How Lynn Became The Shoe Capitol Of The World

May 30, 2014

Chances are that the shoes you are wearing on your feet right now were made somewhere outside the United States. But that wasn't always the case. Today we travel to the late 19th century, for the story of the African-American immigrant who transformed Lynn, Massachusetts into the shoe capital of the world.

They were making shoes in Lynn before there even was a Lynn. 

“We have a shoe ledger which dates back to 1623 which is six years prior to the founding, the incorporation of the town," said Abby Battis, of the Lynn Museum and Historical Society. 

During the colonial era, Lynn was dotted with 10 foot by 10 foot shacks where artisan shoemakers practiced their craft. 

A lasting machine created by Jay Matzeliger, on display at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society.
Caption
Photo Credit: Edgar B. Herwick III / WGBH

"They're producing roughly – maybe if they’re lucky - five shoes a day. Five individual shoes."

But as the Industrial Revolution swept through American the early 19th century, shoemaking in Lynn moved from small shops to factory floors. Aided by new technology, production increased – from five shoes a day to 50 pairs.

"Cutting the leather, shaping the leather, getting the eyeholes cut, producing the soul, producing the heel; all of that was mechanized." 

But there was one crucial step that was not: the lasting. 

Artisans still had to hand stretch the leather upper over a last – a wooden mold in the shape of a foot – and nail the leather to the insole. It created a bottleneck on the assembly line and was considered too intricate a task for any machine.

But nobody told that to Jan Matzeliger, or if they did, he didn’t listen. 

Matzeliger was born in Africa to a Dutch engineer father and a Surinamese slave mother. When he arrived in Lynn in the 1870s, he didn’t know much English, but he did know how to make shoes. He’d spent countless hours watching lasters work, and had a notion that he could mechanize their movements. Battis says that Matzeliger had a preternatural talent for mechanics, but no formal training.  

"English isn’t his first language so he’s buying English books, and he’s not just learning how to build machines and the science and mechanics of machines, but he’s also learning English," Battis said. 

Matzeliger toiled and tinkered endlessly in his small, bare, cold dark room. Studying. Sketching. Building model after model.

"He didn’t take care of himself, didn’t eat well, was just completely obsessed with getting this machine done," Battis described. 

After five painstaking years, his obsession paid off. In 1883, Matzeliger finally obtained a patent for his lasting machine.

"Here he is up against a language barrier, a literacy barrier and being an African American at the end of an abolitionist movement," said Battis. "If he had actually thought about creating this lasting machine, maybe 20 to 25 years earlier, he never would have been able to take a patent out on his own. He’d have to have a white man actually apply for it."

On May 29, 1885, his invention was unveiled, and demonstrated for the first time. Not only did it work, it changed everything. Factory production jumped from 50 pairs a day to 750 pairs a day. The cost of a pair of shoes made in Lynn dropped in half.

Within a few years, Lynn is the undisputed shoe capital of the world. 234 factories are churning out more than a million pairs of shoes each day.

But Matzeliger would never fully enjoy the spoils of his success. By the end of the decade he was dead of tuberculosis – an all too common end for shoe factory workers of the era. He was just 36.

As for shoe production in Lynn, it would wane through the 20th century. The Great Depression hit the industry hard. The last remaining shoe factory in the city burned to the ground in 1981. Today, nearly 99 percent of shoes sold in the US are made overseas.

But Battis says Matzeliger’s stamp is on Lynn is indelible. Scores of residents today live in former shoe factories. Even Lynn Common is shaped like the sole of a shoe.

"From 1623-1981 is when shoe manufacturing is taking place in the city so that's a pretty strong history and to know that Jan Matzeliger, an African American immigrant comes to the city and basically changes the face of that industry is huge," Battis said. 

It's thanks, in large part, to Jan Matzeliger, whose lasting machine transformed Lynn into the shoe capital of the world 129 years ago this week.


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