Zippo, The Windproof Lighter
Zippo originated in a small Pennsylvania town at a time when the United States was in its worst depression in history. Zippo's success came about through imagination and hard work and the creation of a durable and functional product along with creative marketing and attentive service.
It all started on a summer evening in 1932, at a dinner dance held at the Bradford Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Attending the dance was George G. Blaisdell. It is rumored that Blaisdell and a friend stepped out on the terrace of the Pennhill Country Club and there, he saw the friend trying to light up a cigarette. The ugly lighter he was using was totally out of place in the hand of his perfectly attired friend. It took two hands to operate the lighter. The sight of his friend trying clumsily to open the lighter's lid was so comical that Blaisdell almost started to laugh. "You're all dressed up. Why don't you get a lighter that looks decent?" blurted Blaisdell. His friend replied, "Well, George, it works!"
Impressed with the fact that it worked, Blaisdell decided to try to sell the lighters himself. He obtained rights to distribute the product in the United States, imported them from Austria for 12 cents each, and attempted to sell them for $1 each. This venture failed, mainly because of the clumsy nature of the lighter's design. Blaisdell then decided to design his own lighter, one that was attractive, easy to use, and dependable.
The first thing Blaisdell did was to make the lighter smaller to be able to fit in the palm of the hand, and he incorporated a hinge to hold the lid to the bottom, making it an integral part of the lighter. This enabled the user to open the lighter using only one hand. He kept the chimney design which protected the flame under adverse conditions. The result was a lighter that looked good and was easy to operate. Blaisdell liked the name of another recent invention, the zipper, so he christened his lighter the "Zippo" and his new firm, Zippo Manufacturing Company.
Production of Zippos began in 1933 in a $10 per month rented room over the Rickerson & Pryde garage in Bradford. The shop had $260 in equipment and two employees, from which came lighters retailing for $1.95. The first Zippo lighter is currently displayed at the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford.
In the company's ledger at the end of the first month, 82 units were produced and sales were $69.15. To market the new product, Blaisdell came up with the practice of a lifetime warranty, a concept that began with the first Zippo lighter and has remained the same to the present day. The repair and sale of parts after the expiration of the warranty was a major source of the business revenue.
Zippo repaired all types of defects without charging a cent. The lighter was returned postpaid within 48 hours with a note reading, "We thank you for the opportunity of serving your lighter". The concept of a lifetime warranty became Zippo's primary marketing scheme.
Sales of the lighters got off to a slow start, with only 1,100 sold during the first production year. Blaisdell tried all kinds of methods to move his brainchild. He gave away samples and gifts to long-distance bus drivers, jewelers, and tobacconists. In December 1937 he paid $3,000 of mostly borrowed money for a full-page ad in Esquire magazine after he found that retailers shied away from products that were not advertised. Unfortunately, Blaisdell did not yet have sufficient distribution to take advantage of the effect of such advertising so this gamble failed to pay off.
While handling sales himself and struggling to develop a market for his windproof lighter, Blaisdell also tinkered with the design. The lighter was shortened by a quarter inch in 1933, decorative diagonal lines were added in 1934, the hinge was placed on the inside of the case in 1936, and rounded tops and bottoms replaced the square corners of the original design in 1937. This last alteration was important from a production standpoint as the lid and bottom could now be formed as a whole, eliminating the soldering process.
Blaisdell achieved his first big sales break in 1934 when he started selling Zippos on punchboards, two-cents-per-play gambling games popular in U.S. tobacco and confectionery shops, poolrooms, and cigar stands. Before punchboards were outlawed in 1940, more than 300,000 Zippos were sold through this game of chance, enough for Zippo Manufacturing to achieve its first profits.
While punchboards were a short-lived chapter in Zippo history, another of Blaisdell's marketing methods had a much longer-lasting impact. In 1936 an Iowa life insurance company ordered 200 engraved lighters that it gave to its agents as contest prizes. Bradford's own Kendall Oil Company ordered 500 engraved lighters for its customers and employees. Thus began Zippo's specialty advertising business, which would become an increasingly important venture in the coming decades.
