Sometimes the greatest inventions are those which simplify necessary tasks. Such is the case with Jan Matzeliger – the man who made it possible for ordinary citizens to purchase shoes.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana (now known as Surinam) in South America. His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was born in Dutch Guiana and was of African ancestry. His father had been sent to Surinam by the Dutch government to oversee the work going on in the South American country.
At an early age, Jan showed a remarkable ability to repair complex machinery and often did so when accompanying his father to a factory. When he turned 19, he decided to venture away from home to explore other parts of the world. For two years he worked aboard an East Indian merchant ship and was able to visit several countries. In 1873, Jan decided to stay in the United States for a while, landing in Pennsylvania. Although he spoke very little English, he was befriended by some Black residents who were active in a local church and took pity on him. Because he was good with his hands and mechanically inclined, he was able to get small jobs in order to earn a living.
At some point he began working for a cobbler and became interested in the making of shoes. At that time more than half of the shoes produced in the United States came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Still unable to speak more than rudimentary English, Matzeliger had a difficult time finding work in Lynn. After considerable time, he was able to begin working as a show apprentice in a shoe factory. He operated a McKay sole-sewing machine which was used to attached different parts of a shoe together. Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. As such, attaching the upper part of a shoe to the sole had to be done by hand. The people who were able to sew the parts of the shoe together were called “hand lasters” and expert ones