The whole Matzeliger story is interesting, not only of itself but, because it was this great invention, as developed and marketed by Sidney Winslow and George Brown, that proved a dominate factor in the formation of the United Shoe Machinery Company. In fact, throughout its development, the principle of the Hand Method Lasting Machine never changed.

Jan Matzeliger was the son of a well educated Hollander who was sent to Dutch Guiana in South America to oversee important government works. There he married a native Indian women and their son, Jan Earnst, was born in Paramaribo in 1852.  Jan Earnst, at the age of ten began training in a government machine shop under his father's supervision as a machinist. His apprenticeship finished, he came to the United States, looking for opportunities, travelled about a bit and turned up in Lynn, Massachusetts at the age of 25. Though earning his living stitching shoes on the McKay machine, with his machinist's background Matzeliger was more interested in machinery than in shoes. He thought of making a turn shoe sewing machine, but, he heard the hand lasters in the shop boast that whatever else might be done by machine, nothing could ever be invented to supplant hand lasting. This was cue enough for Matzeliger.

The lonely bachelor, already in delicate health, rented a room over the West End Mission and spent his evenings mocking up out of cigar boxwood, nails and other odds and ends a model of a lasting machine which was to duplicate the actual operations of the hand laster by means of pincers and tacking mechanisms which progressively tensioned the shoe upper over the last on to the insole and tacked it there. This was 1880. The crude model and its maker were much ridiculed but, there was one offer of $50 for the idea, and Matzeliger was tempted.

Luckily, he declined and set about making a second model out of some castings and old machine parts which he bought out of his wages, forging, filing and fitting; patiently working alone. This was a real machine with a more finished appearance. He was even offered $1500, no small sum in 1880, for the device which pleated the upper around the toe. On the verge of accepting this offer, he concluded that if it was worth that much to someone else, it should be worth more to him.

A patent was issued to him in 1883 but, only after the United States Patent Office had sent a man to Lynn to study and try to understand the incredibly intricate motions of the machine and their useful purpose.  A third and still better machine was patented in 1884.

To finance the further development and production of the Lasting Machine, the Union Lasting Machine Company was formed in 1884, which became the Hand Method Power Lasting Machine Company in 1885 and the Consolidated Hand Method Lasting Machine Company in 1887. Sidney W. Winslow  bought stock in the new enterprise and hired experts to assist Matzeliger. It was this Consolidated Hand Method Lasting Machine Company that commanded the highest per share price of the forty companies forming the United Shoe Machinery Company.

Matseliger went on working, as he was able, on improvements to his machine and development of a tack delivery system until his death in 1889 from tuberculosis, just shy of his 37 birthday. He received 5 patents, 3 of them posthumously.

His creation has lived long after him, not only in thousands of his lasting machines operated around the world but, in 1904 the North Congregational Church of Lynn, ceremonially burned it's mortgage, discharged by sale of United Shoe stock acquired in exchange for Hand Method stock bequeathed to them by Matzeliger. 

Good as it was, the Hand Method Lasting Machine did not get to market without trouble. The hand lasters in Lynn resented it fearing for their livelihood. In those days such resentment frequently expressed itself in direct action sometimes with violence. The laster had a formidable organization and they considered themselves the aristocracy of the shoe factory. There was a series of pitched battles with some manufacturers being driven out of Lynn and some out of business. In the end, the hand laster learned to run the machines, which really made their work easier and more productive, and peace was restored.

Matzeliger's double memorial stones in Lynn, Massachusetts

Matzeliger's double memorial stones in Lynn, Massachusetts

1955 USMC catalog page

1955 USMC catalog page