The zipper is a very common fastener used to secure all kinds of things, especially clothing. But the zipper wasn’t always around. Before the zipper was invented, buttons were used in fastening clothes, and so were hooks and eyes that had to be fastened manually. When the zipper first came out, it was somewhat of an oddity; it wasn’t widely accepted. But slowly, more and more people started noticing its convenient applications, and soon it could be seen everywhere. The zipper started off as a novelty, and because of its convenience, it is now a necessity.
The first zipper was invented by Whitcomb Judson. He devised it to do up boots, and got the device patented on August 29, 1893. He called it the “clasp locker”. The clasp locker was much bulkier than the zipper we know today. It was a series of two rows of hooks and eyes that could be fastened by a “slider” (which was the most important part of Judson’s invention). Another big difference from today’s zipper is that after zipping up the fastener, the slider would detach right off the garment. Then to open the clasp locker, the slider would be re-attached at the top of the locked clasps, upside down, and then pulled down.
About a year after the patents were issued, a close friend of Whitcomb Judson, named Harry Earle, and a lawyer named Lewis Walker met up with Judson, and they formed the Universal Fastening Company. They weren’t very successful. One of the main reasons was that the clasp locker didn’t work very well. The fastener frequently jammed, and easily rusted. But in April of 1896, some Post Office Department representatives went to the company and inspected the Judson fastener on a mailbag and pronounced it satisfactory. Twenty mailbags equipped with the fasteners were ordered. That was one of the first orders Universal Fastening Company got, and it wasn’t repeated. It’s assumed that the mailbags were discarded due to faulty fasteners.
While Judson tried to improve his fastener, the company struggled to get customers. But soon they weren’t so worried about trying to sell it, and more worried about finding useful applications for it. In early promotion, it was described as a “20th century device”. Also “remarkable in its simplicity, rapidity, security, utility”. The fastener would be shown applied to skirt plackets, gloves, corsets, boots, shoes, and leggings.
A little later in the decade, Judson came up with a new separable fastener, called the C-curity fastener, although its patent wasn’t issued until 1905. After the patent was issued, the company brought it to market. Finally, after ten years, there was a fastener that could be manufactured and sold.
With the introduction of the C-curity, the fastener makers deepened their commitment to a market that they hardly imagined when they began: women’s skirts and dresses. They were sure of their target at this time, and confident that they were on the right path. One advertisement, using three famous singers, past and present (at the time) went as follows:
In 1782 Mrs. Siddons was laced into her costume at the Drury Lane Theater.
In 1850 Jennie Lind depended on hooks and eyes at Castle Garden.
A Pull and it’s Done! No More Open Skirts. No old fashioned Hooks and Eyes or Fasteners. Your Skirt is Always Securely and Neatly Fastened. The C-curity Placket Fastener.
Now, advertising by the company wasn’t only to get people to buy it, but also to get workers to sell the fastener door-to-door. The door-to-door sales strategy can be explained by noting that this was a product that required a personal approach to customers rather than “by selling through stores where clerks are oftentimes indifferent even to the point of discourtesy when the sale of an article needs personal instruction of its application and use.”
In fact, with each fastener sold, an instruction booklet was included. This goes to show how strange and new it was for everyone:
Important!!! If, in moving the slide, it tightens, push it back just a little; this will ease it. Don’t pull hard if it stops; push it back.
Smooth out the folds of underskirt, so they will not get caught in the slide.
If skirt is to be washed remove fastener.
It’s plain to see that Judson’s C-curity fastener was operated differently from the zippers we use today, and had many more complications. Tearing the two sides apart was all you had to do to open it. This tells us that it probably opened a little too easily; and when you didn’t want it to. This plus the relatively high price of the fastener would obviously make it very undesirable, but that didn’t stop the company (which was by now named Automatic Hook and Eye) from continuing their efforts. Campaigning even went to Europe to try to get customers.
Soon a new worker came to the company, a Swedish immigrant named Gideon Sundback. He was an engineer, recruited by one of Automatic Hook and Eye’s bosses, who was also native to Sweden. Hard at work, in 1906, Sundback came up with the Plako fastener, which wasn’t a lot different from the C-Curity. It was improved, but before long, it was realized that it had the same problems.
It was right about this time that Whitcomb Judson and Harry Earle, two of the founders of the company decided it was time to leave. The fastener was in only Sundback’s hands. Sundback was fed up with hooks and eyes that were so constantly part of the fastener, and in 1913 he designed a fastener which had jaw members that clamped around the corded edge of the tape on the opposite side. It was called a “hookless fastener”, just as, at that time, cars were called “horseless carriages” and radios were frequently called “wireless”.