This was the beginning of the specialty advertising business for the Zippo. Zippo Manufacturing Company discovered the market potential of the product as an adverting medium. Soon, Zippo produced a pamphlet aimed at corporations to use Zippo as a pocket salesman. Designs such as the military, airplanes, tourists spots, sports teams, comic characters and universities also appeared on Zippo's lighters. Corporate novelty and commemorative lighters were produced only in limited numbers. In essence, the Zippo lighters were the salesman in a pocket.
In 1936 Zippo began to engrave initials and providing two types of metal insignia on the lighter, the "Scotty Group", depicting dogs, and the "Drunk", portraying a drunkard leaning on a gaslight pole. The engraving of the initials cost the owner of the lighter one dollar, or 75 cents for an insignia. The return shipment was paid by the owner, C.O.D. The initials were engraved in a frame against a background color. The various colors include, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, purple, and white. During the thirties and forties, initialed gifts were very popular. It gave the consumer the sense of individuality.
In 1936, Zippo appeared on a mail-order catalog. It was a wholesale catalog of a company in Minnesota directed to retail stores. The retail price was $2.00, which increased slightly from the price first sold. Blaisdell also visited many retail stores all over the country to make business relations.
The sports related designs began to appear on the Zippo lighters in 1937. The first sports model was the 275, which was sold for $2.75. The 275 models with a carrying strap also appeared in the Sports Series. Earlier sports models included the Golfer, the Fisherman, the Bulldog, the Hunter, the Greyhound, and the Elephant. In 1938, the Scotch Terrier, the Fisherman and the Bulldog were the only models on the Sports Series.
In 1937, Zippo ran a one-page advertisement in the December issue of Esquire, aimed at the Christmas shoppers. The ad had an illustration of a woman, "Windproof Beauty", drawn by Enoc Boles, lighting up a cigarette in the wind. It was a different image from the previous image, which emphasized outdoor sports. Using an illustration of an attractive woman, the advertisers were aiming to appeal directly to the readers of the magazine, which was targeted at the urban male. The Windproof Beauty illustration was also used for packaging and became one of Zippo's characteristic images. This was a memorable advertisement for Zippo, the company would later run regular advertisements in many major magazines such as Life, the Saturday Evening Post, and Reader's Digest.
With sales increasing thanks to the punchboards and the special markets deals, Blaisdell expanded his operations. First, the production facility expanded into the entire second floor of the Rickerson & Pryde building. In 1938 the factory and offices were both moved into a former garage on Barbour Street in Bradford. That same year, Zippo's first table lighter debuted, a four-and-a-half inch tall model that held four times the fuel of a pocket lighter. Production of the table lighter stopped in Oct 1941, but was made available again in 1947. In 1939 Zippo introduced a sophisticated new lighter model, the 14-karat solid gold Zippo, available in both plain and engine-turned models.
With the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II, the U.S. government forced the halt in production of many consumer products. Blaisdell continued Zippo production, but as he had during World War I, he again moved into government contracting, all Zippos became destined for the U.S. military. With brass reserved for military uses only, the wartime lighters were made of a low-grade steel. Since this provided a poor finish, they were spray-painted black then baked, which produced a crackle finish. The black, rough-surfaced Zippo is the authentic World War II Zippo. The advantage of the black finish was that it did not reflect light that would attract enemy attention on the battlefield.
Blaisdell sold some of these Zippos to the military post exchanges at such a low price that they were then resold for $1.00, making them the most affordable lighter available. He also sent hundreds of lighters to celebrities, including the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle who then gave them away to servicemen overseas. Pyle gave Blaisdell the nickname "Mr. Zippo." Through these actions, the Zippo became the favorite lighter of GIs, whose loyalty to the product would help fuel postwar sales. Numerous war stories also helped cement the Zippo as an American icon, the Zippo that stopped a bullet, that cooked soup in helmets, that illuminated the darkened instrument panel of an Army pilot's disabled plane, enabling him to land safely.
