The History Of The Zipper?
It might sound too mundane to be interesting, but in fact, this peculiar little machine clamps its myriad teeth around the most compelling issues of technology, capitalism, and the heroic limits of entrepreneurial endurance
“For the historian there are no banal things,” said the Swiss architectural critic Siegfried Giedion. A historian of technology is supposed to know this, but it helps to be reminded from time to time. My most important reminder came during a course that I taught on invention, in which a student proposed to write her term paper on the history of the zipper. I was skeptical. What kind of story could there be in the history of a simple, ubiquitous device that was such a trivial part of everyday life?
The answer was that there was a wonderful story there, and as Giedion would not have been surprised to learn, one full of provocative lessons for how new technologies really come into being. The zipper, it turns out, is the perfect vehicle for exploring how and why men and women seek to create new things and how difficult it in fact can be to change the ways of the world, no matter how clever and ingenious our inventions are.
Look at the world around you, and notice that most human artifice is common, trivial, unimportant. And yet it is just this universe of things that truly gives our world its shape, feel, and atmosphere. How are we to pretend to understand how our world comes to be what it is, and how human beings function within it, if we do not probe these corners that become visible only in the dimmer light of the ordinary?
It can be argued that zippers are the first machines any of us learn to master in childhood, and they remain the most common mechanisms of our daily lives. It may in fact be just a little startling to think of zippers as machines, but surely that is what they are—carefully fitted pieces of metal or metal and plastic that must move in close coordination under our control to exert forces to accomplish a simple but nevertheless vital task. Where did the zipper come from? As in the case of any invention, there are several ways of answering this question. First, however, it is useful to look more closely at just what a zipper is and how and why it does what it does.
Look at a zipper, a metal one if possible. You’re almost certain to have one handy. If it is closed (it probably should be, shouldn’t it?), pull at the sides. It doesn’t budge. As long as the slider is in place, the fastener will stay tightly closed. Now pull at the slider, slowly. The unmeshing of the zipper’s elements is a steady, predictable process, opening the fastening wide and effortlessly. Now close the zipper again, noticing how the elements follow one another into one end of the slider, only to emerge from the other, narrower end tightly enmeshed. This is at once very simple and very mysterious. Here we have a fastening in which nothing is obviously fastened or gripped, yet the closing is as tight as can be.
The first patent for a slide fastener was applied for on November 7, 1891. The inventor was Whitcomb L. Judson, then of Chicago, who titled his application “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes” (U.S. Patent No. 504,038). The patent is worth inspecting to see just where Judson’s originality lay. On one side of an opening—Judson illustrates a high-top shoe—is a row of hooklike clasps; on the other, a row of attachments. In between is a recognizable slide, feeding the separated rows in at one end and issuing them fastened together at the other (or vice versa). Note that the fastenings are what you might call clasps. When open, they spring out from the shoe, and when fastened, they are set down. The patent says, “These clasps … when in position on the flaps of a shoe … may be engaged one at a time in succession, by bringing the two parts of the clasps into their proper angular relation to each other by hand. But this is a tedious operation.” The purpose of the slide (Judson calls it a “guide”) is to force the clasps together and down, and it is removed after each use and turned around depending on whether it is opening or closing. The entire assembly is complicated and probably doesn’t work very well. It may not work at all.
This complexity may have contributed to the length of time the patent took to be issued—almost twentytwo months (the National Archives can’t find the application file, so we have to guess at the reasons for the delay). In this interval Judson applied for a second patent, modifying significantly his design for the fastenings. In the second patent, which was issued at the same time as the first, the clasps are simplified, looking more like hooks and eyes. The device is purely a shoe fastening and is no more likely to have worked well than the earlier design. Clearly, however, Judson was quite taken by his idea of, in his words, “automatically engaging or disengaging the entire series of clasps by a single continuous movement.”
Where did this device come from? There are a few prior devices with very superficial resemblance to Judson’s serial fastener, but their principles of operation are quite different. In particular, the slide that is key to this invention appears not to have been anticipated anywhere else. On the other hand, the device didn’t come from nowhere. The fastening elements of Judson’s various designs—he ended up with almost half a dozen over ten years or so—are recognizable fasteners, variations on clasps or hooks and eyes. The slide was clearly conceived as a simple removable, optional key for bringing them together in a semiautomatic fashion.
There is very little information about Whitcomb Judson himself, but he seems to have been something of a type—the ambitious, selfmade, struggling, and eventually unsuccessful American mechanic. His other patents describe overly complicated devices, such as a street railway that ran by long tubes kept spinning underground by compressed air. Clearly he had a proclivity for too-clever inventions, which rarely actually worked.
