The History Of The Zippo Lighter

The Zippo lighter has long been considered an iconic symbol of American culture and is trusted by smokers around the world for its reliability, versatility, and durability. It's been featured in thousands of movies, television shows, and stage plays throughout the years and is a product many smokers have owned at some time in their lives. Entire collections have been dedicated to the Zippo lighter, numerous publications have been written about it, and clubs and organizations have been created to celebrate its history and reinforce its collectability.

The Zippo Manufacturing Company was founded in 1932 in the midst of one of America's (and the world's) bleakest periods — The Great Depression. While it's highly impractical from a business standpoint to start a company in the middle of a major worldwide economic collapse, the Zippo brand persevered due to the practicality and affordability of its product.

Zippo's beginnings can be traced back to when its founder, George G. Blaisdell, was at the Bradford Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania for a dinner dance and observed one of his friends struggling to use an unwieldy lighter. Blaisdell noticed the man's Austrian-made lighter performed well in windy conditions due to its distinctive chimney design but found the lighter to be aesthetically displeasing and its design inefficient. His friend had to use both hands to operate the lighter and its thin metal surface was covered in dents.

Zippo Date Codes from Zippo.com

Zippo Date Code (sourced from Zippo.com)

Blaisdell managed to obtain the sole U.S. rights from the Austrian lighter manufacturer and began to experiment on a new lighter design in a workshop he rented for $10 a month above an auto repair shop in downtown Bradford along Boylston Street. The goal was to create a lighter that was aesthetically pleasing, dependable, and easy to use. Blaisdell and a hired team of three people began work on creating the lighter design, utilizing an electric hotplate to help solder the metal and a variety of secondhand tools. He preserved the chimney design from the Austrian-made lighter since it protected the flame but designed a small rectangular case that also featured a hinged lid, allowing the user to open it one handed.

The Zippo name was coined by Blaisdell because he liked the sound of the word "zipper" and experimented with different variations of the world until setting on "zippo," since he believed it sounded "modern." The first lighters were sold for $1.95 each and backed by Blaisdell's unconditional lifetime guarantee that proclaimed "It works or we fix it free.™" The original Zippo patent application was filed in 1934 and was granted two years later, with the first Zippo lighter, crafted in 1933, now on display at the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford.

Due to the lighter's construction, the windscreen's design, and fuel delivery rate, Zippos are able to perform in harsh weather conditions and in a variety of climates. Because of this, Zippos are difficult to extinguish by simply blowing out the flame like regular lighters (unless air is blown directly down on the flame). The proper way to extinguish the Zippo's flame in by closing the hinged lid, starving the flame of oxygen and creating the satisfying closing clunk sound the lid makes in the process.

The company continued to expand throughout the 1930s and soon offered the option for customers to have initials engraved on their Zippo for the fee of a dollar, enabling individuals to personalize their lighters. Zippo would then appear in a wholesale mail-order catalog in 1936 for a Minnesota-based company that showcased products to retail stores. Blaisdell would also travel around the country to visit retail stores, attempting to establish business relations to sell his patented lighters.

Zippo 1941 Replica U.S. Army Pipe Lighter

The biggest change for the company occurred when the United States entered World War II in December, 1941. Zippo ceased lighter production for the civilian market, dedicating their entire production to the U.S. military, resulting in the production of the steel-case model with a black crackle finish that was designed to endure the rigors of combat and not reflect light that might expose soldiers to the enemy. The wartime lighters were made from steel, since brass was reserved for military use, and spray-painted black to preserve the lighter's finish, resulting in the iconic crackle finish. With millions of American military personnel equipped with Zippo lighters, Zippo became an American symbol throughout the world. Shifting production for the military also made Zippo a viable brand, strengthening the young company financially and giving them worldwide exposure.

After the war, Zippo resumed producing lighters for the consumer market and greatly expanded their promotional efforts. Blaisdell 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. The Zippo name was emblazoned on each door in 24-karat gold paint, and the Zippo Car traveled across the country, reaching all 48 continental states within two years and participating in several parades.

