Simply by the distinct metallic click most people, no matter where in the world, will recognize a Zippo lighter. The reusable, windproof metal lighter has sold over 500 million units in 160 countries over the last 80 years. First popularized by American soldiers the Zippo spread to movie and music industries and now enjoys an unaided awareness rate of 98 percent, i.e. only two people out of every 100 don’t know the name Zippo.
A Zippo is a liquid fuel lighter and while its design and function are simple it actually consists of 22 parts and requires 108 manufacturing processes. Zippo’s are renown for working even in strong winds due to their design. Since it’s inception Zippo’s have always been made in America and have since become a ‘legendary and distinct symbol of Americana’.
George Blaisdell created the Zippo in 1932 after he observed a friend struggle to light a cigarette with an Austrian lighter of similar design. It worked well but needed two hands to operate and its thin metal case damaged easily. George obtained the U.S. rights to the Austrian lighter but it struggled to sell due to its defects.
George was determined to develop a better lighter that would not fail to work, one that was smaller, lighter and which you could operate with one hand. He set to work in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
He improved the Austrian design with a thicker metal case and use of sturdy, quality components. The lid is attached by hinge that allows one-handed operation and George perfected the ‘chimney’ design so that it would work no matter the weather conditions. He really liked the name of another recent popular invention, the zipper, and so came up with the name Zippo and founded the Zippo Manufacturing Company.
The design of a Zippo lighter remains basically the same to this day with only minor improvements made over the last 80 years.
World War II had a significant effect on the Zippo Manufacturing Company. Sales up to this point had been affected by the great depression and growth had been small. When the USA joined the war Zippo stopped producing lighters for the consumer market and dedicated all manufacturing to the U.S. Military. The lighters quickly became standard issue and a vital part of soldiers’ lives. Millions of American Military personnel have carried the lighter into battle, establishing Zippo as an American icon throughout the world. There are many stories of how the light, case or heat of a Zippo saved the day or even a life. Once famously stopping a bullet destined for a Sergeant as it sat in his breast pocket.
Another hugely influential factor on its success has been ties to movies and music. A Zippo lighter has featured in over 1500 movies, stage plays and TV shows. They have been mentioned in popular music and the unique Zippo ‘click’ has been sampled numerous times. Zippo lighters have been raised in salute to favorite performers since the 1960’s, a gesture named the ‘Zippo movement’ and they have been featured on album covers, tattooed on rockers arms and appeared in photo-shoots.
Zippo’s have attracted a devoted following of collectors, trying to find rare pieces with unique branding from the companies history. During America’s wars Zippo’s were issued with authorized badges, unit crests and division insignia. American soldiers would also engrave their Zippo with personal mottos. Advertisements from the 40’s and 50’s, the 1969 moon landing, sports teams, historic events and personalities have all featured on a Zippo lighter.
Since the beginning Zippo have offered a lifetime guarantee, “it works or we fix it for free”. George Blaisdell knew this would be a key marketing message and credited this guarantee to Zippo’s excellent reputation and ongoing popularity.
In 2012 as the Zippo Manufacturing Company celebrated it’s 80th year it also reached another milestone as the 500 millionth Zippo was manufactured. They achieved trademark registration of the shape of the Zippo lighter in 2002. Over it’s 80 year history 1000’s of styles and designs have been produced and the Zippo has become the standard for quality and practicality and has even gone beyond to become one of America’s most patriotic, famous and iconic brands.