Flames of War: How World War II made Zippo lighters one of the most recognizable American icons

 
 
 
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The history of Zippo, one of America’s greatest and most recognizable icons, goes back to the era of the Great Depression which originated in the United States and it’s known as the worst economic disaster in American history.

It all began in 1932 at a dinner dance held at the Bradford Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania. George G. Blaisdell, the future “Mr. Zippo,” was one of the many people who attended the dinner dance that evening. It seems that Mr. Blaisdell was not much of a dancer, so he decided to have a smoke and went to the terrace.

There, he spotted his friend who was trying to light up a cigarette by using a cumbersome Austrian-made lighter. Mr. Blaisdell almost burst into laughter when he saw that the gentleman in front of him was struggling to light up the cigarette and had to use both his hands in order to operate the lighter.

This funny incident gave Mr. Blaisdell an idea to create a lighter based on the Austrian-made that would look much better aesthetically and could be operated with one hand. He managed to obtain the rights from the Austrian lighter manufacturer and created his version of the lighter.

Crowd gathering at the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street after the 1929 crash

 

Zippo’s flint-wheel Ignition  Photo Credit

His revolutionary lighter now needed a name that would sound modern. Mr. Blaisdell always liked the sound of the word “zipper” and thought that “Zippo” was a much more modern name, so he named the new product “Zippo.”

Zippo Manufacturing Company that was founded in 1932 produced its first Zippo lighter in 1933 and began selling the lighters for $1.95. The company had no reputation, and things were not looking good for Mr. Blaisdell who had difficulties to promote the product.

However, things changed for Zippo Manufacturing Company on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese had conducted a surprise military strike on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II.

The fact that Zippo lighters can remain lighted in almost any wind situation made them favorite lighters among the American soldiers during World War II.

A lit 1968 slim model Zippo Photo Credit

 

U.S. President Roosevelt signing declaration of war against Japan on December 8th, 1941

When the United States entered World War II, the Zippo Manufacturing Company had faced material shortages and was forced to use a secondary grade of steel in the process of production, due to the fact that the grade one steel was vital for the military industry. The cases of the new Zippo were coated with a heavy black paint but more importantly, this black, rough-surfaced Zippo was able to stay lit in harsh weather and that was exactly what the American soldiers needed, so it became an essential tool for every American soldier.

The company stopped its production for the consumer market, and all Zippo lighters which were produced were sent overseas to the U.S. military. The famous war correspondent, Ernie Pyle was among the many celebrities who received a great number of Zippo lighters and then gave them away to soldiers.

He wrote many letters to Mr. Blaisdell thanking him for the many packages of Zippo lighters which he sent overseas. In one of these letters, he wrote:

“It’s the one lighter that all soldiers know — and covet. Once in a while, a batch will go on sale at the Post Exchanges, but they are quickly gone. Friends who heard I had a batch coming have had their “reservations” in for weeks.” 

An open full-size Navy Zippo

 

Modern black matte finish Zippo lighter  Photo Credit

In another letter addressed to Mr. Blaisdell in October 1944, Pyle wrote:

“If I tried to tell you how much these Zippos are coveted at the front and the gratitude and delight with which the boys receive them, you would probably accuse me of exaggeration. There is truly nothing the average soldier would rather have.”

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When World War II ended, Zippo started producing lighters for the consumer market again and over the years the company cemented its reputation and continued to grow and thrive. To date, Zippo has produced over 500 million lighters and became one of the most recognizable American icons.