Another American type was Judson’s first partner in his fastener enterprise, one Harry Earle of Minneapolis. In the 1888-89 Minneapolis city directory, Judson is identified as a traveling agent for the Harry L. Earle Manufacturing Company, makers of grain scales and the like. When Judson devised his fastener, Earle had already become something of a promoter for Judson’s never-ending series of bright ideas, especially the complicated street railway. Earle attempted to raise capital to put the fastener into production, meeting with just enough success to set up small shops but not enough to really get things under way. Judson’s invention was still, even after some additional improvements described in 1896 patents, not very good, and even the patents promise only usefulness for shoes, not a widely versatile fastener, so it is something of a wonder that Earle successfully found backers. Nonetheless, he kept finding people to invest, first in Pennsylvania, then in Ohio, and finally in Hoboken, New Jersey. Perhaps we simply have a first-rate hustler on our hands, in which case he does indeed represent an important American type that we would do well to understand better.
Much more important for the subsequent history of the zipper is another figure who appears at this point, Col. Lewis Walker. The colonel (a Pennsylvania National Guard title) was a lawyer and businessman in Meadville, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles south of Erie. He had graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville and then set up his law practice there and married into one of the old, moneyed families of the town. Meanwhile, James Williamson, an Allegheny College classmate of his, had become a patent attorney with a practice in Minneapolis. Whitcomb Judson was one of Williamson’s more active clients, so it should be no surprise that Walker should have been introduced to him on a visit to Minneapolis. Walker and his wife’s family became significant investors in Judson’s street railway companies. Despite what we must assume was a poor return on these investments, when Walker was told about the fastener inventions, he apparently was captivated, and his money soon followed.
Walker represents one of the central puzzles of the zipper story and one of the reasons why understanding this story is harder than simply comprehending the creation and adoption of one very handy invention that we all happen to appreciate still. In 1893 Lewis Walker was thirtyeight years old, had been a practicing attorney for about ten years, and had done well for himself and his family, specializing in commercial contracts. The last few years had been hard, for the bank that represented the bulk of his wife’s family fortunes was brought down in the financial turmoil that was to culminate in the great Panic of 1893. Nonetheless, Walker was ready to throw his lot in with Judson’s invention. When the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894, Walker was a major participant. He had a pair of shoes made up with the latest design of the fastener, and he showed them off everywhere.
While he wasn’t so active in raising money as Harry Earle at first, it’s clear Walker saw this as a promising opportunity to be in on the start of something important. As the years went by, it was Walker’s never-deviating faith in this that sustained Judson’s invention. Where does such faith come from? How are we to account for its motivating power? To what extent, indeed, does the character of our made world depend on the apparently capricious ways in which fate endows some inventions with such good fortune while passing others by? These questions take on special force in the story of the zipper, for the fact was that the inventions of Whitcomb Judson, ingenious as they may have been, never ceased to be impractical and unmarketable.
Judson, Earle, and Walker persevered, each in his own way, into the new century. The U.S. Post Office was persuaded to purchase twenty mailbags with the fastener. The order was never repeated. Judson designed and patented machinery to make his newest models, and the Connecticut works of Manville Brothers was hired to make the complicated devices. They didn’t work, and they were very expensive.
About the turn of the century, the ever-hustling Harry Earle went to Europe to sell rights to the invention, without success. Amazingly enough, Earle managed to find a fresh new source of capital in New York City and moved operations to New Jersey to keep a closer eye on things. With the infusion of money he was also able to recruit more technical help, including two machinists from Manville Brothers. Finally, about 1904, Judson made his last contributions to this story. He simplified the design of the fastener, making it into a series of hooks and eyes, and he clamped the opposing rows of hooks and eyes to the edge of cloth tape. The tape could then be inserted into the shoe or other item to be fastened by fairly simple sewing. The tape innovation still characterizes the modern zipper, and the new design and the capacity to keep the fabrication machinery going made possible the first commercial introduction of the fastener.
The newly organized Automatic Hook and Eye Company of Hoboken brought its C-curity fastener to the market in 1905. The device was aimed at women, with hopes that they would adopt it for skirts and dresses. Instructions on how to install the C-curity and on how to use it betray the fact that it was still a balky, complex device. The name itself almost sounds like a special pleading. The insistence that the fastener was secure and the statement in a flyer that women “frequently remark that their skirt is sure never to open without their knowledge” can only lead one to suppose that the opposite was true more often than was admitted (otherwise, why would women frequently remark on it?). Another clue to the failure of the C-curity was the fact that Harry Earle finally gave up at this point. Upon Earle’s departure, Colonel Walker assumed leadership of the company, and his brother-in-law became general manager. Other Meadville men were soon recruited to the company, and Automatic Hook and Eye, still in Hoboken, began to reflect the colonel’s own personality.
