1991 29¢ Jan E. Matzeliger
US #2567 pictures Matzeliger’s patent drawing in the background.

Inventor Jan Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852, in Paramaribo, Dutch Guyana (present-day Suriname).  

As a boy, Matzeliger worked in his father’s machine shop, the Colonial Ship Works. Early on, he showed a natural talent for working with machinery and mechanics. When he was 19, Matzeliger took a job on a merchant ship working as a mechanic. He did that for a few years before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was in Philadelphia that he became acquainted with the shoe trade. In 1877, he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts to further explore the shoe industry. There he found work in the Harney Brothers Shoe Factory. 

1991 29¢ Jan E. Matzeliger Classic First Day Cover
US #2567 – Classic First Day Cover

In those days, shoes were usually made by hand. The most challenging and time-consuming part of the process was attaching the soles to the top part of the shoe. Many believed this work was so intricate; it could only be performed by human hands. So the people that did this job, called lasters, held significant influence in the shoe industry.  

1991 29¢ Jan E. Matzeliger Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover
US #2567 – Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover

Matzeliger witnessed this issue first hand. He spent five years inventing an automated shoe-laster that shaped and fastened the leather over the sole of the shoe. Up until that point, it took skilled craftsmen 10 hours to attach soles to 50 pairs of shoes. Matzeliger’s machine could make up to 700 pairs of shoes in the same amount of time. Patented in 1883, his device led to the mass production of shoes, revolutionizing the industry and greatly reducing the cost of shoes for consumers.

1991 29¢ Jan E. Matzeliger Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
US #2567 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
1981 18¢ Savings and Loan
US #1911 – Matzeliger’s invention drastically cut down on shoe production time, making them more affordable.

Matzeliger continued to work on improving shoe production, receiving a few more patents in the years to come. Unfortunately, while he worked tirelessly on his inventions, he worked long hours and didn’t eat for long periods of time, leading his health to suffer. He caught a cold that developed into tuberculosis and died on August 27, 1889, just weeks before his 37th birthday. 

Matzeliger didn’t have much time to enjoy the profits of his invention. He also didn’t receive much recognition for his invention until recent years. But today his device is considered “the most important invention for New England” and the “greatest step forward in the shoe industry.” 

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One Comment

  1. Interesting story with a sad ending. I had not known of Jan Matzeliger before. I knew the term shoe lasts but not that men who worked on that part of the shoe were called lasters. Again thank you Mystic.

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