Zippo's rise to prominence during World War II is reflected by the large number of films that featured Zippo lighters, both those made during that period and afterward. Whether it's Donna Reed lighting Montgomery Clift's cigarette in From Here to Eternity or Errol Flynn wielding his Zippo in Objective Burma, a Zippo lighter provided an instant air of authenticity. Director George Stevens was captured using his Zippo during the making of his documentary D-Day to Berlin. In 1945, Vincent Minelli's, The Clock, used a lighter to bring Judy Garland and Robert Walker together for a whirlwind courtship. The dialogue indicates that it is a Zippo lighter, but the shortage of civilian Zippo lighters forced the use of a stand-in.
The military connection extends through films about the Korean War and Vietnam. A Zippo linked Karl Malden and Richard Widmark in Sergeant Terror, while Gregory Peck counted on his Zippo for moral support in Pork Chop Hill. The Green Berets, starring John Wayne, was extremely popular. Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola set the haunting tone of his film in the opening scenes with Martin Sheen's Colt revolver and a Zippo lighter. Meanwhile, wartime production peaked in 1945 when three million Zippos were made.
The Zippo repair clinic became famous in its own right by backing up the Zippo guarantee. Repaired lighters were returned at no cost to the customer, not even return postage. The clinic provided more than just customer goodwill. It also provided invaluable information about design flaws. Over the long run, the repair clinic found that a faulty or broken hinge was the most common reason for a Zippo to be returned. But soon after World War II, in 1946, Blaisdell discovered that the most frequent repairs were for worn striking wheels, wheels that had been coming from an outside supplier. Blaisdell immediately stopped production to address the problem. He decided to bring production of the wheels in-house and spent $300,000 on a new flint wheel capable of firing a lighter as many as 78,000 times. This top-quality wheel was produced by a knurling operation that remained a company secret.
At the end of the war in 1945, Zippo hit the road selling lighters to peacetime America. A promoter at heart, Blaisdell envisioned a car that looked like a Zippo lighter. He hired Gardner Display of Pittsburgh to design the vehicle, a 1947 Chrysler Saratoga with larger-than-life lighters stretching above the roof line, complete with removable neon flames. The lids of the lighters snapped shut for travel. The word Zippo was painted on the side in 24-karat gold. The Zippo Car was a hit, heading up parades and special events.
In the two years after its creation, the Zippo Car traveled to all 48 continental U.S. states and participated in every major parade in the nation but the remarkable car had some problems. The weight of the giant lighters put enormous pressure on the tires, which blew out easily. The armor-plated fenders made the car impossible to jack up for a tire change.
In the early 1950s, Blaisdell asked that the car be returned to Bradford for an overhaul. Instead, the car was taken to a Pittsburgh Ford dealer for renovation, which would have proven too costly. Blaisdell’s enthusiasm for the car fizzled out and the car was pretty much forgotten about. Several years later when Zippo looked into the whereabouts of the car, it couldn’t be found.
In 1996, Zippo purchased another 1947 Chrysler New Yorker Saratoga and started over again, making the car lighter with a sturdier suspension. The new Zippo Car is just as popular as its predecessor, making rounds across America, now in a truck instead of being driven across the nation. When not on the road, the Zippo Car makes its home at the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
Starting in the mid-50s, date codes were stamped on the bottom of every Zippo lighter. The original purpose was for quality control, but the codes have since become an invaluable tool for collectors.
The launch of the Slim model in 1956 was a major milestone. This version was designed to appeal primarily to women. The first non-lighter product was a steel pocket tape measure, or "rule" as it was called, introduced in 1962. Other items have been added and deleted from the Zippo line since the 1960s. Many were primarily geared to the promotional products division. The roster includes key chains, pocket knives, golf greenskeepers, pen-and-pencil sets and the ZipLight pocket flashlight.
On the music scene, Zippo lighters have been raised high since the 1960s as a salute to favorite performers, a gesture later dubbed the "Zippo Moment". The famous Zippo "click" sound has been sampled on songs, and the lighters themselves have been featured on album covers, tattooed on rockers’ skin, and wielded in Rolling Stone photo shoots.
