Collectors Still Burn For Zippo Lighters
Click. Thunk. Simply seeing the word “Zippo” is enough to call to mind the sound a Zippo lighter makes when you open and close its sturdy hinged lid – it’s that recognizable.
The lighter rose to prominence by proving it could perform in tough conditions. A gust of wind wasn’t enough to snuff its flame, ensuring that smokers in foxholes, tents, ship decks, battlefields and other stressful settings could keep their cigarettes lit. The company touted its wares as “wind proof” and boldly promised, “It works or we fix it free.” The lighter’s reliability made it a favorite amongst smokers – predominantly men – in the 20th century. For some of them, a Zippo was the closest thing they had to jewelry, especially if they worked at factories or on shop floors where employees were barred from wearing wedding rings and wristwatches, for safety reasons.
According to official Zippo company lore, the Zippo came into being after George C. Blaisdell noticed a friend struggling to light up. The scene took place in the early 1930s at the Bradford Country Club in Blaisdell’s hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania. The friend, whose name is lost to history, was grappling with an Austrian gas lighter made from old cartridge shells. The Zippo history page states Blaisdell observed that it “… worked well, even in the wind, due to the unique chimney, but the appearance and design were utilitarian and inefficient. The lighter required the use of two hands to operate, and its thin metal surface was easily dented.”
Inspired, Blaisdell decided to redesign his friend’s lighter, giving it a sleek, rectangular polished chrome case with a hinged cover that could be flipped open with one hand. He kept the chimney design that made it “wind proof” and dubbed his creation “Zippo,” a derivation of “zipper,” a word he liked because he thought it sounded good when spoken. Blaisdell received a patent for his lighter in 1936, three years after he started selling it for $1.95 – a sum that would equate to roughly $40 today.
Blaisdell changed the Zippo design over the next few years, reducing the case by a quarter-inch, adding diagonal lines to give the case an Art Deco look, and soldering the hinge so that the top cover connected to the inside of the case instead of its outside, where it was more vulnerable to damage. Collectors prize these early examples, which are known as “tall case” Zippos, as well as those with cases that sport the outside hinge.
Another transformative event shaped the Zippo in its fledgling years. In the mid-1930s, the Bradford-based Kendall Refining Company ordered 500 lighters emblazoned with its own corporate brand. Kendall was the first entity to commission Zippos with special livery, and many, many other companies would follow.
During World War II, Zippo suspended civilian sales and produced lighters strictly for the military. The company lacked an official government contract, but regardless, Zippo lighters became the go-to flame-generator for soldiers, sailors and Marines who received mini-packs of cigarettes along with their K-rations. They carried their Zippos from battle to battle and kept them after the war ended.
Most Zippos that were in use during WWII had black, crackle-finish steel cases. Soldiers believed this detail muffled the noise produced by striking, which in turn helped them keep a low profile during military maneuvers. But the company insists that the case style was chosen for mundane business reasons. Like the scrimshanders of centuries ago, bored trench-bound troops transformed the black cases into canvases, scratching all manner of designs, initials and battle dates into them with any sharp object at hand. Not surprisingly, collectors place a high value on such personalized Zippos.
WWII delivered priceless and lasting benefits to the Zippo company. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young men carried its lighters during the most daunting experience of their lives, and depended on them to deliver the nicotine that calmed their nerves in literal life-or-death situations. It’s a sad commentary, but about half of all Americans were routine tobacco smokers in 1945.
In the 1950s, Zippo offered its custom-designed lighters in a range of formats, including a series of stand-alone tabletop versions with upscale names such as the Barcroft, Lady Bradford, Moderne, Corinthian, Handilite and the Lady Barbara. A handsome teal green circa-1960s Zippo Corinthian table top lighter sold for $175 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015 at Clars Auction Gallery.
Another innovation arrived in 1956 when Zippo unveiled the Slim design, which was smaller, thinner and sleekly polished, with rounded corners that fit easily into pockets and rolled up t-shirts.
Custom-made Zippos, commissioned as gifts to celebrate anniversaries, retirements and similar milestones, or to create a bond amongst team members, alumni or coworkers, took off. A standout example is a circa-1950s brush-finish Zippo lighter given by “Buffalo” Bob Smith to members of the crew who filmed the Howdy Doody TV show. One that featured a camera and the name “Larry” sold for $454 at Hake’s in February 2021. The very idea that a Zippo cigarette lighter would be in any way associated with the country’s most popular children’s show seems unimaginable today, but that’s how widespread smoking was in the postwar years.
Even the highest of high-profile individuals are known to have carried Zippo lighters. One of the most notable was President John F. Kennedy, who took his tobacco strictly in the form of a cigar. A personally owned Kennedy Zippo, decorated with the image of the destroyer named for his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., sold in July 2018 for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Potter & Potter Auctions. JFK also commissioned Zippos, as evidenced by a chrome example commemorating his June 1963 trip to Europe. Kennedy gave the lighter, which is emblazoned with the Presidential Seal, to his longtime friend and aide Dave Powers. It was offered with its original box at a February 2013 sale at John McInnis Auctioneers, where it made $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium.
Another Zippo commission came from John Wayne, who had lighters made as gifts for crew members on the 1968 film The Green Berets. Each lighter featured the movie’s name and a likeness of the military hat on the front, and a whimsical inscription on the back that read, in part, STOLEN FROM JOHN WAYNE. An example from the estate of one of Wayne’s friends, Chuck Iverson, sold in July 2012 for $900 plus the buyer’s premium at Profiles in History.
The cultural reach of the Zippo inevitably caught the attention of top luxury goods retailers. Tiffany & Co., created a 14K gold rendition with a vertically ribbed design, subsequently offered at Fortuna Auction in November 2017, where it realized $950 plus the buyer’s premium. An 18K gold Zippo by Buccellati, graced with brushed crosshatched engraving, achieved $2,750 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Alex Cooper.
Spotting a genuine Zippo is relatively straightforward. Just turn it upside down. Those made between 1933 and 1955 feature an unadorned block letter logo stamped on the bottom of the case. A fancy-script logo design prevailed from 1955 until the late 1970s, when it was changed to the version seen today.
Every Zippo lighter made since 1955 also has a date code that specifies when it was made (those produced before 1955 are identified by their stamped logo design). The Zippo company is still going strong, and a page on its official website, www.zippo.com, helps collectors decipher the codes shown on their products, both vintage and new. Also standing ready to assist are Zippo collector clubs, many of which are active on social media. The Zippo/Case Museum, a 15,000-square-foot facility in Bradford, Pennsylvania, that also houses a repair clinic and a store, is normally open seven days a week.
As much more has become known about the connection between smoking and serious illnesses, the number of active smokers has dwindled dramatically. Now, only around 16% of the American population are smokers. But the habit of acquiring vintage Zippo lighters has continued, joining the many other collectibles categories that are associated with taboos of a less-enlightened era.