Revolutionizing Running Shoes: Jan Matzeliger's Shoe Lasting Legacy

Matzeliger works on his invention, the shoe lasting machine.

When we study history in school, the people who make it into the textbooks are typically those who challenged conventional thought to change the way we live and function. However, not all history is shared or told with complete transparency, especially history of people of color in the United States. Most of us wear shoes every day, but have never heard of the man whose invention revolutionized the way footwear is designed and produced today. It’s time to meet Jan Ernst Matzeliger: the inventor of the shoe lasting system.

What is a Shoe Last?

The patent for a shoe lasting machine.

The last is the starting point of every shoe design. It's a solid mold that dictates the shape and volume of the shoe along with key attributes such as toe shape, instep height and heel shape. The last sets the size and unique shape of the shoe to determine how that shoe will fit and feel. Matzeliger’s invention of the shoe lasting system made it possible to mass produce shoes, making them more affordable and accessible to consumers.

Born in 1852 in Paramaribo, Suriname, South America, Jan Ernst Matzeliger was the son of a Dutch German man and enslaved woman, according to an article on At a very young age, Matzeliger took an interest in machine shops supervised by his father, specifically Colonial Shipworks where he apprenticed and took an interest in mechanics and machinery. At the age of 19, Matzeliger decided to venture out of his home and travel to the United States. Landing in Pennsylvania, he spent six years learning the English language and studying the shoe trade. He then pursued his interest in Lynn, Massachusetts where he began working at the Harney Brother shoe factory.

While working at the factory, Matzeliger noticed an inefficiency in the way the factory was producing shoes, specifically the final step of lasting – the complex process of joining a shoe sole to its upper. Since lasts were not mechanized and crafted by hand, shoes were not accessible to a large majority of the population due to the cost and labor. Acknowledging this inefficiency, Matzeliger worked to create a mechanized shoe lasting system. After long days at the factory, Matzeliger spent his own time working on his invention using reference books and a secondhand set of drafting instruments. He constructed his initial model using wooden cigar boxes, elastic and wire. It took him two years to complete the prototype, according to an article on With Matzeliger’s new shoe lasting system, the factory went from being able to create 50 pairs a day to up to 700 pairs a day.

On August 24, Matzeliger contracted tuberculosis and passed away at the age of 36. In 1991, he posthumously received honors for his invention with a Black History Month postage stamp issued by the government bearing his image.

The Shoe Last’s Lasting Legacy

A portrait of Jan Matzeliger

Today, we can see the effects of Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s work: varying shoe lasts are used by every brand and are critical to the shape, fit and comfort of a running shoe. In the running industry, a running shoe will have a thoughtfully developed last using data from research labs and studies to account for biomechanical changes as the foot moves and flexes throughout a runner’s gait. Brands enlist podiatrists, kinesiologists and even Fleet Feet Outfitters and customer feedback to develop ideal last shapes, which is why shoe fits differ from brand to brand.

In 2016, Fleet Feet partnered with Karhu to create a one-of-a-kind, personalized last and shoe, called the Ikoni, based off of 100,000 foot scans from the Fleet Feet fit id ® system. This innovation couldn’t have been possible without the foundation put into place by Matzeliger’s invention.

As we reflect on Black History Month at Fleet Feet, it’s important to recognize and honor the contributions of Black individuals throughout history. Black History Month encourages education and understanding of unique achievements, such as Matzeliger’s, and celebrates their contributions.


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