Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Born: 15th September 1852

Died: 24th August 1889

Birth Place: Suriname

Known for: Being a Black inventor.

Matzeliger’s invention meant more people could afford to buy shoes.

His invention was very important in the history of shoe making.

In 1991, a 29-cent postal stamp was issued in Matzeliger’s honour.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Life story


Young inventor


Jan Ernst Matzeliger was famous for his inventions, which allowed people to make shoes faster and better. Matzeliger worked as a mechanic on a ship before moving to the United States. This is where he first learned the shoe trade.

In those days, shoes were made by hand, which took a very long time. A person’s feet had to be copied to get the size and the shape right. This was done by making a mould or ‘last’ of each foot out of stone or wood. This was then used to make the shoes.


Changing the industry


Matzeliger saw how slow this was, and invented a way to get the job done quicker. He came up with an automated last that could make between 150 and 700 pairs of shoes in the time it would take to make fifty by hand. His invention changed the industry and made shoes much cheaper, too.

Matzeliger’s machine was seen as one of the most important inventions from New England at the time. However, because he was Black, he was not given the honour he deserved until recently, when a US postage stamp was created with his picture on it.

What did Matzeliger invent? How were shoes made before Matzeliger’s invention? What was made with Matzeliger’s picture on it in 1991?

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