How Zippo Made the Lighter A Style Icon
How Zippo Made the Lighter A Style Icon
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date September 20, 2018
It’s a human sensation; we are drawn to fire. This has been true since before man produced the first flame. There is something dangerous and alluring about it; when you’re around a fire, you can’t help but stare into it. It seems natural, then, that a lighter could be a style accessory, a hallmark of cool. It seems natural, but, it was Zippo that made this a reality.
Yes, the sleek, simple design of the Zippo makes it appealing. The flick of the hinged top and the click as the flame rushes through the chimney carry the same macho burst that you feel from the revving of a motorcycle engine. But, Zippo’s arrival as a cultural icon wasn’t just about the virtues of the product itself. The Zippo became cool largely in part because it was the intersection of a few key cultural moments in American history.
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Prior to the advent of the Zippo, even the best lighters were marked by a utilitarian, inefficient design. George G. Blaisdell got the idea for the Zippo while watching his colleagues fumble with cumbersome yet flimsy lighters. The Austrian lighters that his friends were using had their positives: The chimney protected and enhanced the flame, and their lighters were far more reliable than competitors. But, trying in vain to work a lighter with two hands was anything but cool.
Blaisdell pioneered an attractive rectangular casing with a hinge top meant to be easily operated with one hand. Not only was the lighter superior in terms of staying power, modeling their function after the Austrian designs, but the form was elegant. The simple invention was a triumph of both design and engineering. The so-called “1935 model” was incredibly popular, and has endured to this day.
The Zippo was recognized as a great lighter from its inception, but it was the outbreak of the second World War that would be essential in establishing Zippo as a quintessential American brand. Zippo completely stopped production of lighters for the civilian economy and focused all of their production on the war effort. The durability and resilience of the Zippo appealed to those in charge of outfitting the war effort. Zippos stayed lit longer and they held up while doing it.
The company created a special steel-case lighter with a “black crackle” finish, as a result of production necessity. The company was forced to use “secondary grade” steel when creating its wartime lighters because the best steel was reserved for vital military needs. The black paint helped the lighter endure as it stayed lit regardless of the elements. The reliability made it a favorite among the troops.
After the war ended, Zippo found itself embedded in American culture. Millions of American soldiers had used the lighters in the war. Other than some small patent modifications, the simple, elegant design of the Zippo stayed consistent. This meant that boys grew up wanting Zippos like the kind their fathers brought home from the war. This is an early instance of the Zippo’s secondary life as symbol of (American) masculinity.
Adweek spoke with a brand agency creative executive Marcus Hewitt about the power the Zippo held in American culture. He talked about an ad from 1953 where a young man with lipstick marks all over his face holds a Zippo. Hewitt points out, “The boy’s giddy because he’s just been kissed—but the lighter is the hero. This is what made him grown up: the kiss, and getting his first Zippo.”
There is also an inextricable connection between Zippo and another American conflict: The Vietnam War. While spotless black lighters and clean steel lighters had been the symbol of earlier generations, Zippos came home from Vietnam hand engraved with cynical messages etched by artisans visiting American camps. It’s not unlike the M-65s that GIs embroidered with maps, sayings and graphics reflecting their times serving in Vietnam.
“Let me win your heart and mind or I’ll burn your God damn hut down,” read one. “Live it up! We’re all going the Hell anyway” read another. In his 1998 book, *The Viet Nam Zippo, 1933-1975, Jim Fiorella wrote that the lighters were “the small, speaking, archeological objects that bear witness to great personal heroism, pride, pain and tragedy.” In a dark twist, burning down a village came to be known as a “Zippo job” or “Zippo raid.” Some branded the entire conflict the “Zippo War” after the burned villages and firebombs that marked America’s human rights missteps there. The Zippo, as much as Charles Marlow’s boat in Heart of Darkness, became of symbol of the depths contained inside a man’s soul.
Though these Zippos are a reminder of a dark moment in America’s history, and the company did see a did in sales slump following the war, in the long run, this moment contributed to the legend of Zippo. Today, Zippo offers custom designs to any buyer. This is motivated by the memory of Vietnam Zippos.
These two wars framed the Zippo as central to the two sides of American masculine mythology. The Second World War associated the lighter with the nobility and righteousness we often associate with that conflict (despite its unfathomable death toll), while the association with Vietnam inextricably connected the Zippo to a darker, more rebellious vision of masculinity.