The C-curity’s failure was blamed on its technical deficiencies, and at this point the dogged Walker group decided to confront these in the most direct way possible: They hired an engineer. Peter Aronson, one of the two machinists hired from Manville, recruited a fellow Swedish immigrant, Gideon Sundback. Sundback had German training in electrical engineering and was working as a draftsman for Westinghouse. It’s a little mysterious why he would move from Pittsburgh to Hoboken, abandoning his high-tech (though, to be sure, low-ranked) job to go to work for a small, struggling company with a very problematical product. The right answer is probably the romantic one: Sundback was captivated by Aronson’s daughter Elvira, whom he would marry in 1909, and he resolved to stay in Hoboken for that reason.
Shortly after arriving at Automatic Hook and Eye, Sundback introduced a new model, called the Plako fastener. He modified Judson’s design to make the hook-and-eye mating on each side more secure. Pitched primarily at dressmakers but also touted for men’s trousers, the Plako was sold in some quantity. While an improvement on the C-curity, the Plako was also unreliable, simply not flexible enough to remain closed when bent or twisted. Still, the improvement was enough to encourage the company’s remaining backers. Peter Aronson even left his managing position to go to Paris, intent on selling the fastener to French dressmakers, as the Ferme-Tout Américain . All this was to little avail. Enough fasteners were sold (mainly by fast-talking traveling salesmen) to keep hope alive (that took amazingly few), but not enough to make a business. The faith that sustained this effort in the years between 1906 and 1913 is a genuine source of wonder.
Sundback kept up his efforts to improve both the fastener design and the mechanisms for making it. He also kept the Hoboken company afloat by doing a wide variety of odd jobs, making models for other inventors, repairing machines for other companies, and the like. In the middle of all this, his wife, Elvira, died soon after giving birth to a daughter. That daughter, still living in Meadville, recalls that her father said he threw himself into the problem of the fastener even more intensely afterward. The result was that in 1912 he came up with a radically new design for the product, abandoning the hooks and eyes that had always been a source of trouble. This Hookless #1 actually resembled the modern zipper even less than the earlier models. It used the slide to force one side of the fastener, made of cloth tape with a beaded edge, into metal clamps on the other side. It thus superficially resembled the modern Ziploc fastener. But the wear on the cloth tape was so severe that it failed to work after only a few tries.
Before this problem became clear, the Meadville backers of the company were buoyed enough by any sign of technical accomplishment that they proceeded to reorganize into the Hookless Fastener Company and moved the operation in its entirety to Meadville. Hooklessness must have sounded ringingly modern in an age in which horselessness had just swept the world and wirelessness was high technology. By the end of 1913 the new company was settled in its new quarters, but Sundback was back at the drawing board.
In December of 1913, more than twentytwo years after Whitcomb Judson’s initial invention, Gideon Sundback showed yet one more model to Walker and his associates. This Hookless #2 (Walker first called it the Hookless Hooker) was the modern zipper. The key, of course, was to change the fastener elements so that they no longer resembled hooks and eyes, but rather small interlocking scoops that would fit together tightly when joined by the slide and easily release one another when separated by it. The long succession of earlier versions suggests how ingenious and nonobvious this approach to fastening was. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that in this design the mated fastening elements do not, of themselves, fasten. Unlike hooks and eyes or clasps and clips, the scoops of a zipper will not hold together without an entire sequence of scoops being held together and the two ends of the sequence being secured (one end typically by the slide itself). Whitcomb Judson had actually anticipated this principle in one of his 1896 patents, but not in a workable way.
Even closer to Sundback’s invention was a patent issued in Switzerland (and later elsewhere, but not in the United States) in 1911 to Katharina Kuhn-Moos and Henri Forster of Zurich. This patent shows elements remarkably like those of the final design, but with such differences as to make it unlikely that it could have been successfully manufactured without becoming more like Sundback’s. In any case, it’s pretty clear that no such effort was made, so Sundback’s patent (number 1,219,881, issued March 20, 1917) was never successfully challenged.
The recognition that the Hookless #2 was a design far superior to all previous ones seems to have come rapidly, but it still took almost ten months of work to get it to market. Complex machinery had to be designed and built to make it. This reliance on machine production was hardly novel, but this design, perhaps more than any other, was unthinkable without it. You can’t dream of hand-fabricating a zipper. Not only are the individual elements too small for such work, but the tolerances for variation are reduced to negligible levels: All scoops must be made just alike and must be clamped into position on the cloth tape with great precision, in quantities that must quickly reach the tens or hundreds of thousands before economies of scale can be realistically achieved. It is reported that Colonel Walker’s son Wallace sold the first examples of the Hookless #2 on October 28, 1914, at four for a dollar.
