Have you ever given much thought to the history of the incredible useful zipper? Without it, how would you zip yourself up in your sleeping bag on a camping trip, fasten your favourite jeans or even close that handy little cosmetics pouch where all your favourite make up is stored?The invention of the modern zip fastener or zipper was a long process involving several different people. It began in the mid-19th century when the inventor Elias Howe developed a device with the zippy (sorry!) name of the “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure.” It was intended to be used in a similar way to the modern zipper, but it worked differently, having individual clasps that had to be joined manually before it could be pulled shut with a string. This device was never adopted commercially, possibly because Howe didn’t seriously try to market it – he was busy promoting his other invention, the sewing machine! It wasn’t until the 1890’s that Whitcomb Judson marketed a “Clasp Locker” which was a sort of hook-and-eye shoe fastener for shoes. Judson founded the Universal Fastener Company to produce his new device which debuted without much success at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago.
The modern zipper was eventually developed in 1913 by Gideon Sundback, who worked at the Universal Fastener Company in Hoboken, New Jersey. He received a patent for his “Separable Fastener” in 1917. Sundback’s design increased the number of fastening elements to 10 per inch and included two rows of interlocking teeth that would latch together with the help of a slider. His design was the first fastener to resemble what we now know as a zipper. Sundback’s first customer was the US army that used these fasteners in their clothing and battle gears during World War I. At first the soldiers didn’t know how the fasteners worked and so they came with “Using instructions.”The name “Zipper” was coined by B F Goodrich who ordered 150,000 of these for his new product – rubber galoshes (rubber boots). With Sundback’s fasteners these galoshes could be fastened with a single zip of hand and from its sound zzzip, the name zip was coined.
From boots zippers moved on to fasten tobacco pouches but that the extent of their use until 1930 when a sales campaign featuring children’s clothing with zippers launched the zipper into the garment industry. The campaign promoted the zipper as a self-reliant aid for making kids independent in wearing their dresses. Meanwhile the zip industry also pushed a concept called “gaposis” – an imaginary complaint caused by ill-fitting clothes which let light and air (and eyes) in on the body underneath. Zips were promoted as the cure for this supposedly unsightly condition.
In 1937, the zipper beat the button in popularity in the “Battle of the Fly” when French fashion designers started to use zippers in men’s trousers. At the same time Esquire magazine declared the zipper as “Newest tailoring idea for men.” After a long and rocky start the zipper was here to stay!