A History of the Zipper from Novelty to Ubiquity
It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s as common as blue jeans. In fact, it’s really as common as pants. And while the button fly still has its fans, the zipper is truly the fastener of choice among wearers of pants, dresses, shirts, jackets, and any other article of clothing that needs a good, reliable close. Zippers, not limited in use to clothing, are among the defining inventions that resulted from the frustrated exclamation, “There’s got to be a better way!” But better than what? The history of the zipper explains how the human mind once again rose to the occasion and conquered inconvenience—but, surprisingly, not until its manufacturers proved its convenience and trends shifted in its favor.
Phase One: Judson’s Early “Clasp Lockers” and “Slide Fasteners”
Fashionable nineteenth century high-button shoes required a great deal of effort to put on The history of the zipper began in the United States with nineteenth-century “high-button” boots that were practical for outdoor movement in dirty environments. High-button boots were also in fashion. Many of these boots exceeded 20 individual buttons, a challenge for even the nimblest of fingers with or without a button hook to aide in the process (Petroski). Near the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago inventor Whitcomb L. Judson began patenting what he intended to be an easier solution for securing high-button boots in a way more fashionable and secure than laces—but intention was no substitute for usefulness.
It was 1891 when Judson took his “Clasp Locker or Unlocker” to the U.S. patent office. It was a basic assembly of hooks and attachments, in reality not a great improvement to the hook-and-eye system. It was based upon the premise of an automatic engagement of components by virtue of a “guide.” It was the guiding apparatus that would evolve into the component that would eventually render the invention a success. Unfortunately, the assembly was still terribly complex and likely not very functional. The same would be true of the next design that was submitted nearly two years later (Friedel).
And, amazingly, the same would be true for the next several versions over 20 years of trial-and-error. The designs were just too complex and didn’t work all that well. But that didn’t stop the designer and his promoters from shopping their invention around the town. Indeed, under the direction of the Harry L. Earle Manufacturing Company, the growing team managed to find investors in a product ingenious in principle, but uninspiring in practice. Investors were found east of Chicago, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and, eventually, New Jersey, but many didn’t stay around after the initial failures.
By the financial panic of 1893, an invention in the hands of a less steady investor would have been doomed to failure. But a successful lawyer and businessman of the Pennsylvania National Guard, Colonel Lewis Walker, apparently had high aspirations to be a successful investor and saw something in Whitcomb L. Judson—or, perhaps, he was a fan of high-button boots and yearned for an improved system of closure.
Whatever Walker saw in Judson was important because Walker was able to look past his failed investment in a previous Judson invention. With the confidence of Walker (and his continued capital investment), the mechanical engineer could develop his invention. The clasp locker had a future, but it wasn’t yet as a zipper. It was a fastener. And in 1894, Judson's team founded the Universal Fastener Company in Chicago (Friedel).
Unfortunately, the design raised many questions, and its shortcomings became apparent every time the team attempted to stretch the intent of the invention to applications other than shoes, such as to corsets. Judson invented solutions that seemed only to complicate the original design. Meanwhile, Judson went to work on an impractical machine to manufacture the impractical fastener, eventually enlisting the technical help of machinists from a Connecticut-based manufacturing company, including Peter Aronson. Through the last years of the nineteenth century, Walker stayed invested and Earle found new investors on the Eastern seaboard.
The Universal Fastener Company had evolved into the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company, which evolved into the Automatic Hook and Eye Company of Hoboken, New Jersey, where the operation moved in 1904. That year, Judson developed the “C-curity,” a new hook-and-eye design that was also easily attachable to garments via a cloth tape. The C-curity was actually rather marketable in idea, and the team went to work advertising the invention as a secure fastener, in particular for women’s skirts. Contrary to the claims, however, the device was not particularly secure, bulky in design, and not easy to remedy in the sure event of a failure (Petroski).