At this point—late in 1914—the story of the zipper shifts focus. The twenty-year search for a workable slide fastener was over. There began another search, however, this too to last almost twenty years, but now for markets. The C-curity and Plako fasteners had been sold in small quantities, often simply hawked as notions by traveling salesmen aiming their wares at home seamstresses, much as peddlers had sold gadgets for generations (you could say that the zipper started out as a Veg-o-Matic for the century’s beginning). Certainly it was understood that such marketing was inherently too meager for a capital-intensive product, and efforts to sell to everyone from department store buyers to government purchasing agents had long been part of the company strategies. But now the promoters had to get serious, and the problems that confronted them did not take long to reveal themselves.
The obvious targets were the department stores, and beyond them, the garment makers. The women’s wear buyer in the nearest big-city department store, McCreery’s in Pittsburgh, actually responded quite positively at first. Not only did she provide a glowing testimonial that could be used by salesmen, but she also offered to introduce the company to garment designers and makers in New York City. Colonel Walker saw New York’s garment district as crucial and promptly sent both his sons—Lewis, Jr. (thirty-three years old), and Wallace (twenty-seven)—off to the city at the end of 1914. They dropped successful business careers of their own at their father’s bidding and spent much of the next few frustrating years trying to sell the fastener in the New York garment world. The colonel kept a close eye on them, as the surviving correspondence shows. In one early exchange Lewis, Jr., went into great detail about the firms they were calling on, observing that it seemed important to have letters of introduction.
His father replied, in part: “I am relieved to know you appreciate it is lost time to call on the ‘Jews’ unheralded and unknown. Also that hereafter you will avoid such experience and only open the fastener proposition under right conditions. … Both Mr. Sundback and I are anxious you make no canvass of the manufacturers except where you can reach them under such conditions as to put over a try-out of your fastener. Again let me insist you take time to write me full details of each case you visit…”
One consequence of the Colonel’s demand is a truly remarkable correspondence, of several hundred letters, between his sons and him. The perspective they provide on the workings of the garment industry at the time is probably unique. They also give us a wonderful look at one side of a cultural divide, as the Walker sons find themselves in the utterly unfamiliar environment of New York’s Jewish Lower East Side. The letters also provide an intimate glimpse at the extraordinary faith and hustle that the new invention required, and they draw a gloomy picture of disappointment, as the head-on attack on the clothing market eventually came to naught. A typical letter from Lewis, Jr., to his father illustrates the kinds of challenges the salesmen were confronting: “I called on Mr. Schrieber, Manager of the 5th Avenue branch of A. G. Spaulding & Bros. Co., and found there, to my disgust, that all their Sport Skirts opened the whole length and are buttoned. He was very nice and said that of course the style might change and then he would be very glad to try the Fastener. … Their men’s clothes are all made in England, and he said he did not care to take a chance on changing them now that they were all made up.”
Later in the same letter Lewis, Jr., describes a visit to a Wanamaker’s buyer: “She said she liked the Fastener better every day, and that she wore it and knew it would help sell her Skirts. However, she said the trouble with changing their hooks and eyes and snaps when they are already on to the Fastener bothered some women, who did not want to wait to have the change made, and said that they would get one the next time.”
Lewis also wrote of a discussion with another clothier about pricing the fastener, revealing yet another crucial problem for the invention. The standard price, eighteen cents each, was rejected as prohibitive. The negotiation went on, however: “He then said that if the price was at 10« he would put the Fastener in his entire line, and ‘Well of course this knocks me out of using it in some of my cheaper Skirts, but I suppose I can if the people want it, I can use it in some of the higher-priced stuff.’ I told him that it was our firm belief that the Fastener would carry an extra price for the skirt, and in other words, it would carry itself. … I carefully explained to him and his assistant that I felt the Skirt end of our business would be a very small end for a year or so, and that we expected the side lines, such as corsets, sportinggoods, leggings, etc., which were opening up now, would keep the factory more than busy and give us a chance for the slow careful development we want to go into on the skirt end. Of course you know this was all bunk on my part, but I know it went.”
Indeed, Walker could not have known that such “bunk” would have to sustain the company for much of the next two decades. It is a little startling to realize just how difficult it was for something as commonplace as the zipper to make the transition from novelty—one might even say oddity—to ubiquity. We often think of the twentieth century as a time uniquely receptive to innovation and change, a period in which new and useful things slide easily into the stream of everyday existence. The experience of the zipper serves to remind us that there are very complex forces at work in shaping our material life and that the result is far from predictable.
