Daniel Bumgardner
The History Of The Zippo Lighter

Even if you're new to pipe smoking, chances are you've heard of the Zippo lighter. Once ubiquitous to the every day carry, the unassuming instrument with the snappy name has transcended walks of life, not to mention generations. Hell, most anyone over a certain age will likely say it's an iconic piece of American history, akin to the Les Paul and the Corvette.

Growing up, a Zippo was among a few objects my grandad gave me that I treasured and kept close, and continue to do so even to this day. The lighter was old, but still held enough of a shine to catch my eye one day while I was playing in his shop. It was a weird little thing to my magpie-ish child's mind — a shiny trinket from a bygone era. Naturally, I bugged him to let me have it, probably for those two aforementioned reasons, and after some annoying coaxing, he caved.

Zippo Date Codes from Zippo.com

Zippo Date Code (sourced from Zippo.com)

Years later, I would come to find out that it was made in 1967. The information wasn't exactly shocking to me, though discovering most Zippos are datable down to the exact year was pretty cool (not to mention a collector's dream). When I say the information wasn't shocking, I mean I had seen enough films at this point to have at least a superficial knowledge of Zippo's history. That is to say I knew it was an old company, and that was about it.

Doing a little research, I found that, beginning in 1933, the company — started by George Blaisdell in Bradford, Pennsylvania with the sole purpose of producing lighters which operated well in the wind — was given its familiar name based on its similarity to the word "zipper." He thought it sounded "modern", and though the company saw some success in the mid-30s, it wasn't until World War II that the brand solidified its status worldwide. In 1941, Zippo halted consumer production to focus solely on lighters for the US military, resulting in the development of the steel-case model with a black crackled finish, designed to endure the rigors of combat. These utilitarian designs were not only useful for their near indestructible exterior but their ability to accommodate a range of fuel sources in a pinch, as well — everything from diesel to booze.

Zippo 1941 Replica U.S. Army Pipe Lighter

Whether a patriotic move or a shrewd financial one, the fact that millions of servicemen carried these lighters abroad certainly aided in showcasing the design to the global market. On top of that, the need for production helped to keep the company in the black until after wartime. Not one to rest on his laurels, Blaisdell envisioned a new promotional campaign. He commissioned a 1947 Chrysler Saratoga be modified with giant Zippo lighters, complete with removable neon flames concealed by hinged lids which could be closed when on the road. With its now-famous name emblazoned on each door in 24-karat gold paint, the Zippo Car traveled across the country, reaching 48 states within two years.

Zippo Car from Zippo.com

Original Zippo Car (sourced from Zippo.com)

Having gained widespread brand recognition through Blaisdell's campaign, Zippo turned its marketing focus to quality control and customer service, ensuring customer satisfaction through an impressive lifetime guarantee. The company states simply that in 84 years, "no one has ever spent a cent on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter regardless of...age or condition."

From here, the annals of Zippo's contribution to pop culture speak for themselves; from concerts and album covers to Hollywood films and television shows, the famous lighter is now a symbol. To some, it may mean resilience and durability — to others antiquity or even a fashion statement — but either way, the Zippo will certainly be recognized, even for generations to come.

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Category:   Resources Tagged in:   Accessories History Lighters Zippo


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