Tag Archives: shoe last

Fashion Moments – Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to Jan Ernst Matzeliger.

“The fertile mind of Jan Ernst Matzeliger literally shod the world. Matzeliger invented a machine to mass produce shoes. It revolutionized the industry and transformed Lynn, Mass, into the shoe capital of the world. Before Matzeliger came along, the task of attaching the leather uppers to the sole was done by a costly and tedious hand process.” [1]

My own Massachusetts ancestors were heavily invested in the shoe trade. I have but to glance at a mid-nineteenth century census record to see just how much. One of the major industries in southeastern Massachusetts, especially in the area surrounding Brockton, was the shoe manufacturers. Albert Leonard and his wife Lucy were perfect examples. In 1860, Albert worked as a boot maker while Lucy was a boot fitter at a factory near their South Randolph (present day Holbrook) home. Their relatives and neighbors (who fill up the rest of the census page) worked in the shoe trade as well. They held jobs with titles such as boot fitter, heel maker, shoe fitter, and so on.

Leonard, Albert - 1860 census detail

Albert and Lucy Leonard, South Randolph, Mass., 1860 [2]

Jan Earnst Matzeliger

In the 1880s, the shoe industry changed because of Jan Ernst Matzeliger. A native of Dutch Guiana, he arrived in the United States in 1878. Settling in Lynn, Massachusetts, Matzeliger obtained a job at the Harney Brothers Shoe Company. Dismayed by the inefficiency of the shoe making process, he spent four years perfecting a machine that would take the place of human lasters. Previously, a skilled laster could complete 50 pairs of shoes in a ten-hour day. With Matzeliger’s invention, 150 to 700 pairs of shoes could be produced. The shoe industry experienced an economic boom and the cost of shoes were cut in half.

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Sadly, very little was written about Jan Ernst Matzeliger during his lifetime or in modern history books since he was a black immigrant. His father was a white engineer while his mother was a black slave. Initially an outsider in his adoptive hometown of Lynn, Matzeliger poured his soul into his inventions. He eventually contracted tuberculosis, and died at age 36, in 1889.


Jan Ernst Matzeliger (Image in the Public Domain from Wikipedia Commons)

Further Reading

Matzeliger applied for six patents in his lifetime. They can be found in the “U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Patents, 1790-1909” database at Ancestry or by searching Google’s patent database. Follow the link to his first patent in 1883. The slideshow above shows the drawings from his 1883 patent.

Article on Jan Ernst Matzeliger on the Black Inventor Online Museum website.

Audio from episode 522 from Engines of Ingenuity, a radio program written and hosted by John Lienhard, and produced by Houston Public Media.

Find A Grave memorial for Jan Ernst Matzeliger.

Matzeliger’s 1889 will is available in Ancestry.com‘s “Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991.” The images of the will are below.

A rare article about Matzeliger in the newspaper The Colored American (Washington, D.C.), dated 14 November 1903 (p. 6, col. 6), states “…J.E. Matzeliger, who is said to be the pioneer in the art of attaching soles to shoes by machinery…”  The newspaper can be found on the Chronicling America website.


[1] “They Had A Dream,” The Fresno Bee (Fresno, California), 5 January 1969, p. 17-A, col. 1; digital image, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 1 November 2015).

[2] 1860 U.S. Census, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Randolph, P.O. South Randolph, p. 43 (penned), dwelling 750, family 970, Albert Leonard.


Boots, 1860-1869. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession no: 2009.300.3003a–d

Boots, 1890-1895. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession no: 2009.300.4207a, b

©2015 Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found: https://genealogylady.net/2015/11/01/fashion-moments-jan-ernst-matzeliger/