Phase Two: Sundback’s “Plako” and “Hookless” Fasteners
Earle and Judson dropped out of the picture at this point in the Hoboken company’s story, but Walker remained committed. He brought on family from Meadville, Pennsylvania, as well as a Swedish-born engineer named Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback. Sundback was trained in electrical engineering in Germany before emigrating to the United States, where he eventually landed a job at Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Friedel, Petroski).
Sundback interviewed with Aronson at the struggling Hoboken company and was convinced to leave Westinghouse to help fix the technical defects in the machinery and the fastener itself. Sundback, in short, took on the monumental task of rendering Judson’s invention useful. As with any question or dilemma, fresh eyes and a new perspective proved precisely what the bulky and ineffective fastener needed. Sundback first perfected the C-curity under the name of Plako, later patented in 1913. But even a perfect C-curity wasn’t ideal. It was, however, enough to lure new money. It took a combination of in-kind work and incredible dedication to keep investors, both in money and raw materials, to stay committed to Sundback’s work.
As Sundback’s personal life collapsed around him, he apparently became more focused on the task of rendering these troubling fasteners a success. He scrapped the antiquated hook-and-eye and endeavored to build something almost completely new. What he created was a device that used spring clip jaws that “clamped around a beaded edge of the tape on the other side” (Sundback quoted in Petroski). Sundback submitted the patent for his “Hookless No. 1” in 1912, which would be approved five years later. During that same period, the early patents were expiring, but Walker saw great potential in Sundback’s improvements. He reorganized investments in the Hookless Fastener Company and moved the operation to a barn in Meadville. There, Gideon Sundback developed his Hookless No.2, (a.k.a. the “Hookless Hooker”) and, eventually, the zipper (Friedel).
Marketing the Early Zippers: Over 20 Years of Determination
Gideon Sundback's "Hookless" fastener designs and patents helped launch the modern zipper industry The brilliance of Sundback’s zipper design was two-fold. One, it was machine creatable, which meant mass-production (though the new machine would be several months in the making). Two, it completely abandoned the hook in favor of what Sundback described as “nested, cup-shaped members” or “interlocking scoops” conjoined by the slide. But what makes the Hookless No. 2 so brilliant is its clever use of interlocking components that are totally dependent upon the slide sequence and do not function independently, like individual hooks and eyes. The device’s brilliance, however, was no match for a fickle market, which initially took little interest in the “novelty” from an aesthetic standpoint. After over 20 years of developments, the fully functional Hookless No. 2 would be another 20 years in search of buyers (Friedel).
The first Hookless No. 2 fasteners were sold in 1914. Walker’s son managed to find a buyer of four fasteners. He sold all four for one dollar. McCreery’s department store in Pittsburg saw great potential for the fasteners in women’s garments, small tweaks were made to strengthen the fastener, and the machine they developed produced over 1,500 flawless fasteners a day—but there was simply no demand. When raw materials were diverted during World War I, the company had a stock of fasteners from which they made money belts that were very popular among soldiers in the war. Additional military applications meant the company had access to the raw materials they needed but, more importantly, the “handy novelty” was exposed to thousands of military personnel (Friedel).
Additional campaigns were launched to boost the fastener’s image among manufacturers of everyday garments, but it still lacked the branding and trendiness it needed. The name “zipper” finally emerged thanks to the advertisers at B.F. Goodrich Company whose Akron, Ohio, plant developed rubber galoshes originally called the “Mystik Boot.” The Hookless Fastener Company made a few more improvements at Goodrich’s request, and soon an order was placed that exceeded Hookless’ manufacturing capacity. In 1923, Goodrich adopted and trademarked the name “Zipper Boot” due to the more dramatic sense the word “zip” created. Meanwhile, the Meadville company stepped up production and choose the name “Talon” for its product (and in 1937 the company), believing the name epitomized their product’s “positive qualities” (Petroski). Goodrich purchased millions of the Hookless Company’s Talons, who would go on to produce 20 million in a single year by 1930. Though originally a trademark of Goodrich, zipper came into common usage as the generic, relegating names like slide fastener and Talon to obscurity.
