The Birth of the Zippo lighter

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The Birth of the Zippo lighter

Zippo originated in a small Pennsylvania town at a time when the United States was in its worst depression in history. The Zippo’s story begins at this darkest moment. Zippo’s success came about through initiative and hard work, through the creation of a durable and functional product, through ingenious marketing and attentive service, and through the innovation of a lifetime product warranty. It all started on one summer evening in 1932, at a dinner dance held at the Bradford Country Club, on a hill on the outskirts of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Attending the dance was George G. Blaisdell, who later became known as “Mr. Zippo.” Blaisdell was one of those looking for a new way to make money.

An Austrian Lighter
An Austrian Lighter

So far, he had yet to bump into anything promising. Blaisdell, who had been growing tired of the dance and idle talk of politics, went out onto the terrace to have a smoke. There, he saw a friend of his trying to light up a cigarette, taking out of his pocket an unsightly brass lighter that was patently tawdry. The ugly lighter was totally out of place in the hand of the perfectly attired gentleman. The sight of the man 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 must have thought it was none of Blaisdell business. “It works!” he declared, defensively. Those two words, “It works!”, whirled in George Blaisdell’s head that night. In these times, everyone must be looking for something that is low-priced, yet sturdy and durable, he thought. No, that isn’t so; those things are always sought after, not just in bad times. This lighter business is promising!

Blaisdell immediately obtained the sole U.S. rights from the Austrian lighter manufacturer. To improve its appearance, Blaisdell chrome-plated the lid of the lighter and raised the price to one dollar. He couldn’t sell any, he discovered that there were defects in the lighter. Blaisdell was determined to develop a new lighter that would not fail to light.

Abandoning the defective Austrian lighter, Blaisdell rented a corner of the second floor of the Rickerson & Pryde, Inc. building on Boylston Street. Blaisdell paid $10 a month in rent, hired three people, and began to develop a new lighter. He and his team used an electric hot plate for soldering. Everything from the punch press to the welder was second-hand equipment. The total cost of his equipment was $260 at the time. 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. Blaisdell then placed a wind hood around the wick, he utilized the hood design of the Austrian lighter and named the new product “Zippo”.

The original Zippo model was introduced in 1932

This model had a rectangular shape with a protruding hinge holding the lid to the body and three barrels. The following year, the model was shortened by 1/4 inch. The retail price of the original windproof model was $1.95. 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.

If you don’t own one of these pieces of American history, you need too.

Below are the coolest Zippos we were able to find.

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