The Walkers’ years in New York were almost a total failure. Some designers, clothiers, and buyers always seemed to admire the fastener, but fashion, tradition, and economics combined to defeat it. The first notable outlet for it finally came in early 1918, when an enterprising young tailor in Brooklyn spotted the potential market for money belts for the flood of soldiers and sailors heading through the navy yard for Europe. The product caught on quickly and gave the Hookless company its first taste of success; some twenty-four thousand money belts were sold in those wartime months. Even more direct military applications followed: special flying suits for the Navy and then life vests and even fuselage coverings. The armistice ended these sales, but the war had at least exposed several thousand Americans to a handy novelty. The following years saw similar efforts, leading gradually to expanding applications, although still not directly achieving the El Dorado of everyday clothing.
For almost two decades the thing that sustained the zipper most was its novelty. It is actually a bit peculiar to think of the zipper as novel close to a half-century after its initial invention, but people in the late 1930s did think of it that way. Until then a sequence of novel uses —in tobacco pouches, in handbags, in rubber overshoes (which, introduced by B. F. Goodrich in 1923, went by the name Zipper Boots, giving the fastener its American moniker), in children’s jump suits, in sweaters, and the like—eventually gave the people in Meadville a taste of prosperity, which proved resistant even to the Great Depression.
The story of how the zipper finally did make its way into ordinary clothing is a drama in itself; it involved both indirect and direct approaches. Work clothes, such as overalls, were less bound by tradition than suits and so took on the fastener more readily, despite the cost. Children’s clothes were the object of special sales efforts on the part of the zipper manufacturers. A wonderful campaign to convince parents that they were holding their children back if they did not provide them with zippered clothing swept through department stores in 1933 and 1934. Its centerpiece was a movie titled Bye-Bye Buttons. Since a child’s cotton dress with buttons could be bought for 69 cents while the zippered article cost $1.39, child psychologists were brought out to suggest that responsible parents didn’t really have a choice. Even this campaign’s success, however, was short-lived. Children had the final say about the matter, and they tended to want clothes like Mom’s and Dad’s.
The adult clothiers were once again approached directly, with slow results at first, but then, for reasons still not quite clear, the dam burst in the summer of 1937, at least in men’s clothes. The story made the rounds in later years that the trend-setting Duke of Windsor’s choice of a “zip” for his trousers demolished the tailors’ resistance in a single stroke. The truth was somewhat more complicated. By 1937 the zipper was no longer strange to most men. It showed up in everything from overshoes to hunting jackets and had proved itself convenient, inconspicuous, and, most important, reliable. An intense advertising campaign in magazines like The New Yorker and Esquire , along with agreements by such major men’s clothiers as Kuppenheimer and such technical refinements as the automatic locking zipper, made it not only acceptable but desirable. Whereas only 6 percent of summer suits in 1936 had had zippers, by 1938 the proportion was 20 percent and climbing. A survey of Princeton students and alumni in 1940 showed the full extent of the zipper’s triumph, even in a bastion of Ivy League fashion, as all but the most stubbornly conservative of the students wore zippers, and only the eldest of the graduates were fully resistant to their allure.
The year 1937 was also when women’s fashion turned the corner on zippers. A number of the more daring designers had been experimenting with them for several years. The most audacious of these was Elsa Schiaparelli. Colorful plastic (celluloid) zippers became available in the mid-thirties, and they caught the fancy of the often flamboyant “Schiap,” the originator of “shocking pink.” Her 1935 collection of gowns was festooned with bright, conspicuous zippers, often in contrasting colors. Their purpose, in the style of Schiaparelli, was to call attention to themselves. This, as may be imagined, had limited appeal in the broader fashion world, but it set the stage for 1937, when the Paris fashion world became obsessed with sleek, trim lines. The smaller, more secure zipper that the Meadville salesmen were now promoting was perfect for this trend, and the fashion magazines reported that the designers had picked it up with alacrity. The advertising campaign that followed, promising women that zippers would end the horror of “Gaposis” forever, sealed the success.
Zipper makers (there were many companies besides the Meadville firm by this time) sold about three hundred million zippers in 1939, twice as many as two years before. As with a number of things—television, nylon, and so forth—consumers were cheated of their newfound marvel during the years of World War II (the basic zipper required precious copper, which could not be spared). But just as with those other miracles, Americans quickly sought to catch up in the years after the war, so that by 1950 annual zipper sales exceeded a billion. Now—but only now- they were no longer novel.