City of Lynn
shoe making


Jan E. Matzeliger
"Inventor of the Shoe-lasting Machine, Jan Matzeliger not only revolutionized the shoe industry but made Lynn, Massachusetts, the "shoe capital of the world."

Before Jan Matzeliger came along, no one thought it was possible to make shoes entirely by machine. Other inventors had managed to create machines to cut out the different parts of the shoe and to sew together the leather that made up the top, but the last and hardest part still had to be done by hand. Skilled shoemakers would shape the leather upper part of the shoe over a foot-shaped wooden mold called a last and then sew it onto the sole, or bottom, of the shoe. An expert shoe laster could make about fifty pairs of shoes a day. When Matzeliger was thirty years old, he created a machine that could make 150 to 700 pairs a day…that’s fourteen times as many as a skilled person!

Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852 in Dutch Guiana (now called Suriname). His father was a white Dutchman and his mother was a black Surinamer. As a child, Jan worked in his father’s machine shop and developed an early interest in mechanics.

When he was 19, Jan set off to explore the world as a sailor. After two years, he arrived in the United States and began doing odd jobs in New England. By 1876, Matzeliger had settled in Lynn, Massachusetts and taken a job in a shoe factory. He worked ten-hour days there and spent his free time learning English (he was a native Dutch speaker) and joining in activities with his church.

When Matzeliger learned of the challenge of creating an automatic shoe lasting machine, he set to work on inventing one, using whatever materials came to hand—some wire, pieces of wood, and cigar boxes. His early mechanical experience and his observations in the shoe factory served him well. By 1883, he was the owner of a patent crediting him with the invention.

Matzeliger’s shoe-lasting machine was so efficient that it cut the price of shoes in half after it went into production in 1885. Thanks to him, new shoes became much more affordable for average Americans.

The success of his invention came at a price to Jan Matzeliger. Weakened by long working hours, he contracted tuberculosis and died when he was only 37 years old.

Information courtesy of Dean K. Anderson and

David Johnson Recalls the Shoemakers’ Shops of Lynn, Massachusetts
Traditional craft production centered around an independent master artisan, his journeymen, and the apprentice helpers who worked together in small shops. Apprentices worked alongside masters and received training in the “mysteries of the craft” in exchange for their labor. Journeymen looked forward to becoming proprietors when they accumulated sufficient capital and skill. In his Sketches of Lynn (1880), David Johnson recalled the masculine work culture and small-scale setting of the shoe industry in early-19th century Lynn, Massachusetts. With transportation improvements and growing commercial activity, manufacturing moved from small shops engaged in custom work to larger-scale production of ready-made goods. No area experienced greater dislocation than Lynn, where shops multiplied, the division of labor increased, and some masters opened larger central shops. Less skilled workers, including women and children, replaced journeymen, apprenticeship declined, and the world that Johnson described faded.
The Shoemakers Shop

The shoemaker’s shop, to which allusion has been made, and of which we have a few specimens still extant among us, cannot boast of a great antiquity. It came into use about the middle of the last century or a little earlier. The size of these shops varied from the “ten-footer”, as one measuring ten feet in length by ten feet in width was called , to those measuring fourteen feet each way. These last were regarded as of almost palatial dimensions. The average was nearer twelve by twelve. They were generally finished six and a half feet clear in height, a few being below that figure and a few above it, so that a tall man with a tall hat on ran no small risk of damaging his head gear on entering the door, as the stove-pipe hat was then generally worn. The garret was left unfinished, and was the common receptacle of all kinds of litter and of everything not wanted for use, or wanted only occasionally...

A boy while learning his trade was called a “seamster;” that is, he sewed the shoes for his master, or employer, or to use one of the technicalities of the “craft,” he “worked on the seam.” Sometimes the genius of one of these boys would outrun all limits. One of this kind, who may be called Alphonzo, worked on the seam for a stipulated sum. He seemed to regard his work as an incidental circumstance. When he left the shop at night he might be expected back the next morning: but there were no special grounds for the expectation. He might drop in the next morning, or the next week. He left one Saturday night and did not make his appearance again until the following Thursday morning. On entering the shop he proceeded to take off his jacket as though there had been no hiatus in his labor. His master watched him with an amused countenance to see whether he would recognize the lapse of time. At length he said, “Where have you been, Alphonzo?” Alphonzo turned his head in an instant, as if struck with the preposterousness of the inquiry, and exclaimed, “Me? I? O, I’ve been down to Nahant.” The case was closed.

City of Lynn
Search | The City of Lynn Website
home | contact city hall | website map
Copyright - All Rights Reserved 2023