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A Short History Of The Zipper

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Is there any gadget that is taken for granted more than the zipper? Zippers are everywhere: in clothing, pillows, purses, luggage, slipcovers, coats, hats, and more. Zippers are available in all colors and sizes. Zippers are so commonplace that we don’t even think about them- unless, of course, they get stuck.

So where and how did the first zipper come to be? We thought a brief history of the zipper might be fun to share with you.

The first patent for an "Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure" was issued in 1851 to Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine. But apparently Howe never marketed his idea. If he had, perhaps instead of the zipper we might be referring to the Howe today.

But happily the idea for a new type of closure didn’t stop with Howe. Some 42 years later, Whitcomb Judson patented and marketed a “Clasp Locker”, a hook-and-eye shoe fastener; and he launched a company to manufacture the new gadget. Sadly Judson’s idea never got off the ground even after it’s public debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

It wasn’t until 1913 that the modern zipper came into being thanks to Gideon Sundback, the head designer for Universal Fastener Company in NJ. Sunback increased the number of fastening elements (teeth) and introduced two rows of facing teeth with a slide that closed the teeth together. He also invented the machinery to produce the zipper. The patent for his “Separable Fastener” was issued in 1917.

B.F. Goodrich was an early adaptor of the zipper, using it on their rubber boots. Goodrich was the first to refer to the new closure as a zipper (which likely came from the sound of the fastener closing and opening) and the name stuck ever after.

Now you would have thought that the garment industry would have seen the possibilities in the new zipper, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until the 1930s that zippers began to come into use on children’s clothing in an apparent effort to teach self-reliance by making it possible for them to dress themselves.

But it was the canny French who saw the possibilities of using the zipper on clothing, first on men’s trousers. There ensured the Battle of the Fly in 1937 and, happily, buttons lost. The zipper on trousers was marketed as a way of avoiding “embarrassing disarray.”

There have been a few modern improvements, but essentially the zipper of today isn’t all that different from the one patented in 19717. Other materials such as plastic have come into use and of course there’s the invisible zipper where the teeth are hidden. And today we have waterproof zippers thanks to those developed for the space program. But likely the best change was the introduction of zippers that can open and close at both ends such as those we use today on jackets.

I hope you have enjoyed our brief history of the zipper!

By Florence Dove Google

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