Zippo Car from Zippo.com

Original Zippo Car (sourced from Zippo.com)

Starting in the mid-50s, Zippo began stamping date codes on the bottom of every lighter for quality control purposes, enabling the company to identify a potential pattern in any run of lighters that were returned for repair. The date codes have since served as helpful resource for collectors and enthusiasts, allowing them to accurately date the year their Zippo was manufactured.

In the 1960s, Zippo saw wartime action again in Vietnam and became a crucial tool for military personnel while also serving as a form of self-expression for soldiers, as many would engrave their lighters with phrases, pictures, or personalized messages. Zippos played a significant role in the daily routine of soldiers with the lighter's shiny, reflective surface being used as a mirror while the flame would be particularly useful in heating up meals. And with the lighter's versatile size, servicemen were able to carry it in the pocket of their fatigues, the camouflage band of their helmet, or even in the magazine pouch for their rifle. And when lighter fluid wasn't readily available, alcohol, gasoline, and diesel oil were often employed as substitutes. Vietnam-era Zippos continue to be some of the most collectible and sought-after, each one reflecting the experience of war and being intrinsically tied to whoever carried it with them.

Zippo Single Torch Insert

The company continued to expand throughout the 1970s but experienced a significant change when Zippo founder and inventor George Blaisdell passed away on October 3, 1978. Blaisdell's two daughters inherited the business and it remains family-owned to this day, with Blaisdell's grandson, George B. Duke, serving as the company's sole owner and Chairman of the Board.

Starting in 1981 the company began producing pipe lighter inserts that are designed to fit into any regular-sized Zippo case. Rather than using the Zippo's traditional perforated windscreen, the pipe insert features large holes along the sides that allow the flame to be titled to accommodate lighting a pipe.

Over the years, the Zippo lighter has continued to be a pop culture phenomenon, appearing in countless movies, television shows, plays, and held up during concerts (though in modern times cell phones have become the most popular illumination instrument at live music events). Zippo lighters have been an iconic prop or served as a key plot device in numerous blockbuster films. In Die Hard John McClane uses a Zippo to navigate through the air ducts of Nakatomi Plaza, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy's father accidentally drops a Zippo and sets the room ablaze where he and his son are held captive, and in Ocean's Thirteen a Zippo is used to rig the dice games in The Bank casino.

Just as famous as the Zippo itself is the distinctive click sound each windproof lighter emits when opened, and is arguably one of the most recognizable sounds ever created. The company even trademarked the sound in 2018 and it has become a popular phenomenon within ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos, which utilize a range of visual or auditory stimuli to trigger sensory responses, typically consisting of a tingling sensation that emanates from the scalp and travels down the back of the neck into the upper spine. The sound itself is created by the cam, the lever on the insert that keeps the lid securely closed when the lighter isn't in use.

Zippo continues to remain popular worldwide, with the company focusing on selling the Zippo brand, rather than just a lighter, by sponsoring events and collaborating with other forms of media and various brands. If it exists, there's a good chance it's appeared on a Zippo at some point and is one of the reasons the company continues to enthrall collectors and appeal to new audiences. But along with their ability to adapt to the changing times, Zippo's dedication to quality is almost unheard of in modern times where most products have limited warranties or are easily disposable. On their website Zippo states, "In more than 85 years, no one has ever spent a cent on the mechanical repair of a Zippo pocket lighter regardless of the lighter's age or condition." It's certainly easy to see why Zippo has become so intertwined with American culture and persists as a lasting symbol of reliability and durability.

Category:   Resources
Tagged in:   Accessories History Lighters Zippo

Comments

    • greg alexander koliaga on March 14, 2020
    • purchased a dual torch butane insert from s.p. for my zippo. for price and quality it cannot be beat!

    • Clifford Legler on March 15, 2020
    • The Zippo Co. is one of the last great American manufacturers. An exceptional product and an incomparable warranty. 20 years ago my hinge weld detached, It was speedily repaired and returned, with a free package of flints and a thank you note. They also bought Case brand knives, making heirloom quality knives at a price that allows you to actually use them for daily tasks.

    • John W. on March 15, 2020
    • I sent my 25 year old Zippo to be repaired. It was returned, working perfectly, along with a penny encases in a keychain which read “the penny never soent to repair a Zippo.” What marketing!