The Vietnam War represented something different from all other American Wars, previous and since. There were the regular army soldiers, many raised by World War II heroes and viewing their job as a duty and privilege. There were victims of fate, the unwilling, drafted by lottery, many poor and minority, resentful of their government and military superiors. And there were those along for the ride, not interested in glory or politics, merely trying to follow orders and earn their ticket home. Regardless, they were all connected by the Zippo, the functional tool carried by nearly all soldiers since World War II.
During the Vietnam War, several items became the canvasses on which soldiers painted their feelings. The Zippo was one of these items. According to collectors, 200,000 Zippos were used by American soldiers in Vietnam. Zippo merchandise quickly found its way onto the black market. Soldiers were able to buy brand new Zippos without having to go to the PX store. Vietnamese craftsmen would engrave anything from pictures to phrases onto the Zippo for the soldiers. The most popular motif engraved on soldiers' Zippo was the map of Vietnam. Every soldier had his own personalized Zippo, which accompanied him until the fall of Saigon.
The Zippo played a part in almost every daily activity of a soldier. The shiny top provided a handy mirror and the lighter's flame warmed the stew at mealtime. Soldiers kept salt in the bottom cavities, called canned bottoms, of their Zippos, to replenish lost body salt. Other legendary Zippos were used to transmit signals or even provided a shield against enemy bullets. Staff Sergeant Naugle, who was saved because he was able to signal his position to the rescue helicopter, had a Zippo in his hand. Among men that had a close call with death, one of the luckiest was Sergeant Martinez, who kept a Zippo in his chest pocket. A bullet struck his chest, only to be stopped by the Zippo. This was reported in Life magazine and also appeared in various advertisements regardless if it was factual or not.
Zippos were also used in military operations in which troopers would spray gasoline over the area to burn enemy compounds and dwellings. Zippos were used so frequently in Search & Destroy missions that GIs nicknamed them "Zippo Missions" or "Zippo Raids."
Zippo lighters used by American soldiers during the Vietnam War have become collector's items. Every Zippo from the war conveys a great sense of having been there on the battlefield. The soldiers who faced death and stood on the brink of hell, carrying their Zippos, transformed these simple lighters into an essential part of their own bodies and souls. Zippo lighters have since become priceless collector's items.
In 1982, Zippo celebrated the 50th anniversary of its lighters, by producing a replica of an early model for the first time. It was a flat bottomed, solid-brass model and had a diagonally-cut line on both the top of the lid and the bottom of the case. This was the reproduction of the 1937 model and came in a box that had the same design as the one used between 1935 and 1940, which bore the illustration of the "Windproof Beauty". The Commemorative box had a gold finish rather than the silver finish from the original. This reproduction was based on the 1935 prototype box that was not used for production. The original 1932 Zippos are now very rare.
Zippo’s diverse product line continues to grow, and now includes lighter accessories; butane candle lighters; watches, men's and women's fragrance, and lifestyle accessories for men; and the developing line of heat and flame products for outdoor enthusiasts. Zippo also owns the Ronson brand of lighters and fuel.
In 2012, during its 80th anniversary year, Zippo production surpassed the milestone of 500 million lighters since Mr. Blaisdell crafted the first lighter in early 1933. The lighter is ingrained in the fabric of both American and global culture.
Today, though most products are simply disposable or available with limited warranties, the Zippo lighter is still backed by its famous lifetime guarantee, "It works or we fix it free.™" In more than 80 years, no one has ever spent a cent on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter regardless of the lighter’s age or condition. It’s estimated that there are some four million Zippo collectors in the United States and millions more around the world.
Mr. Blaisdell passed away on October 3, 1978. After his passing, his daughters inherited the business. Today, George B. Duke, Mr. Blaisdell’s grandson is the sole owner and Chairman of the Board. Gregory W. Booth is President and CEO.
The Zippo/Case Museum opened in July 1997. It is located in Bradford, Pennsylvania at 1932 Zippo Drive. The 15,000-square-foot facility includes a store, museum, and the famous Zippo Repair Clinic, where the Zippo lighter repair process is on display.