Between the two wars, Zippo benefited yet again from a key cultural moment. As rock and roll grew to dominate American culture, a new habit emerged in the counterculture. When an audience approved of a sick guitar solo or a soaring finale, the lighters would come out. This move would go down in history as the “Zippo Moment.”
The popularity of the Zippo predates rock and popular music to some extent: Frank Sinatra was buried with his trusty Zippo when he died in 1998. However, these “Zippo Moments” connected a generation of young people to their rock idols. The exact origins of the Zippo Moment are in dispute. But, the impromptu vigils were commonplace at Bob Dylan and Doors concerts throughout their respective careers, as well as many other lesser groups. Hundreds of lighters were held up a Woodstock. Neil Diamond’s “HeartLight” was never played without Zippo accompaniment. Though the Zippo Moment has largely been replaced by smartphones today, it is a gesture still seared in the public consciousness.
Zippo lighters have appeared in over 1,500 movies and TV shows. Many of these appearances are tied to a bid for historical authenticity. One of the first classic Zippo movie moment came when Humphrey Bogart used a lighter in the Zippo style in the World War II-era film Casablanca. Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now feature Zippos heavily. Of course, rock and roll films, like Almost Famous, heavily feature the Zippo.
Broadly masculine moments movie moments also often require a Zippo, perhaps as a nod to the lighter’s wartime connections. One of the lighters is front and center in the movie Die Hard, serving as a catalyst for John McClane’s iconic “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!” line. Sean Connery lights a room on fire with a Zippo in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The lighter Kaiser Soze uses at a key moment in The Usual Suspects also appears to be a Zippo.
The aura of masculinity around the Zippo led to the organic growth of urban legends as well. A 1960 print ad famously recounted a true story about a local fisherman caught an 18-pound fish, and discovered a still-working Zippo in its stomach. Over the years, a number of people have claimed that Zippos have stopped bullets from hitting them.
In recent years Zippo has adopted the approach of many other legacy brands, taking steps to enshrine and protect its product within the American consciousness. Like L.L.Bean and Patagonia, Zippo gains publicity from their impressive repair policy. The Zippo/Case Museum opened in 1997 in Bradford, PA where Zippo was founded. The museum site is also home to the Zippo Repair Clinic, where visitors can keep an eye on repairs on Zippos sent in from all over the world.
Zippo knockoffs have abounded in recent years and in 2002, the company expanded their various trademarks and patents to include the actual rectangular shape of their lighters. A large part of this is due to Zippo’s immense popularity in China, where the brand operates a number of brick and mortar locations. Chinese stores also carry a J.Crew-like clothing line in a further attempt to trade on and cement Zippo’s image of rustic American masculine nostalgia.
You might think that the decline in smoking in the United States would mean a dip of sales, but Zippo has actually held strong. Of course, the popularity of Zippos in China, where two-thirds of the adult male population still smokes, has helped. However, only 13 percent of the company’s revenue comes from China, and 40 percent still comes from American customers. Sales have remained steady stateside because Zippo has focused on selling its brand rather than cigarettes: sponsoring concert series, opening stores in Las Vegas casinos and producing lighters branded with Jack Daniels and Sons of Anarchy imagery. Besides, while Zippos may be attached to regular smokers, the need for a flame doesn’t begin and end with a pack of cigarettes.
The company has also embraced a concept that many of the sartorially inclined have long known: A Zippo is a fashion statement. Like legacy brands who trade in boots or flannels, Zippo has entered into collaborations with newer brands. Of course they have worked with [Supreme] on several occasions, but they’ve also jumped into bed with a number of other usual (streetwear) suspects. BAPE, Stussy, Kith, Neighborhood and many others have worked with Zippo as well. As with other legacy brands, these collaborations offer the newer companies a hint of timelessness while Zippo gets to make a bid for continued relevance with a new generations of male consumers.
In a NikeID-esque twist, on Zippo.com, you can now design your own lighter. This lead to the company produce 30,800 unique designs in 2014. CEO Greg Booth told Forbes, “The Zippo lighter is a thing of taste. Sometimes it’s used by folks just as a fashion statement.” Of course, this trend is a call back to a darker part of Zippo’s history. But, even in the darkest messages on those Vietnam Zippos, it seems customers see a mark of rugged individualism.