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The birth of the lasting machine

The story of how one young and technically gifted man worked tirelessly to change how shoes were made.

by Stuart Morgan

For hundreds of years, the ‘hand laster’ – the worker who pulled uppers over and nailed them onto the lasts – held a special place in the footwear factory. Theirs was a very skilled job, as it involved considerable manipulation to accurately form the leather around the last, especially at the heel and toe.

This final step in the manufacturing process was time-consuming and these specialised workers could charge a high price for their services, which contributed towards making shoes reasonably expensive.

One machine missing

As part of a rapid mechanisation of industry during the early 19th century, new equipment was designed to handle different parts of the footwear manufacturing process. Not to be left behind their competitors, many shoemakers began to use machinery to cut the leather, stitch the cut sections together to form the upper and various other important jobs. However, there was no machine available that could replicate the lasting process, so the pulling over of the upper to conform to the shape of the last and its attachment to the insole was still carried out by hand.

While the mass production of machine-made footwear to sell to a growing population was the goal of profit-minded factory owners, the need for hand lasting caused a problem. A fast and skilled hand laster could only process up to 60 pairs of shoes a day, so the components made by machine would pile up while waiting to be used. This production bottleneck made shoes expensive.

Gordon McKay was a pioneer of shoe mechanisation at that time. In 1872, he launched the McKay Lasting Association and worked on creating a machine that could form, shape, tug, pleat, hold and tack upper materials like a human hand laster could. His company reportedly spent $120,000 (some $2.5 million at today’s rate) attempting to develop such a machine and an additional $130,000 ($2.8 million in 2020) taking legal action against an alleged infringer before dropping the case and joining the competitor. However, although the resulting Copeland-McKay lasting machine was reasonably effective when making heavier varieties of boots and shoes, it proved to be useless when the factory was manufacturing footwear with pointed toes or fine women’s shoes made from thin leather. This situation was a particular problem for shoemakers in the city of Lynn, as such footwear was the mainstay of their businesses.

From small beginnings

Jan Ernst Matzeliger spent many years developing a machine to automate the final shoemaking process being done by hand

The solution to this problem originated in South America’s smallest country. In 1852, Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born on a coffee plantation in Dutch Guiana, (now called Suriname). His father, Ernst Matzeliger, was an engineer and his mother was a ‘house slave’ of African descent. At ten years of age, Jan became an apprentice in the Colonial Ship Works in the capital city of Paramaribo, where he was described as ‘demonstrating a natural aptitude for machinery and mechanics’. At the age of 19, he decided to go to sea, and spent two years working as a mechanic on a Dutch East Indies merchant ship before settling in Philadelphia, USA. As he spoke very little English at that time, it was difficult for Matzeliger to find a satisfying job, and he appears to have spent the next few years moving from one minor labouring role to another.

It was while in Philadelphia that he first became involved in the shoe trade. In 1877, Matzeliger moved to the city of Lynn, Massachusetts to pursue his interest in shoemaking. After starting an apprenticeship in Harney Brothers Shoe factory in Lynn, he is said to have worked for ten hours a day making shoes while his evenings were taken up with his continuing study of English. As was typical of the day, the company had machinery to use for most of the processes, but lasting was still done by hand.

This situation obviously captured Matzeliger’s attention, as he became determined to automate the process. His machine would have to quickly and easily pull the upper leather over the last, so reducing the time taken for this stage of production as well as the cost involved. It took Matzeliger several years of experimentation with scrap material until he had designed a machine for the purpose. By 1880, he had built a model of his lasting machine from wooden cigar boxes, elastic and wire.

The next step

Once his crude model worked, Matzeliger turned his attention to building a prototype. Realising that this would require sufficient working space and access to machine tools, he persuaded local shoemakers Beal Brothers to give him a job, a secure working area where he could work on his project and permission to use the company’s machine tools. Matzeliger is said to have searched through junkyards and factory dumps in order to find usable parts from broken machinery and altering them to fit his requirements. Two years later, his working machine was finished.

Matzeliger’s design for a lasting machine was patented in 1883

Although at an early stage of development, Matzeliger’s invention was capable of pleating the leather around the toe of a last. He filed for a patent on January 24th 1882, but the detail on his 15 pages of text and drawings was so complex, that a United States Patent and Trademark Office inspector had to visit him to have the workings of his machine explained. On March 20th 1883, Jan Matzeliger received the patent for his lasting machine, which took hold of an upper by means of pincers, pulled it over the last, held it in place and pinned the leather to the last. Instead of the 60 pairs a day achieved by a really good hand laster, Matzeliger’s machine could help to produce up to 700 pairs daily.

The story was by no means over. It took Matzeliger another three years to build a machine he felt was ready for the footwear industry. During this time, he made a number of engineering improvements that warranted a second patent, and the Matzeliger lasting machine was finally ready for its first demonstration on May 29th 1885. A worker placed an insole and an upper on a last and positioned this combination on the machine. When operating, the machine drove in a tack, turned the shoe, pleated the leather, drove in another tack, and continued until the shoe was finished. This exactly reproduced the technique used by hand lasters, but only took one minute to complete.

Matzeliger attracted two investors, reaching a deal in which he transferred two-thirds of any profits from sales of his machine to Melville Nichols and Charles Delnow, who formed a company to market this new creation. Towards the end of the decade, Matzeliger’s patent was sold to the Consolidated McKay Lasting Machine Company. This organisation grew quickly and, with demand for the lasting machine proving substantial, it soon merged with several other shoe machine manufacturers to form the United Shoe Machinery Company.

Sadly, perhaps having exhausted himself with his obsessive desire to design a machine to finally automate the one remaining footwear manufacturing process, Jan Matzeliger died at just 36 years of age in 1889, from tuberculosis.

Matzeliger’s machine is described as transforming an industry, building a great corporation and producing several millionaires – although he was not one of them. By the start of the 20th century, the city of Lynn had become a major centre for footwear production, with more than 230 factories manufacturing over a million pairs of shoes each day. This success was in no small part as a result of Jan Matzeliger’s invention of the lasting machine, and today virtually all mass-produced shoes are lasted by machine. To mark this young man’s legacy, a 29 cent US postal stamp was issued in 1991 in Matzeliger’s honour.

A modern lasting machine

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 38 of the May 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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