The shoe manufacturing process in America was revolutionized by a black immigrant, Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-89), who nevertheless died in poverty.
Born in Surinam, Matzeliger apprenticed in government machine shops, joined onto an East Indian merchant ship at the age of nineteen, and then left the ship in 1870 to settle in Philadelphia and apprentice as a shoe cobbler. While learning the machinery used in the industry, he noticed that the most difficult part of the production process—“lasting,” or connecting the upper to the side of the show—had to be done by hand.
After he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, a center of shoe manufacturing, Matzeliger used a discarded forge in the factory where, for five years, he worked to develop a prototype of his shoe lasting machine. In exchange for two-thirds interest in the product, Matzeliger obtained from Melville S. Nichols and Charles H. Delnow the financial assistance he needed to perfect the machine. Finally Matzeliger received a patent on March 20, 1883, for a machine that cut costs in half while greatly increasing production. Not surprisingly, demand for his invention was high, and even though Matzeliger, Nichols, and Delnow formed the Union Lasting Machine Company to produce the machine, the company was too small to handle the huge number of requests. Two more investors were brought in, a larger Consolidated Lasting Machine Company was formed, and Matzeliger had to exchange his patents for a block of stock.
Matzeliger lived only six years after his patent was granted, and he bequeathed his stock in the company to the North Congregational Society in Lynn. Apparently, Matzeliger had attempted to join several white churches upon his arrival in Massachusetts, and all but the North Congregational Society rebuffed him.
Note: All excerpts borrowed from 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History by Jeffrey C. Stewart, solely for the intents and purposes to inform and educate.