Gordon McKay

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Image of Lyman Blake from A short history of American shoemaking, 1912. Courtesy of University of Wisconsin via HathiTrust.

Even after the advent of the sewing machine in the 1850s had expedited the production of a shoe’s upper portion, attaching the upper to the sole still required an arduous process of “pegging,” or hammering short, wooden pegs to tack the two pieces together.

The refinement of the pegging machine by 1860 brought the time for this procedure down to an impressive seven seconds per shoe. It was not until Lyman Blake's sole sewing machine in 1858, however, that uppers were stitched to soles at an industry pace with the high quality of hand-stitching. Blake sold his design to Gordon McKay, who improved its mechanics and marketed it widely.

A Massachusetts-born engineer, McKay used the urgent demand for outfitting soldiers during the Civil War as impetus to get his patent accepted quickly and his sewing machine put to use on a wide scale. Unlike those of many wartime manufacturers, McKay’s business saw a successful afterlife following the war. He was able to lease his abundance of machines to shoe manufacturers, who in turn gave him a royalty on each pair of shoes made. By the century’s end, the invention was responsible for the production of some 120 million pairs of shoes per year.