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 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.
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.
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.
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.