Jan Ernest Matzeliger (1852-1889)
In at least one branch of industry, America owes its supremacy to an African American, Jan Ernest Matzeliger. A pioneer in the art of shoemaking, he enriched America and other nations by billions of dollars, made a dozen or more millionaires, created work for hundreds of thousands, and contributed enormously to what is regarded as one of the distinct features of civilization, namely, the wearing of shoes. With no other capital but his meager wages, he was forced to make use of such material as he could get hold of. He used mainly pieces of wood and old cigar and packing boxes.
For six months he toiled strenuously until he had constructed a model which though crude, gave him confidence that he was on the road to success. Four years later he perfected a machine that would work. He was offered $1,500 for his invention of pleating the leather around the toe, which sum he refused. Greatly encouraged by the widespread interest his model created, he started to build a better one. With his new model it was easy for him to convince practical men that his invention would work successfully.
A company was formed, consisting of himself, those who had advanced him money from time to time, and some others with large capital. With this new invention, the United Shoe Machinery Company rapidly drove competitors out of the shoe business until, a few years later, it controlled 98 percent of the shoe machine business. A tremendous expansion in the shoe industry followed. Shoe stocks proved a gold mine for investors. Earnings increased more than 350 percent and the price of footwear decreased. Matzeliger died in obscurity in 1889.