Flame on: the story of the classic Zippo lighter

Find out why the Zippo lighter is a design classic.

Ever since tobacco was brought to Europe from the New World at the end of the 16th century, there has been a demand for reliable fire-starting technology. Although there is widespread archaeological evidence that humans were capable of producing fire at will as long as 100,000 years ago, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we were able to do it with a compact mechanical device using only one hand.

The patent date was 1936, but the Zippo lighter had already hit the market by 1932, costing $1.95 and coming with a lifetime guarantee. To this date, the company proudly boasts that “no one has ever spent a cent on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter regardless of the lighter’s age or condition.” Elsewhere: “it works or we fix for free.”

There are many variants on the story of how the Zippo lighter came into being, but most stories have the following key points in common. First, there was a dinner in Bradford, Pennsylvania in 1931. It was attended by one George G Blaisdell who, upon seeing a friend struggling to two-handedly use an automatic lighter, decided to buy the marketing rights to the Austrian product, redesign it and become an overnight manufacturing sensation. The problem for Blaisdell was that his ‘eureka’ moment had struck him during the greatest economic recession of the 20th century. The Great Depression made it almost impossible for entrepreneurs such as Blaisdell to realise a profit and the company very nearly went bankrupt.

The Second World War came to Zippo’s rescue in more ways than one. First, Blaisdell, reluctant to have his production facility repurposed for the manufacture of parachutes or munitions, dedicated all manufacture of Zippo lighters to supplying the military.

According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Departments and Auxiliaries website, its popularity soared as GIs used their steel Zippos (the original brass and chrome were in short supply) to heat rations, light campfires, spark explosives fuses and hammer in nails. They would even, by use of the famous Zippo ‘click’, signal to each other in the dark. The signature click is a function of the cam toggle design feature used to keep the lid fastened.

By the time the American soldiers came home from the war, Blaisdell was known as Mr Zippo, while his mechanical lighter had acquired the nickname ‘the GI’s friend’ and had become a symbol of America. The lighter was held in such affection that it has now topped half a billion sales worldwide, almost all of which were made in the production facility at Bradford (a few were made in Niagara, Canada at a facility that has since shut down).

Of course, the Zippo was designed to be a cigarette lighter in response to the massive increase in tobacco consumption in the early 20th century. Yet its main function was to deliver a reliable source of fire that couldn’t be extinguished by wind. This accounts for the product’s increasing popularity (2012 and 2013 were record sales years) despite the radical decline in smoking in the US in the 21st century. While smokers in Asia – the company’s fastest growing sector – continue to buy the Zippo, back in the US, the product range is seen increasingly as an outdoor lifestyle accessory, with the camping market a prime target.

Meanwhile, the collectors’ market has grown in popularity to the point where vintage Zippos routinely change hands for around $300, while one of the most expensive lighters ever sold was a 1933 model that went for $18,000 in 2001.

Light of my life: Zippo facts and figures

Date: 1932 (patent 1936)

Designer: George Blaisdell

Original unit cost: $1.95 (approx $35.70, or £26 in today’s money)

Zippos are distributed in more than 160 countries

The 500,000,000th Zippo was produced in 2012

The Zippo has appeared in 1,500 movies

Every Zippo is made in one factory in Bradford, Pennsylvania

It features in Time’s ‘Top 100 Gadgets of All Time’

The lighter’s largest market is China

There is a range of Zippo fragrances


 

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