The vast array of applications for zippers in the 1930s established the device’s usefulness, adding to its consumer base from the military and Zipper Boot fans. By the middle of that decade, the zipper finally emerged from obscure novelty in clothing applications to became fully trendy thanks to big-name designers who incorporated zippers into their new lines, and aggressively marketed them. Both men’s and women’s clothing manufactures embraced the device. A campaign to end “gap-osis,” the symptom that longed plagued people using fasteners of all kinds, finally sealed the device’s success (Petroski). Talon, Inc., was joined by many other zipper manufactures in 1939 to propel zippers into ubiquity, producing some 300 million zippers. A decade later, over a billion zippers were being produced (Friedel).
Today's Global Zipper Industry
At about the same time the Hookless Company was breaking through in America, versions of slide fasteners emerged in the international market, starting with Japan as early as 1927. Many of Talon’s original patents expired in the 1950s. At that time, the Japanese manufacturer YKK was well established, and founder Tadao Yoshida had personally developed most of the components needed to operate his facility independently of the supply chain. The virtually self-sustaining enterprise then added ideas from Talon and began to look for ways and places to grow.
Yoshida’s drive and attention to detail helped YKK dominate the Japanese zipper market by the 1960s. To get around extensive barriers to trade, Yoshida began setting up shop outside of Japan—one of the early Japanese companies to do so. The U.S. wing of the business would fall in the hands of his son, who had integrated into American society while earning an M.B.A. there. Yoshida’s business model was called the “virtuous cycle,” and was a principles-based mission that drove efficiency and quality while keeping prices low even as the company grew and integrated into more and more markets (Fulford).
Modern zippers are very versatile and come in a variety of sizes and materials The story of YKK is important in the history of zippers because they now dominate the global market, accounting for about half of all zippers produced in the world. But YKK has also innovated software and machinery that has perfected the manufacture of zippers of all kinds, building upon patents and continuously improving designs. YKK used DuPont nylon, for example, to manufacture a lightweight yet durable alternative to the metal zipper as early as the 1960s—and by the 1970s, Levi Strauss began substituting YKK zippers for button flies on their denim jeans. YKK was also had the first zipper on the moon. YKK has proven to be an extremely adaptable company that deftly moved into markets and quickly found its niche, while the descendant of Talon, Inc., proved less malleable and gradually lost market share.
There are other major players in the multi-billion-dollar zipper market, many of which are supplied by one of hundreds of zipper manufactures in China (Fulford). As long as zippers aren’t replaced by a better fastener, their function will remain indispensable in hundreds of industries. Meanwhile, companies like IDEAL Fastener Corporation have innovated zippers manufactured from recycled materials, saving raw materials and fuel in the production (Apparel Magazine).
Perhaps even more noteworthy is YKK’s release of a new hook-and-eye line of zippers designed to prevent fastener separation of tight and tightly worn garments (Apparel Magazine). The zipper, especially non-metal versions, is in fact still susceptible to separation especially during fastening or unfastening, though certainly not to the extent of the early C-Curity. The hook-and-eye seems to reincorporate an element of the original patent to the benefit of the current model. The product is just one of thousands of colors, sizes, and variations of something that, at its core, is basically the same thing. The zipper is an ingenuous but maddeningly difficult-to-perfect device that better than most devices works to prevent “gap-osis” and ultimately allows an immeasurable number of things to effortlessly open and close—making it, in many ways, the better way.
-- Posted March 10, 2011
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----. Vol. 49.2 (October 2007): 36.
Friedel, Robert. “The History of the Zipper.” American Heritage of Invention & Technology. Vol 10.1 (July 1994): 8-16.
Fulford, Benjamin. “Zipping Up the World.” Forbes Global. Vol 6.22 (Nov. 24, 2003).Petroski, Henry. 1992. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.