His first hookless failed like all the others, and then he came up with the “#2″ hookless. This one was coated with a better rust retardant, and was also more flexible. He also made it with scoops, or “teeth” for fasteners, and this was to become the modern zipper.
They didn’t know what to call this one. First they tried “hookless hooker” which was quickly replaced with “hookless #2″. But since most of the world never knew hookless #1, simply “hookless” would do. The company changed its name again, now it was Hookless Fastener Company.
By the end of 1914, endorsements from department stores started coming in saying that they would ask the manufacturers to put the hookless on some garments. But some manufacturers didn’t need to be asked, they themselves wanted to put it on. On the other hand, there were some who associated the new model with the previous Plako and C-curity models, and didn’t want to go near it.
One market that wasn’t afraid of it was sports clothing. In 1916, a riding skirt was made, with one fastener in the front, and one in the back, which could be worn as a regular skirt with the fasteners closed, and then when the rider got on the horse, she would undo the zippers and be able to ride. The fasteners were also used on trousers for sports like baseball and football.
During WWI, the hookless was tried out on other things like a mothproof wardrobe, a slipcover and sleeping bags. Soon a development of aviator’s clothing for the war which used the fastener was started, for which large government contracts could be anticipated.
Finally, in 1917, the novelty of the fastener really started to show through when a man named Robert J. Ewig visited the Hookless Fastener company with his idea. His idea was for a moneybelt-the fastener would be applied to a pocket suspended on the inside of a trouser belt. It was to be aimed at soldiers, especially sailors, whose uniforms had no pockets. There were no objections, and by early 1918, Ewig began to produce the moneybelts. They were a hit. The belts sold out as fast as they were stocked, in a wide range of outlets and drugstores. Ewig’s orders in 1918 totaled more than $7,700 and he sold an estimated 24,000 belts before his business slowed down in the months after the war ended.
Also in 1918, many other small companies began providing a steady customer base. The NuBone Corset company kept up some orders, and so did a couple of raincoat companies. Applications were also found on one-piece overalls, athletic trousers and even swimming trunks. Also their first luggage applications were seen with the use on tennis racket covers and bathing suit bags.
With new applications, new demands were put on the fastener, which required Sundback and his shop to modify designs accordingly. For example, it was tried out on gloves which called for much smaller and lighter models.
In about 1919, the fastener was experimented on tobacco pouches. It turned out to be a good source of consumption for Hookless Fastener Company. By the mid-1920’s, the pouches made up 70 percent of the company’s output.
But the biggest break of all came in 1923 when B.F. Goodrich Company decided to put them on a new product, rubber galoshes. They hoped to capture more customers’ attention by equipping their product with this novel device. The first order they put in was for 150,000 fasteners.
The story goes that Mr. B.F. Goodrich himself gave the name “zipper” to the device, because he liked the “z-z-z-i-p” sound that it made. The rubber galoshes came out and were sold as “Zipper Boots”, and it’s obvious that the onomatopoeic name stuck with it from then on.
The fashion world was still a little reluctant to accept the zipper. Then in 1935, with the help of a new plastic zipper, designer Elsa Schiaparelli came out with a line of clothing that was “dripping with zippers”. Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to produce colored zippers, oversized zippers, and zippers that were decorative and nonfunctional.
Also in the 1930’s, a new sales campaign began aimed at children’s clothing. It introduced the “self help” idea, which was the idea that small children would have an easier time dressing themselves with zipper-equipped clothing (than with buttons), and this would help them develop confidence and self-reliance.
While the zipper was being tried out on small children’s wardrobes and the high fashion industry was experimenting with it, it started seeping more heavily into the regular garment clothing markets. By the late 1930’s, garment makers in New York and elsewhere regarded the fastener as an ordinary and generally accepted feature of adult clothing. And by looking at the yearly sales of zippers, it’s clear. In 1937, the company sold 139.5 million. In 1938, 202 million, in 1939, 300 million were sold. And by 1941, zipper production in America topped half a billion.
Today the zipper is used to close all kinds of things, from clothing, to luggage, to tents and sleeping bags. It has even come to symbolize many things-sexuality, mechanism, cleverness, opening and closing, attaching and releasing, revealing and hiding. For example, when I was in elementary school, to assure a friend that we would keep a secret, we would go through the motion of closing a zipper that was attached to our mouths.
Perhaps in today’s world, where rushing is a part of everyday life, we need a device like the zipper so we can get dressed faster than if we had clothes with only buttons or snaps, and so we can close up our backpacks or other luggage and get going. Anyhow, the zipper started out as a strange and odd device, but with improvements, became very convenient, and something we can’t do without.