    • Oran Page on March 15, 2020
    • A great American product to this day.

    • Ronald S Ballard on March 15, 2020
    • Yes. I owned Zippo lighters from day one of my smoking experience. I always pried up the felt under the wick and kept extra Flint's there. Also had to be careful with overfilling, as the lighter fuel would sometimes seep out into my pocket. But nevertheless, a Zippo was a lighter you could light on the deck of a ship during a hurricane, if you had to. Damned fine lighter. If it had one fault, it was that the hinge wore out prematurely and had to be replaced more often than I would've liked. Other than that, I got wonderful service from every single one of my Zippo lighters.

    • Bob Landrum on March 15, 2020
    • Being only 87 years young I've only gone through a dozen or more Zippos. Years ago a dear friend of mine who's Dad was on John Wayne's staff gave him a Zippo that had USS Wild Goose on one side and Stolen From John Wayne on the other side. Wayne had given it to him when he was just a lad and his family sailed to Spain with Wayne on the Wild Goose. Knowing I am a die hard Duke fan he gave the Zippo to me...it had never been used. Since then I passed it on to my son. You haven't lived until you overfill a Zippo, and have fuel run out an burn a spot on your leg!!!!!

    • Astrocomical on March 15, 2020
    • Although it is an extremely well-made lighter I found the pipe version is only OK to light pipes.

      I have to constantly refill it as it evaporates the fuel whether you use it or not and think of this this way. When full of fuel the flame is huge and when hardly any fuel the flame is small.

      Only in the middle of refueling you have a reasonable flame. In another words inconsistent flame half the time.

      And it's not very efficient at lighting a full pipe at the start. When you get it going it's OK, however.

      The best lighters for pipes and the one I reach for nearly all of the time are those bent shape butane pipe lighters. They are the best for lighting a pipe and kind of fun.

      The second best are those flame throwers but you have to be carefool not to tinge the edges of your bowl and do it like the German guy said, only 1 second in the middle then remove, but I wouldn't do this even with my best pipes unless they have silver or metal caps on them.

    • Jim on March 15, 2020
    • @Astrocomical: Two words of advice: First, if you don't have room to pull the flame from your Zippo pipe lighter into your pipe when lighting it for the first time, it's not the lighter; you've filled your pipe too full. Second, I ask you, on behalf of all pipe collectors, NOT to use a "blowtorch" ("flame-thrower") lighter to light a PIPE! Use a "soft" (or "candle") flame lighter (like a Zippo or an Old Boy or whatever brand you like -- or a match, even! Imagine that!). Torch-flame lighters are for cigars, not pipes.

    • Tom Nowak on March 15, 2020
    • I'm 74 and have always used a Zippo.........

    • Tom Nowak on March 15, 2020
    • Great company and product

    • Tom Nowak on March 15, 2020
    • Great company and a great product

    • Astrocomical on March 16, 2020
    • @Jim, good advice. I should have mentioned that it's the bent SOFT FLAME is the one I always go for now. The flame-thrower ones are when you want a real quick lite on your corn cob or other pipes you don't really care about.

      I have also found out the soft flame lighters actually light a cigar quicker than the flame throwers and they even char the edge of the cigar so you don't waste your time trying to look sophisticated when first lighting them.

      You are right about the packing of the pipe. Too tight and it won't light.

    • Mark on March 16, 2020
    • I’m glad the article mentioned fuel. I’ve often wondered what people did to refill their Zippos in WWII, since it seems unlikely there were many opportunities to drop by a local shop and pick up a can of lighter fluid.

    • Steven Goldberg on March 16, 2020
    • Have about 40 or 50 Zippo lighters. Everyone a marvel of workmanship.

    • Ed Svec on March 17, 2020
    • I carry a Zippo with a gold USN logo and anchor, in memory of Dad. WW2 USN Seabee veteran.

    • Jack Koonce on September 12, 2020
    • In a few words- "what a great article to read." Thank you

Join the conversation:


This will not be shared with anyone

challenge image
Enter the circled word below: