Reflections from History and Faith

By Jeff Olson

     Yes, you are reading this correctly. This week we recognize an invention which should be near and dear to just about every one of us – the zipper. While it may be true that there are more interesting subjects from America’s history to remember this week, we would be hard-pressed to find one that has contributed more to our daily lives. Like you, I have never known life without this handy little device and have always taken it for granted – not giving it much thought other than enjoying its convenience and utility in helping us to keep things together… So, it’s time that we give this mechanical wonder its past-due recognition through a brief look at its history. 

     Elias Howe, an American mechanic and machinist who invented the sewing machine, originally birthed the idea and received a patent in 1851 for anAutomatic, Continuous Clothing Closure. Perhaps because of the success of the sewing machine, he didn’t pursue marketing or improving his closure device any further. 

    In 1893 Whitcomb Judson, an American machine salesman and mechanical engineer from Chicago and an inventor of the Pneumatic Street Railway patented a ‘Clasp Locker‘ (later known as the Judson C-curity Fastener), a complicated hook-and-eye shoe fastener. Its public debut was at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1894 Judson launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture his invention, but he met with little commercial success. Being first to market, Whitcomb got credit for being the “inventor of the zipper.” However, his 1893 patent did not use the word zipper. 

Gideon Sundback (Wikipedia

     In 1906 electrical engineer Gideon Sundback went to work for the Universal Fastener Company, where he became the head designer. He made several advances in the development of the fastener, building upon the previous work of Howe and Judson. Sundback’s first patent for the “Hookless Fastener” (Hookless #1) was issued 110 years ago this week, April 29, 1913. After more improvements, he amended his first patent for the “Separable Fastener” (Hookless #2) in March 1917. Sundback also created the manufacturing machine for the new fastener. This final model is recognized as the first modern zipper, though the name zipper wasn’t officially registered until 1925 when the B.F. Goodrich Company used the device on their new boots (galoshes).  

    Early on, gloves and tobacco pouches were the primary uses for zippers. One of its first customers was the U.S. Army, which applied zippers to the clothing and gear of the troops of World War I. Within the next thirty years, zippers would achieve wide acceptance in the garment and fashion industries, initially for the flies of trousers and openings of skirts and dresses. Today, there are three main types of zippers used in a multitude of products that have contributed to the daily lives of millions of people around the world. In 2006, Gideon Sundback was honored by induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work in the development and production of the zipper. 

     So – the next time we zip and unzip our pants, jacket, tent, duffle bag, purse, gun case, life-preserving device, or perhaps leave our “fly “or “barn door” open, we now know who to thank for good old-fashioned American perseverance, ingenuity, and even some occasional humor. As comedian George Burns (1896-1996) once quipped, referring to the aging process, “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next, you forget to pull your zipper up, and finally, you forget to pull it down.”

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author