History of Zippo

Zippo 28831 Trading Cards

History of  the Zippo Manufacturing Company

There is little question that Zippo lighters are an American icon in terms of being recognized and their long history. You can still find lighters manufactured by Zippo in every state and arguably every community. They are safe, reliable and hold a status similar to other American-made products such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Yet, the history of the Zippo lighter is a fascinating one as it started with humble beginnings and the simple desire of a man looking for an idea that would make him some money. It would turn out to be a venture far more profitable than he would ever dream.

Creating the Zippo Lighter

One evening in 1932 at the Branford Country Club, George G. Blaisdell was attending a dance and pondering a way to make additional money as he had for years with little success. As he stopped outside to the terrace, he noticed his friend trying to light his cigarette with a rather ugly, brass lighter that was rather clumsy to operate. When Blaisdell asked why not obtain a better looking lighter, his friend told him that it works and that’s all that mattered.

The statement “It Works” stuck in Blaisdell’s head and he quickly obtained the US rights for an Austrian lighter manufacturer, but this venture failed when the lighter proved to be unreliable. Undaunted, Blaisdell instead rented a room for $10 a month and hired three people to create a new lighter that would meet his specifications. The lighter needed the following qualities;

  • Small enough to fit easily into the palm of the hand
  • A hinge to hold the lid onto the bottom of the lighter
  • A wind hook around the wick to prevent the flame from blowing out easily

After spending about $260 on equipment and parts, Blaisdell’s design came to life as he incorporated the hood design from the Austrian lighter he had previously obtained and he named his creation “Zippo”.

The Zippo Goes to Market

Introduced in 1932, the Zippo was rectangular with a hinged lid and three barrels with a price of $1.95. At the end of the first month of sales, 82 Zippos were created and the sales totaled $69.15. To help with marketing his lighter, Blaisdell came up with the idea of offering a lifetime warranty that covered any defects in the lighter itself.

It proved to be a brilliant marketing strategy that is still in use today. In fact, a large part of the revenue that lighter companied enjoyed was from the repairs and sales of parts after their limited warranties expired. Blaisdell changed the dynamic by making repairs for free and usually within 48 hours. The lifetime warranty combined with the simple, durable and attractive lighter was a combination that simply could not miss. In fact, other than a few minor changes that were made in the mid-1930s, the classic Zippo has remained the same ever since.

From World War II Through the 1980s

Zippo had become a highly successful lighter by 1939, but the coming war had a profound effect on the company. By early 1942, Zippo has stopped producing lighters for consumers and switched to making them for the military. As a result, the addition of the steel casing with black crackle finish made them an iconic part of the war effort. It was here that millions of soldiers saw firsthand the capabilities of this lighter and solidified Zippo’s place in the market.

When the war ended, Zippo returned to selling lighters for consumers and Blaisdell who was ever the showman created a Zippo Car to help promote his lighter across America. By the mid-1950s date codes were being stamped on the bottom of the lighter for quality control purposes, but they became an iconic part of the lighter for collectors.

During this time, Zippo introduced the Slim model designed for women and in 1962 they produced a steel pocket tape measure or rule as it was called. Over the years, many Zippo products have been produced with most being promotional in nature from key chains to pen and pencil sets and even a flashlight all bearing the classic Zippo shape.

However, it was during the 1960s that Zippo became a pop icon symbol that was used in innumerable movies, stage plays and TV shows. You could find Zippo lighters on the covers of rock albums and even the famous click noise of the lid being shut was sampled into songs. By the 1970s, Zippo was fully engrained in the culture.

By the 1990s, Zippo had expanded its reach by acquiring WR Case and Sons Cutlery Company which provided them with a wide range of products for sale from cutlery to traditional pocket folding knives as well as fixed blade sports knives. The acquisition of Case complimented the Zippo line perfectly as it had built up a considerable reputation as being one of the finest American manufacturers of knives.

Today, there are roughly four million collectors of Zippo lighters in the US as well as millions more around the world. There is a real passion to their efforts in trying to collect as many of the historic Zippo lighters that have been manufactured. There are even collector clubs about Zippo lighters and they meet at various places around the country to show off their various collections.

By 1997, the Zippo Case Museum was opened in 1997. This large 15,000 square foot facility offers a museum, store and the Zippo Repair Clinic where it is demonstrated how to repair a Zippo lighter. Recently remodeled in 2012, the museum has represented itself in a manner that captures classic Americana.

Zippo Lifetime GuaranteeIn 1978, Blaisdell passed away and left the company to his children and subsequently the grandchildren which run the business today. It was during the 1970s that Zippo began marketing its lighters overseas and today it is being sold in over 160 countries. With heavy growth in China and India, Zippo has grown considerably in just the past few years with the same basic lighter design it first created in the 1930s and still backed by the lifetime guarantee.