During the latter half of the 1800’s the shoe industry started on the path of mechanization, with upper sewing, sole attaching by stitching, pegging or metallic fastening and heeling all brought to at least a crude degree of development, further along this path. There remained, however, the immensely important problem of mechanizing lasting, the process which gives to shoes the major part of their visible shape. This was, perhaps, the most difficult problem of all because of the infinite variation of complex shapes and materials involved. Earliest efforts at mechanical lasting appear in English patents of 1844 followed by American patents in 1859 and 1860.
In 1864 the American Lasting Machine Company was organized to market the invention of Williams Wells of Danvers, Massachusetts who had previously invented a pegging machine.
In 1872 Colonel Gordon McKay, James W. Brooks and Charles W. Glidden formed the McKay Lasting Machine Association and bought the American company’s patents. They spent $120.000, an immense sum in those days, trying to evolve a good lasting machine from the patents and their own ideas.
In 1876 Mr. George Copeland patented and exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia the first practical lasting machine, a bed type. Working with F. Ballon, Erastus Woodward and Matthias Brock further patents followed into 1881.
Meanwhile the McKay group in a further effort to evolve a practical laster had absorbed a machine invented by Henry G. Thompson of Hartford, CT, on which $100.000 had been spent since 1873 and formed the McKay and Thompson Lasting Machine Association. Litigation over patents between the McKay and Copeland groups began promptly, lasted four years, cost more than $300.000 and neither group was making money.
McKay won and still seeking the best possible machine combined to form McKay and Copeland Lasting Machine Association in 1881 resulting in a bed lasting machine, practical, but limited for use on heavy work. The royalty was set at 1/2 cent per pair for shoes and 3/4 of a cent for pegged boots.
About this time, one Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a man worthy to be remembered along with Howe and Blake, was working at sewing shoes on a McKay stitcher at the Harney Brothers shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. Matzeliger could only speak broken English and although there were many inventors and expert machinists with ample financial backing trying to produce a really good lasting machine at the time, it was Matzeliger working alone who made the breakthrough.
This was the famous “nigger-head” lasting machine as it was referred to in the trade at that time. Why this unfortunate name was fastened on the Hand Method Lasting Machines uncertain. Rival stories, that have come down over the years, allege that the black machine head mounted on an upright column looked like a negro and that negros were often assigned to the hard messy work of lasting; finally that the name was a derision of Matzeliger’s swarthy complexion and foreign origin.
The whole Matzeliger story is interesting, not only by itself, but because it was this great invention as principle of the Hand Method Lasting Machine has never changed during the course of it’s production life.