One of the most recognizable brand names in the world, Zippo has over the last nine decades transformed itself into an integral part of pop culture, and a Hollywood staple.
It was the early 1930s. George Grant Blaisdell was sitting at the Bradford Country Club, in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He spotted one of his friends trying to work his new Austrian lighter. It had a unique chimney that made it wind-resistant, only if you manage to light it, which was evidently a struggle. As Mr. Blaisdell watched his friend adequately embarrass himself with his fancy new gadget, it got him thinking.
Two years later, he launched his own version of that lighter. It had the same wind-proof chimney but was encased in a small rectangular brass compartment fitted with a hinged lid, which can be flicked with just one thumb, creating a signature click. Blaisdell had liked the word `zipper’ , a recent term invented by B.F.Goodrich & Company to describe their range of fasteners. He decided to call his lighter `Zippo’.
The new American lighter was easy to operate, and the flame had longer staying power, thanks to the Austrian-style chimney. He priced it at $1.95 each. These pocket lighters came with a lifetime guarantee: ‘It works or we fix it free’,and were patented on March 3, 1936. It received a second patent on August 1, 1950. In the fall of 2002, the shape of the Zippo lighter got a trademark registration to stop counterfeiters.
Although the first Zippo lighter was produced in 1933, it was during World War II that it became a rage when it dedicated all its lighter production to the U.S. military stopping its consumer use. With millions of military men carrying these black crackle-finished steel pocket lighters emblazoned with unit crests and other military symbols in the fields, the Zippo, with its durability and resilience, was dubbed as the ‘the GI’s friend’, and soon became synonymous with the US military.
After the war, Mr Blaisdell, who was now fondly nicknamed Mr Zippo, resumed selling his wind-proof lighters in the consumer market. It was an instant success once again. In the decades that followed, owning a Zippo became a part of the American way of life. The signature Zippo click would go on to be sampled on songs, as the brand became an integral part of pop culture and a Hollywood staple, having been featured in over 2,000 movies, TV shows and theater.
Due to the immense popularity and efficiency of the design of the original Zippo, these pocket lighters still remain almost the same with minor patent modifications and are manufactured at the same Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania, United States. In 1956, the company launched its Slim range of lighter, initially targeting women consumers. The sleek design also marked the departure from the war grunge and the return to civility.
During the mid-1950s, Zippo started stamping date codes at the bottom of each lighter. Although it started as a quality control measure, it soon became a tool for collectors. As with most collectibles, the price of Zippo is often decided by its vintage tag, i.e., the manufacturing date stamped at the bottom of the lighters.
Today, it is common to see concertgoers or the audience at any live event holding up the flashlight of their mobile phones in appreciation of the performance or the artiste on stage. The tradition might have had a Zippo connection. In the ’60s, Zippo lighters had become intrinsically associated with the American lifestyle and the idea of ‘cool’. It was also the age of rock and roll. Soon the two came together. At concerts, the audience started to raise the Zippo flame to applaud their favourite singer or a great piece. This became a popular gesture and later, came to be known as the Zippo Moment.
During the 1970s, Zippo started looking at the overseas market and in the 2010s, it focused its expansion on India and China. Zippo also started to get into a diverse range of products. In 1993, Zippo acquired another Bradford-based company, the manufacturers of premium, hand-crafted knives, W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company. In 1997, the Zippo Case Museum, which is also home to the world-famous Zippo Repair Clinic, opened to showcase the products of these two iconic American brands. This was later revamped in 2012.
On October 3, 1978, Mr Blaisdell died, passing the company to his daughters, Harriett B. Wick and Sarah B. Dorn. Today, the company is owned by Mr Blaisdell’s grandson, George B. Duke.
In a world where most products are simply disposable or are sold with limited warranties, the Zippo pocket lighter remains backed by its famous lifetime guarantee. In all it’s 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. The Zippo pocket lighter is ingrained in American culture and is a global icon of durability and reliability.
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