Lynn, Massachusetts – America’s Shoe Capital

Have you heard of Lynn, Massachusetts? No? You’re not alone: it’s a small town of 90000 people on the New England coast in the northeast Greater Boston area, and it probably doesn’t feature highly in the consciousness of many, (except, no doubt, of those who live there or nearby).

But in shoemaking circles it’s important – it was once the USA’s shoemaking capital. And the origins of this status are unusual as much of it was the work of one 19th-century man. This man was not from a privileged group: he was a non-English-speaking African immigrant.

Although there’s evidence of shoemaking at the site from the very earliest colonial times, from 1623, to be exact, which is only a few years after the voyage of the Mayflower took disgruntled English Puritans from the shores of Europe to the New England coast, this was only cottage industry-scale from an assortment of individual craftsmen working from their own small workshops. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution hit the USA in the early 19th century that the trade moved onto the factory floor, allowing the town’s shoemaking output to rise tenfold from five shoes a day to fifty pairs a day.

However, the new technology available did not help with one important phase of the manufacturing process, the lasting. This intricate task was beyond the abilities of any machine of the day and so still had to be undertaken by hand - and it created an inefficient bottleneck in a manufacturing process that was otherwise mechanised.

Enter one Jan Matzeliger, an African-born immigrant to the United States who was the son of a Dutch father and a Surinamese slave mother of African descent. Arriving in Lynn in 1870, with little English, his keen mind quickly inferred much about shoemaking simply by watching Lynn’s shoe-lasters at their work.

 

Though without any training or much education at all, this driven individual set about learning English and, simultaneously, mechanising the shoe lasting process. Tinkering in his tiny accommodation, with only basic tools, he spent several years building prototype after prototype, and this obsessive focus paid off in 1883 when he was granted a patent for his lasting machine.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider this achievement: this man was not only a foreign immigrant, he was also African-American (or simply an African, depending on one’s point of view), with English as a second language. Arriving in the strange and rapidly-changing country that was the United States in the late 19th century, this man overcame the challenges of being a linguistic and racial outsider to the majority population he was surrounded by and actually advanced the technology of the town he’d settled in. The technology of the time was supposed to be incapable of performing the intricate task of shoe lasting. Fortunately, no one had told Jan Matzeliger this and so he went ahead and achieved it anyway.

When, on May 29th 1885, his lasting machine was publicly unveiled and demonstrated, it changed the mechanised manufacture of shoes forever. Production jumped from fifty shoes a day to 750 pairs a day, and the cost of Lynn-made shoes was halved, making them available to millions who previously could not afford them. Soon, 234 factories in Lynn were producing over a million pairs of shoes each day.

By a cruel twist of fate, Jan Matzeliger didn’t live long enough to see much of his success. By 1890 he had died of tuberculosis, common in factory workers of the day. And nowadays, of course, most shoes are made in the Far East, with few being manufactured in the USA at all. But the town of Lynn, Massachusetts in particular - and modern shoemaking in general - owe Jan Matzeliger a great debt, and he deserves to be remembered.