Zippo Lighters

by John Delach

In my youth, I discovered the Zippo lighter. I started smoking in high school experimenting with different brands mostly filtered cigarettes, Kent, Parliament, Tarrytown, L&M and Winston. Winston almost ended this habit when I became violently ill after smoking several of their cancer sticks. Too bad, I just didn’t quit smoking entirely and not just Winston, but old nicotine already had me hooked, I was just 17 and the desire to quit wouldn’t come for almost another 30-years.

In time Marlboro became my brand of record and the Zippo lighter became an intricate part of my smoking paraphernalia. So much so that many years later when I wrote my coming-of-age story, “Through the Heartland,” my Zippo became an important prop:

Ten hours out of Chicago, the sun outraces the train as it sets across the flat, western horizon. Nighttime has come to the Great Plains and Kansas speeds by under the brilliance of countless stars shining across a clear, prairie July sky. Blackened fields, silhouetted by a three-quarter moon, stretch out to meet the stars at the horizon.

He sits alone in the dome car of a westbound Santa Fe Chief, staggered by the scenery unable to sleep. At 17 it is all too much, too grand to miss. Reaching into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes and lighter he launches one out of the box and into his mouth with a practiced skill. Clicking open the Zippo with one hand, he rotates the wheel and lights his Marlboro and closes the cover with a satisfying thud extinguishing the flame. Less than a minute later his eyes adjust to the darkness of the of the dome car lighted only by muted bulbs outlining the aisle and the glow of his cigarette…

How many movies and television shows have duplicated that moment? A Zippo Spokesman, Pat Grandy, proudly told NPR in 2009: “In 1996, there was a Zippo in every film nominated for Best Picture.” If you are curious enough to verify Mr. Grandy’s boast, those movies were Apollo 13, Babe, Brave Heart, Il Postino (The Postman) and Sense and Sensibility.

George G. Blaisdell, who invented the Zippo lighter in 1932, chose its name and patented it in 1934. A resident of Bradford, Pennsylvania and a member of the Bradford Country Club, supposedly, “Blaisdell got the idea one day while having a smoke with a friend out on the porch of the country club. His friend’s European lighter seemed to work in the wind. (But it required both hands to operate.) Blaisdell saw the opportunity to adapt that design…”

Blaisdell admired the lighter’s use of a chimney to steady the flame and a cover that, if turned into the wind, protected that flame. George had trained in metalworking as a young man in his father’s Blaisdell Machinery Company in Bradford, so that he understood how to create a strong, well-built lighter that could be operated with only one hand.

Coincidentally, around the same time, the Talon Company, another Pennsylvania manufacturer had developed the fastener we now know as the Zipper. George loved the way the word sounded and called his lighter Zippo. To boost sales, he proclaimed that every lighter came with a life time guarantee.

The Zippo manufactured today is almost identical to the one first produced in 1934. The lighters have carried the logos for many organizations with the two most popular being the Playboy Bunny and Elvis.

For those of you who never owned a Zippo, permit me to explain its significance. Like other mechanical marvels from the past, it requires attention and care. Since it is not disposable, your Zippo must be tendered to. You must have on hand flints and lighter fluid which, I suspect today, you can only buy on line.

The outer case is made of brass covered by a coating of stainless-steel. (If you keep your Zippo long enough, the steel will wear away revealing the brass surface.

The inner case prevents the outer case from overheating and contains the cotton wading that must be filled with lighter fluid to produce the flame. It also houses a separate chamber for the flint which is held taunt by a spring and an exterior screw that keeps the flint in constant contact with the exterior flint wheel. Each light reduces the size of the flint that also must be regularly replaced. Turning the wheel produces sparks that ignite the wick.

My father was stationed at March AFB in Riverside, California in 1961 where I spent a month with his family. He was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, (SAC), our bomber force whose sole mission was to attack and destroy the Soviet Union in time of war. SAC’s logo was a cubit arm in armor rising from the bottom of the shield thrusting into the heavens. The hand is grasping a green olive branch and three red lightning bolts, a visual representation of SAC’s motto: “Power For Peace.”

I was able to purchase a Zippo lighter bearing this emblem from the local PX that I carried everywhere I went. Over time the colors all disappeared, and the brass became visible as the stainless-steel coating wore away.

Despite general disapproval of smoking, Zippo continues to prosper. They have sold over 550 million lighters in the company’s lifetime in 180 countries and employ 520 workers in their Bradford factory where more than 70,000 lighters a day are manufactured.

Once again, privately owned by George Blaisdell, it would appear Zippo will persevere and prosper into this new era long after I’m gone and my ashes spread upon the land in Marlow, NH.