Birth of Jan Matzeliger

US #2567 pictures Matzeliger’s patent drawing in the background. Click image to order.

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

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 Dutch East Indies 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. 

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.  

US #2567 – Classic First Day Cover. Click image to order.

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 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.

US #2567 – Fleetwood Plate Block First Day Cover. Click image to order.

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. 

US #2567 – Silk Cachet Combination First Day Cover.  Click image to order.

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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  1. A fascinating story. We all know of Eli Whitney’s impact on the cotton industry and Cyrus McCormick’s on the farm industry, but I am probably not alone in never having heard of Matzeliger. Yet he changed the shoe industry.

  2. When I was young I was really hard on shoes. Sometimes the soles would come lose and go flap, flap, and the heels would wear down to nothing. So there use to be shoe repair shops easily found that would do a half sole and also put new heels on. Now I just go with the all rubber soles and heels. The invention of Metzeliger was great for business and cost to the sonsumer. Still all people’s feet are a little different and to really have a comfortable fit I guess you have to go back to the days of the cobbler.

  3. I was unaware of this history about cobbler’s. So glad Metzeliger did invent the shoe device.
    Many folks take for granted that their shoes are made easily and just go out and purchase what they ‘need’.
    Hope people read what I learned here. They would learn more about what people did and could possibly do for our country-no matter what their trade.

  4. My father would have enjoyed reading this article. He came to the US from Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s and was sent here by Tomas Bata, founder of the world-wide shoe organization, Bata. I don’t know all the history, but Bata was important in the development of mass shoe production.

  5. Great Information on a Great Inventor!! I wish USPS would honor more Black Inventors, they are unsung in American History. Looking forward to the day when Lewis Latimer and Garrett Morgan will be honored as inventors.

  6. Totally was unaware of this inventor. I enjoy learning of people and their contributions to our improvement of living. Mom started me on stamp collecting and I will always be indebted to her. Stamps have opened my door to knowledge. Thanks again for these history stories.

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