History of Zippo

resource material from

History of ZippoZippo 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.

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”.

original Zippo, 1932

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.

The Personalized Engraving on a Zippo.

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 in 1936. 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 includes: 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 is 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.

A Package of Its own.

The packages is part of the Zippo art. By appearance, the lighter boxes are roughly classified into 12 different size categories. But, if the mount-style differences and specially made series boxes are taken into account, the number would total over 30 categories. The mount used between 1932 and 1933 was plain cardboard with a lighter-shaped cutout, covered with matte-black paper. The paper was switched to a glossy style that was used from the year 1933 until 1936. Zippo has offered a free repair service, that supports its lifetime guarantee, since its foundation. Up until 1940, a repaired Zippo was returned in the package in which the Zippo was sent for the service. If this was not possible, the Zippo was delivered in a brand new box. From 1941, the company used collapsible box for returning Zippos that had been sent back for repair. Return boxes for repaired Zippos were used until 1951; from 1952, the new box was introduced for regular model lighters and the return boxes were changed to the same striped boxes as the regular ones. Since then, the boxes for returns were changed, following the modifications to regular models, until 1978. Then the use of boxes was terminated, the last boxes were decorated with the flame design. From 1981 to 1986, a plastic package was used.

Zippo lighters, the Advertising Medium.

The Zippo was first introduced as a promotional item in 1936 by the Kendall Refining Company. Kendall ordered 500 Zippo lighters with their trademark glued to the case for advertising purposes. 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.

Zippo and the Marlboro Cowboy.

Marlboro cigarette was first marketed in 1924 by Philip Morris. The advertising images used were those of cowboys, athletes, and pilots. From 1963, the Cowboy became the sole image of the cigarette. Zippo first appeared in a Marlboro advertisement in 1954, coinciding with the first time the cowboy appeared in the role of Marlboro’s image character. Zippos were used by Philip Morris in promotional campaigns as well. Ever since, Zippo has had an inseparable relationship with Marlboro, both as a campaign item and an advertising tool.

During WWII Zippo President G.G. Blaisdell shipped as many Zippo lighters as possible to post exchanges and to the front line. Soldiers were favorable of the Zippo lighters because they were inexpensive, reliable, and it always worked when it was needed. During this time, Zippo was faced with material shortages. Zippo had no choice but to use low quality porous steel instead of brass. The chrome or nickel finishing coat could not be applied to the lighter, this left a black-matte finish on the surface. 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. No other event in history had increased the popularity of the Zippo as did the second World War.