More generically called a "slide fastener," the zipper is used as a closure in garments and a variety of other articles. Zippers were first introduced in a primitive form in the 1890s, but were not widely accepted in clothing until the 1930s.
Invention of the Zipper
The fastener that Americans most commonly call "zippers" can be traced to the invention of a Midwestern traveling salesman, Whitcomb Judson, in the early 1890s. Judson patented his device as a "clasp locker or unlocker" for shoes; this invention resembled the later zipper only superficially. It consisted of a series of hooks and eyes, each pair of which was engaged by the action of a key or slider. Over the next few years, Judson designed modifications of this device, none of which worked very effectively. The idea of an "automatic hook-and-eye," however, caught the attention of entrepreneurs, so Judson was given money and encouragement to continue engineering his invention, and in the first years after 1900, the first devices came to market under the aegis of the Universal Fastener Company of Hoboken, New Jersey.
After several years of futile design and sales efforts, the Hoboken company gained the services of a Swedish immigrant, Gideon Sundback. Trained as an electrical engineer, Sundback was a remarkably clever and astute mechanic. He analyzed with care the key elements of the automatic hook-and-eye, and concluded that the hook-and-eye model was not a suitable one for any kind of automatic fastener. Late in 1913, Sundback introduced his "Hookless Fastener," based on novel principles and resembling in all important respects the modern metal zipper.
Sundback's hookless fastener depended on the action of a series of closely spaced elements, technically called "scoops," whose precise spacing and ingenious shape are key to the fastener's success. Each scoop has a dimple on one side and a protruding nib on the other. The fastener consists of two opposing rows of scoops, spaced so that the scoops from one side engage in the spaces between the scoops on the other side. The nib from one scoop fits into the dimple in the facing scoop, whose nib in turn fits into the next dimple down the row. Sundback likened the action to a series of spoons in which the bowls of alternating spoons fitted into one another. If the spoons at each end of the rows are held in place, the intermediate spoons cannot disengage one another. The slider's function is simply to bring the two rows of scoops together (or to separate them) in a continuous, serial action.
The entrepreneurs who had backed Judson and then Sundback readily saw the efficacy of the hookless fastener design. Sundback's contributions went further to include the construction of machinery that made fastener manufacture rapid and economical. The Hookless Fastener Company was organized in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and efforts to market the novel device began in 1914. The fastener makers encountered challenges every bit as formidable as the technical ones they had overcome after such effort. The early hookless fastener was an unquestionably clever device, and it worked reasonably reliably and consistently. It was, however, expensive compared to the buttons or hooks and eyes that it was designed to replace, and it posed a host of difficulties for the designers and makers of most garments.
Why Would We Want That?
The clothing industry initially rejected the new fastener. It might, in fact, have died an ignominious early death if its salesmen had not cultivated small niche markets that sustained it for several years. Money belts for World War I sailors were followed by tobacco pouches, which in turn were followed, in the early 1920s, by rubber overshoes. The manufacturers of this last, the B. F. Goodrich Rubber Company, came up with a moniker for their new product, "Zippers," that became even more popular than the overshoes themselves, and the term "zipper" came to be the common American term for the fastener (despite Goodrich's trademark claims). Through most of the 1920s, expanding niche markets brought the fastener to a wider public, although garment makers still resisted wider adoption. Hookless Fastener adopted the trademark "Talon" in 1928 (and changed the corporate name to Talon, Inc., a decade later).
Popularization of the Zipper
Only in the 1930s did zippers come to be accepted elements of men's and women's clothing, and even then only by steps. The famous haute couture designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, chose to set her designs of 1935 off by liberal use of zippers-even in places where no fastener was needed or expected. A couple of years later, in 1937, zippers began to appear widely in high fashion lines- Edward Molyneux's pencil-slim coats, for example, used zippers to emphasize the sleek silhouette. At about the same time, the designers of the best tailored men's clothing let it be known that zippered flies were acceptable, and by the end of the decade, zippers were common in the better men's trousers and were making their way into the ready-to-wear market. The combination of a reduction in prices (due to higher volume production) and the growing association of the zipper with modernity and fashion overcame the long-standing resistance of the garment makers and buyers. The widespread use of zippers in military uniforms during World War II was associated by many with the final popularization of the fastener, but its usage was already well on its way to becoming common before the war. By the 1950s, the zipper was the default fastener for everything from skirt plackets and trouser flies to leather motorcycle jackets and backpacks.
Even before the war, some manufacturers experimented with replacing the copper-nickel alloy standard in zippers with plastic, but this substitution was not very successful until Talon and the DuPont Company collaborated on a very new zipper design, in which the metal scoops were replaced by nylon spirals. The nylon zipper, after a few difficult years, became the standard appliance for lightweight applications, as garment makers were particularly attracted to the ease with which the nylon could be colored to match fabric dyes. Other materials were used for more specialized purposes: surgeons even adopted inert Teflon zippers for post-operative applications.
Around the World
The zipper was by no means a strictly American phenomenon. Within only a few years of its introduction, British manufacturers sought to establish manufacture, and by the mid-1920s, French, German, and other suppliers followed. The chief British manufacturer, the Lightning Fastener Company of Birmingham, gave its name to the fastener itself in a wide range of languages; in France it became known as a "fermature Éclair," and in Germany as a "Blitzverschluss" (Reissverschluss became the more common German word later).
As the zipper became increasingly common in the twentieth century, it acquired an unusual cultural status. It became a widely recognized and used symbol with a host of associations. Aldous Huxley used zippers throughout his 1932 novel, Brave New World, to allude to the impersonal and mechanical nature of sex in his nightmarish world of the future. Broadway and Hollywood began in the same decade to use the zipper to convey images of promiscuity: Rodgers and Hart's 1940 musical Pal Joey included a famous pantomime striptease with the refrain of "zip" throughout. Rita Hayworth, in her 1946 movie Gilda, used the zipper more than once as an instrument of sexual provocation. Even in the realm of urban legend, the zipper quickly became a common trope, conveying the awkwardness of relying on the mechanical in the intimate realms of daily life.
In the course of the twentieth century, the zipper became so ubiquitous as to become almost invisible. It has multiplied in form, size, style, and function; ranging from the simple plastic of the Ziploc bag to the zippers used in surgery and spacesuits. Arguably the most characteristic fastener of the twentieth century, the zipper has still not, even in the twenty-first century, lost its symbolic power to convey sexuality, opening and closing, separating and joining. And, despite the apparent allure of alternatives from old-fashioned buttons to modern Velcro, zippers appear in no danger of being displaced as the leading fastener.
See also Fasteners; Military Uniforms.
Friedel, Robert. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.
Gray, James. Talon, Inc.: A Romance of Achievement. Meadville, Pa.: Talon Inc., 1963.