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"Elias Howe, Jr.," ca. 1890. Courtesy of Richard Sugden Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Elias Howe, Jr. and the Sewing Machine

Massachusetts was birthplace and home of some of the greatest inventors in the history of American shoemaking. These innovators, including Elias Howe, Jr., Gordon McKay, and Charles Goodyear, Jr., created the machines that took shoemaking from the confines of handicraft to the realm of mass production.

Born in Spencer, Massachusetts in 1819, Elias Howe, Jr. worked in a textile factory until its closure in 1846 forced him into a career as a mechanic. That same year Howe combined his two disparate professional skill sets into the invention of a sewing machine that would revolutionize shoemaking.

While other sewing machines had been developed by 1846, Howe’s was the first to feature an automatic feed and a shuttle that could operate beneath the cloth to form a lock stitch. Another key player in the industrialization of shoemaking, John Brooks Nichols, devised a method of sewing uppersthe top portion of shoesusing the new machine, expediting one of the most time-consuming phases of shoe creation.