A FASTEN-ATING HISTORY OF THE ZIPPER: Evolving from Toe-to-Head and Back Again

A FASTEN-ATING HISTORY OF THE ZIPPER: Evolving from Toe-to-Head and Back Again

Have you ever wondered what life would be like without zippers? Well, thanks to a venturesome fellow named Elias Howe, we don’t have to. Howe, founder of the sewing machine, created an object with the first actual resemblance of a modern zipper back in 1851. He patented a device named “An Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure.”

Although the composition and materials were significantly different, the product did offer garment closure. It operated as individual clasps that were joined manually, and pulled shut by using a string, creating a “gathered” effect. Ultimately, Howe did not continue developing his model, and several years went by before another patent was created and applied for.

More than 40 years later, in 1893, inventor Whitcomb L. Judson began devising the patent “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes.” The design was essentially a guide that was used to close the space between a shoe’s clasps on one side to the attachments on the other. The guide could be removed after use, and had the double function of pushing the bulky clasps down and subsequently pulling them together to close. The guide was difficult to produce due to its very specific functions, and was also seen as time consuming.

Whitcomb’s second patent in 1893 was a transition from the former bulky clasps to hooks and eyes. This device, later called “C-curity” was a series of loops (short metal extensions) that were manually laced into the boot or shoe. The improvement was significant because the device functioned as a unit instead of as individual clasps, although eventually, it proved to be ineffective because it had a tendency to spring open.

It was an engineer named Gideon Sundback that ultimately enhanced the previous zipper models by devising a model called the “Plako fastener.” This design featured oval-shaped hook units that would protrude from the base tape they were attached to, and they provided a more secure fit than the previous “C-curity” design. Although the model had a tighter fit, it was not flexible. And it also didn’t stay closed when it was bent, and therefore posed some of the same problems as the earlier hook design.

But in 1913, Sundback revised and introduced a new model of zipper, which had interlocking oval scoops (instead of the previously used hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one movement or swoop.

This final model is recognized as the modern zipper, which took many months to find success in the industrial market. Retailers, who were prone to sticking with the traditional materials of buttons and hooks, and tried-and-true design methods, were slow to purchase the new product.

In the early stages of production, zippers were used exclusively for boots and tobacco pouches. But during World War I, military designers acquired and specified zippers for flying suits and money belts, ultimately helping the reputation of the device’s durability, not to mention its sales to the military and the consumer.

It was the B.F. Goodrich Company, (which used the product for boots and galoshes in the 1920s) that gave the device the name zipper, after the sound, or “zip” that the slider created.

Originally, manufacturers produced metal zippers, which were  effective when used for thick heavyweight materials. These metal zippers were made primarily of aluminum, nickel and brass and were eventually incorporated into everyday wear, such as denim. Thus, the original Levi Strauss 501 button-fly jean had some new competition.

Designers accelerated the success of zippers with even more materials, such as plastic zippers, which are soft, pliable and easy to maintain. Gradually, manufacturers saw the product’s selling ability and versatility, and zippers, now available in a variety of materials and designs like coils and colored metallic, finally achieved widespread success.

All books are available at Amazon.com. Click title to learn more.
Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty
by Robert D. Friedel
YAKA 54 piece mix Nylon Coil 9 inch Zippers Crafter’s Special
The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts – from Forks and Pins to Paperclips and Zippers – Came to Be As They Are
by Henry Petroski

Wikipedia – Zipper
Thoughtco.com – The History of the Zipper


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