The humble zipper is 100 years old!

We give thanks in part to the magazine and fashion industries for bestowing upon the novel zipper the popularity it enjoys today, but that was nearly eighty years after the zipper was first conceptualised.

These beautifully engineered vintage metal zippers from the 1950s and 60s are Australian made by Peerless and Embassy (early Coles) brands. Image courtesy of itsretrodarling

These beautifully engineered vintage metal zippers from the 1950s and 60s are Australian made by Peerless and Embassy (early Coles) brands. Image courtesy of itsretrodarling

Way back in 1851 Elias Howe (inventor of the sewing machine) received a patent for an ‘automatic, continuous clothing closure’ but for reasons unknown, unfortunately he didn’t pursue the marketing of it.

001_Sundback_zipper_1917_patent

A full 40 years later a ‘Clasp Locker’ was made by Whitcomb Judson which was similar to Elias Howe’s patent. But because Mr Judson made and marketed his item, he became the ‘official inventor’ of the zipper. This ‘hookless fastener’ (hook and eye fastener) attracted little attention though, despite his best efforts to sell it.

Then along came Gideon Sundbäck, a Swedish-American who worked at the Universal Fastener Company. Following the death of his wife, Gideon threw himself into his work and designed the ‘modern’ zipper in 1913 – 100 years ago.

It was unofficially named the zipper around ten years later in 1923, at the Goodrich Company, when they were using this particular fastener on a new design for rubber boots. And the name stuck.

A side zipper from the 1950s

A ‘side’ zipper from the 1940s

In the 1930s it was incorporated into some children’s clothing because it gave children independence when dressing. During this decade it also replaced the button fly in men’s trousers, with Esquire praising its virtues, saying it was the end of ‘the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray’! But another twenty years would pass before the fashion industry took it seriously enough to routinely incorporate it into their garments.

Despite the competition of rivals such as: buckles, buttons, safety pins, shoelaces, press studs and Velcro, it’s hard to dispute the fact the modest zipper is a feature of our daily lives, rarely appreciated until it breaks.

Or in the immortal words of actor, George Burns, “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down”.

Some interesting facts and a quick fashion timeline:

Press-stud fastening1920s   Zippers only used in men’s trousers or children’s clothing but not women’s clothing as it was considered too easy to slip her clothes off. Thus only easy women would wear garments with zippers!

1930s   Still rarely seen on women’s clothing but if there was a zipper on something from the 30s then generally a flap of fabric concealed this. It was almost always along the side seam and always metal, but most often enclosures were either hook and eye or press-stud as per the picture to the left:

1940s   The clever zipper was finally embraced by the women’s fashion industry (still always metal) and most often along the side seam.

Pic 3

A ‘back’ zipper from the 1950s

1950s   Well and truly accepted for its ease of use (except when it jammed, caught fabric, rusted or broke teeth!) the metal zipper moved from the side to the back (to allow the flow of the line down the side of the waste) but were still used in either position.

It wasn’t until the invention of nylon around 1963 that the metal zipper started to be phased out and the nylon zipper was introduced. It was softer and ended the problem of rusty metal, but still presented with its own set of challenges.

 

Pictures and some content contribution by Chrissy Keepence of The Lindy Charm School for Girls
So what’s next? It’s hard to imagine the humble Zipper being superseded. But in a fast-paced, industrialised world, nothing seems to last forever, or does it?
Happy Birthday to the Zipper!

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