March 20th Should Be International Shoe Day. 

I pronounce March 20th to be International Shoe Day because I love shoes, and it’s my birthday, and making pronouncements is the kind of thing one can do on their birthday…

Really though, in addition to being my birthday, March 20th should be International Shoe Day because it is the day that Jan E. Matzeliger received a patent for his shoe lasting machine in 1883 and soon completely revolutionized the shoe industry.

Jan Matzeliger was a black immigrant to the United States from the Dutch colony of Suriname. He arrived at age 19 speaking no English and having very little education. He settled in Lynn, Massachusetts and got a job doing maintenance work in a shoe factory. By age 30, Matzeliger had invented and patented the machine that allowed for the rapid production of high quality shoes - the shoe lasting machine.

Prior to the mid 1880s, most shoes were made entirely by hand. A shoe “last” was a model of a particular person’s foot, and these lasts were made so that shoes could be made to fit well. Shoe lasters were individuals who shaped the shoe and put the upper and lower parts of the shoe together. Such detailed and tedious work was commonly thought to be the toughest part of shoe making, and, of course, such work could only be done with human hands. Before the introduction of Matzeliger’s innovation, shoe making was a specialized skill, and expert shoe makers produced approximately 50 pairs of shoes per day.

Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine held a shoe on a last, pulled the leather down around the shoe’s heel, set and drove in the nails, and then pushed out the finished shoes. With this new machine, 700 could be produced in a day. 700. That’s a 1300% increase. Forget incremental change, that’s a game-changer. In addition to drastically increasing high quality shoe production, the shoe lasting machine cut shoe prices in half, and it created tremendous opportunities for the employment of more unskilled workers.

So, when you go into a DSW or a Payless or check out and see what seems like endless low-cost footwear possibilities, thank Jan Matzeliger and his shoe lasting machine. Though the shoe industry looks much different than it did  when Matzelinger’s invention was popularized in factories, many of those more current innovations would not have been possible without his machine. One machine that made shoes available to people world wide. I am telling you, March 20th should be the International Shoe Day.