Shoemaking was the second most important industry in Massachusetts during the 1800's and early 1900's. There were many shoemakers and shoemaking factories all over the state. Many were based in Lynn, Brocton, and Haverhill.

Brockton, Massachusetts is a small city located 20 miles South of Boston. From the mid-1750s through the 1920s, Brockton was a center for shoe manufacturing. Brockton's shoemaking industry attracted many East European Jewish immigrants familiar with the shoemaking craft practiced in their home country. 

Before this time, early colonists tanned leather and made their own shoes, and later, itinerant cobblers went from town to town, making crudely formed, silver-buckled shoes that could be worn on either foot. In the late 1700's shoemakers began to set up shops in villages and passed on their trade through apprentices. The first to operate a shoe shop on the factory system was John Adam Dagyr, a Welshman who came to Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1750. Under his system each worker specialized in only a single operation of the entire shoemaking process. Dagyr is called the "father of American shoemaking." Around 1800 came the "Ten Foot" shops, which were named for their small size. Around 1822, American cobblers invented the first "left" and "right" side shoes made from specific lasts, or molds, of each foot.

Here is a description of the shoemaking shop in Old Sturbridge Village.

Shoe Shop

Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 1800-1850

Moved to OSV, 1939


"Why thus alone are you ploughing, Mr. Thrifty?" "O sir, my boys have all left me and turned shoepeggers." -- 1834 Farmer's Almanac

In the 1830s, shoemaking was an expanding industry and a young man's trade. The vast majority of shoemakers were under the age of 30 and earned 25 cents for completing the production of a pair of shoes.

The putting-out system for making large quantities of shoes developed in eastern Massachusetts in the late 18th century and then was adopted in many parts of the New England countryside. Central shop manufacturers--sometimes storekeepers--provided raw materials and picked up the finished product. They arranged for young women in their homes to sew the soft leather upper parts of the shoes for three to five cents a pair.

Shoes were usually completed in small shops, where each worker sat at a bench with his hammer, last, awls, pegs, string, wax, and bristles close at hand.

Shoe pegging was the fastest technique for attaching the soles and heels to the upper part, used along with stitching or sometimes nailing. Fast workers could finish four pairs of "pegged shoes" a day, using wooden pegs made cheaply by machine. The pegs were 3/4" long, tapered, and slightly thicker than a wooden match. Stitching or pegging, depending on the quality and price desired, were skills that a young man could learn in a few months.

The Shoe Shop at the Village portrays the production of men's shoes, more widespread in the countryside than that of women's. Durable cowhide shoes and boots with thick soles were made to be shipped from Boston for sale in Georgia and Ohio, Cuba, Haiti, and Chile. By the mid-1830s, the New England shoe industry was ranked with textile manufacturing, taking second place only to farming. In Massachusetts 23,000 men and 15,000 women were employed. In 1837, close to three million pairs of men's boots and shoes were produced in the central part of the state alone.

Excerpted from Old Sturbridge Village Visitor's Guide

Edited by Kent McCallum

© 1993,1996, Old Sturbridge Inc.



Until the middle of the 1800's skilled craftsmen did work on shoes by hand. Then a number of American inventors developed machines to perform the tasks specific to shoemaking. When Elias Howe invented the sewing machine, it was adapted for use in stitching the upper parts of shoes. Then in 1858 Lyman R. Blake patented a machine for sewing together soles and uppers. Around 1874 the invention of the welt stitcher by Charles Goodyear, Jr., made it possible to produce high-grade welt shoes by machine.

In 1882 Jan Ernest Matzeliger, a shoe factory worker, invented the shoe-lasting machine. A shoe last shapes and fastens the leather over the sole of a shoe. This meant that shoes could now be produced faster, and for a cheaper price.


Coming to America in 1871 with little education and speaking almost no English, Jan Ernst Matzeliger changed the way that the entire shoe industry operates. He brought affordable shoes and better jobs to those in the industry through his inventions.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Paramaribo, Surinam (Dutch Guiana). He was the son of a native Surinamese woman and a Dutch Engineer. Little is known of his early life in Surinam except that he went to work in his father's shop at the age of ten and by the age of 19 had found a job as a sailor in order to get to America.

Once he arrived in America, he quickly learned English and found work in Philadelphia. Later he moved on to Lynn, Massachusetts where he learned shoemaking, the craft that would occupy the rest of his life.

When Matzeliger started making shoes they were mostly made by hand. For shoes to fit right a customer's feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a last (a steel or wooden mold upon which the shoes were sized or shaped.) While there were devices that cut, sewed and tacked shoes the hardest part of shoe making was attaching the top part of the shoe to the sole. This required great skill and everyone thought this could only be done by hand. In fact, when Matzeliger first suggested the idea that this could be done by machine his peers laughed at him and said it couldn't be done.

Jan worked on his "lasting machine" for ten years secretly. First he experimented with a crude wooden model and then an iron version. Finally he succeeded and on March 20, 1883 he received a patent for his invention. His machine held the shoe on the last, gripped and pulled the leather down around the heel, set and drove the nails, and then discharged the complete shoe. His machine could produce between 150 and 700 pairs of shoes a day. Even the best laster could only produce 50 shoes a day.

While his device was incredibly successful, unfortunately he did not live to see the tremendous benefits that it brought to America. He died at the age of thirty-seven from tuberculosis. He received five patents on his inventions, all in the field of shoemaking. His last patent was issued in September 1891, two years after his death.

Sydney W. Winslow bought Matzeliger's patents and established the United States Shoe Machine Company. The success of his business resulted in a 50% decrease in the price of shoes across the country, doubled the wages of people working in the shoe industry and greatly improved the working conditions of those millions of people who were dependent on the shoe industry for their livelihood.


This is a photograph of Matzeliger's lasting machine.

In 1896 Humphrey O'Sullivan, a printer in Lowell, patented his invention of the rubber heel--it was his custom to stand on a rubber mat to ease his tired feet as he set type. It was inconvenient to carry the mat from place to place, so he nailed pieces of it to the heels of his shoes. To keep the nails from working loose, he molded washers into the rubber.

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