The Complete History Of The Zippo Lighter

Aug 6, 2018

Category: Gear

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Even if you’ve never fumbled around with one of their lighters, odds are you’re familiar with the Zippo brand. In fact, the USA-built company retains one of the highest recognition rates around. Officially, the brand boasts an unaided awareness rate of 98 percent – meaning 98 out of 100 people have knowledge of the company without requiring any level of coaching. In terms of brand recognition, this is an astonishing statistic.

This level of success, however, didn’t happen overnight. It’s been 85 years since founder George G. Blaisdell started the company, and thanks to his level of commitment to quality, putting people before his product, and all-around hard work, Zippo was able to attain a worldwide reputation as go-to sleekly-designed windproof lighters of choice built right here in the USA.

Early Beginnings

American born, American Made

It all started at the Bradford Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania – where the Zippo manufacturing facility and museum are currently located – when Blaisdell was watching one of his friends awkwardly using an Austrian-built lighter. And while it was a windproof option, it required two hands and dented easily due to its thin metal surface. It was here, in the crisp northeastern fall months of 1932, when Blaisdell worked to prefabricate this cumbersome design into something a little more user-friendly. His prototype, therefore, retained the chimney design utilized in the Austrian version – protecting the flame in less than ideal conditions – resulting in a lighter that looked good and was fully functional. This led to the first Zippo lighters produced the very next year in 1933.

Not one customer has spent a penny on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter during their 85-year tenure.

As for the name? Fueled by Blaisdell’s affinity to the phonetic qualities of the word “zipper,” he decided “Zippo” both retained the root sound of this preferred word and boasted a more modern sound. From here, he was so fueled by the quality of his design that even from the very beginning, Blaisdell ran with an unconditional lifetime guarantee for every Zippo lighter. The first examples then hit the market for a retail price of $1.95 each and in the 85 years since, not one customer has spent a penny on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter.

Like the majority of Americans during WWII, the Second Great War had a profound effect on Zippo. As a patriot himself, Blaisdell dedicated all manufacturing to the US military – effectively putting lighter production on hold – upon America’s entry into the war. This initiative later led the some valued innovation for Zippo. Namely, the steel case lighter with a black crackle finish for those on the front lines. Millions of Americans carried these lighters into battle during the years of global turmoil, resulting in a global affinity for and the establishment of Zippo as an iconic American brand.

Post-War America

Unihibited Growth and Recognition

After the war, it was time for Blaisdell to hit the road selling his lighters during the peaceful post-war years and economic upturn America enjoyed during that time. It was here that the reputable Zippo car was conceptualized and completed in 1947 and a separate manufacturing facility established in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Also during these fruitful years, the bottom of every Zippo lighter began earning a stamped date code signifying the month and year in which each lighter was produced – a valuable practice for collectors that continues to this day.

Later, in 1956, Zippo launched the Slim windproof lighter – aimed at the female market – and served as a major milestone for the brand that would propel them out of a brawny wartime image and into the hands and hearts of all American citizens. These were also the years when Zippo began running with ancillary items that fit the brand and their broad manufacturing capabilities. This lineup initially began with a retractable steel pocket tape measure in 1962, later diversifying into keychains, pocket knives, and the ZipLight pocket flashlight. This diversified growth and success continued over the years up through Blaisdell’s passing in 1978 at which time his two daughters, Harriett B. Wick and Sarah B. Dorn inherited the business. Through the 70s and 80s, the brand continued to enjoy extensive growth in overseas sales thanks to global marketing efforts that placed them in over 160 countries.

The Blaisdell family continued to preside over Zippo throughout the decades following Georges’s passing – actually owned by six members of the Blaisdell family during the 80s and 90s. The brand was even able to acquire a fellow Bradford business, W.R. Case and Sons Cutlery Company, in 1993. Now, Zippo oversees the continued production of Case’s quality knives in addition to their reliable lighters.

The Zippo lighter has been featured in over 1,500 movies throughout the years, including productions such as I Love Lucy and The X-Men.

Popular culture also helped to expand the brand’s reputation through placement on the big screen and other forms of media. In fact, the Zippo lighter has been featured in over 2,000 films with many more tv shows, theater productions, and streaming content. These included productions such as I Love Lucy and The X-Men as a necessary prop to reflect a character’s personality or to simply help move the plot forward.

The iconic Zippo lighter was also commonly raised high during live music performances to salute musicians, sampled in recordings (the famous “click” is tested at the factory before the lighter is ever shipped out), and featured on album covers and photo shoots over the years.

Zippo Today

85 Years Strong

Today, the fanbase for Zippo lighters is extensive, to say the least. It’s currently estimated there are around 4 million Zippo collectors worldwide, 34,000 Zippo-related videos on YouTube, over two million social media followers, and over 18 million Zippo iPhone application users. A 15,000 square foot museum/store/repair clinic now resides just down the road from the original manufacturing facility – enjoying thousands of visitors from around the world every year – and in 2012 the brand celebrated its storied history with the production of their 500 millionth lighter.

Truly an American brand at heart, every Zippo lighter is still hand-checked for quality before leaving the manufacturing facility where Zippo employees enjoy a familial atmosphere. It’s here where, in some cases, multiple generations work side-by-side manufacturing, testing, and repairing America’s favorite lighter. Zippo also shows no signs of slowing down – building and shipping over 12 million lighters per year – all of which maintain that original shape and construction Blaisdell first patented many years ago.

© Photography by HiConsumption

Zippo 85th Anniversary Lighter

Featuring a handsome laser-engraved design alongside the mechanics and lifetime guarantee that started it all, this tribute 85th Anniversary Lighter boasts that classic Zippo shape and windproof characteristics.

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