A zipper is something one rarely thinks about until it breaks. It’s something we use every day, from trousers to jackets to purses to zip-lock bags. Yet the actual modern zipper has only been around 101 years! The idea began forming as a practical design in 1851 in the mind of Elias Howe, who patented an “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure” (no wonder that name never caught on). He was not a marketing whiz, and the idea petered out. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a device designed by Whitcomb Judson was launched but wasn’t very practical, and again, it failed to take off commercially. In 1906, a Swedish-American electrical engineer by the name of Gideon Sundback was hired by (and married into) the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company (Meadville, PA), and became the head designer. By December 1913, he’d improved the fastener into what we would recognize as the modern zipper, and the patent for the “Separable Fastener” was issued in 1917. In March of that year, a Swiss inventor, Mathieu Burri, improved the design with a lock-in system added to the end of the row of teeth, but because of patent conflicts, his version never made it to production.
The name “zipper” was coined by the B.F. Goodrich Company in 1923, when they used Sundback’s fastener on a new type of rubber boot. When they first came into production, zippers were mainly used on boots and tobacco pouches, only making it onto leather jackets in 1925 (produced by Schott NYC), trousers in 1937 (beating out the traditional button method for men’s trousers). The next time you use a zipper, stop and think about what you would have had to use 100 years ago!
And in the meantime, here are a couple idioms that have arisen using “zip” or “zipper” or which refer directly to that imagery:
Zip it (up) – close your mouth
Zip your lip/mouth
Euphemisms about undone zippers are numerous; here are a few of the better ones (IMHO):
Barn/stable door’s open
What do birds/airplanes do?
Flag’s at half-mast
Front/trap door’s open
Your horse/colt’s gonna bolt
Mind the gap
XYZ (PDQ) – “Examine Your Zipper (pretty darn quick)” – Your zipper is open
6 responses to “History Undusted: The Evolution of the Zipper”
That was fun! I had a malfunctioning zipper the other day and wondered about its history. Now I know, thanks to you.
I always thought zips were a divine invention. See http://tinyurl.com/y9klnd5w. Or was it Velcro?
😉 This video might also interest you – how to fix every zipper issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrSFIWG-mqU
Most good inventions get their ideas from nature, like velcro, which was invented after Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, went on a hike in the 1940s.
Great! Thank you.