Sometimes the measure of an idea’s success isn’t how much it stands out, but how well it has blended into the background.
The zipper doesn’t tend to call much attention to itself, but it can be found stitched into our jeans, jackets, pillow covers, handbags, luggage, and countless other items. It’s become indispensable and ubiquitous. One estimate, Marketplace noted, put the number of zippers the US consumes annually at 4.5 billion. “That’s 14 zippers for every American per year,” it said.
The technology itself was far from an instant hit. For one thing, other methods for closing things—such as buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and laces—had been around a long time and worked just fine, even if they could be slow and laborious. “There was no general sense that this was an area begging for improvement, much less replacement,” wrote technology historian Robert Friedel in Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty.
It also took decades of different people reworking the basic design of the zipper, finding an audience for it, and figuring out the right marketing to make it as popular as it is today. But the zipper succeeded, and arguably offers a counterpoint to anyone who thinks an idea that has been tried in one form and didn’t immediately catch on is already dead.
The person usually credited with conceiving the idea of the zipper is Elias Howe, better known as the inventor of the lockstitch sewing machine. But while his 1851 patent for a fastening for garments looks zipper-like on paper, Friedel notes that it worked more like a drawstring than any zipper we would recognize now. In any case, Howe doesn’t appear to have ever tried producing it, perhaps because he was busy finding a market for his new type of sewing machine and defending it in court against imitators.
So the credit probably belongs more properly to Whitcomb Judson, who in 1893 received a patent for his “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes.” Judson’s clever design still involved hooks and eyes, but its great novelty was to introduce a sliding mechanism to easily close them. The invention, though, was not the triumph he had hoped. When he showed it off to the public at the World’s Fair, for instance, it kept popping open.
He went on to launch the Universal Fastener Company with the help of a businessman named Colonel Lewis Walker to manufacture his device. But despite years of trying, including reorganizing and renaming the company in 1904 to Automatic Hook and Eye, and producing an improved fastener, the C-curity—whose slogan announced, “A Pull and It’s Done”—sales struggled. The design still needed work. Judson died in 1909, which also marked a low point for Automatic Hook and Eye, according to Friedel.
The years that followed saw a handful of inventors trying to innovate on sliding fasteners. But nobody seemed able to make much—if any—money from them.
And then came a technical breakthrough. In 1912, Gideon Sundback—an engineer at Automatic Hook and Eye who had worked for Judson—applied for a patent on a fastening method that preserved Judson’s slider, but ditched hooks and eyes altogether. It used cloth tape with protruding metal teeth that have a hollow scoop on one side and a bump on the other. When two rows of them are fit together, the bumps slide snugly into the scoops, locking them in place. The design was flexible and secure. It took five years, during which Automatic Hook and Eye continued to flounder, but in 1917 Sundback received the patent for his hookless fastener, the template for the modern metal zipper.
Soon after, the business, which had been renamed (again) to Hookless Fastener Company, found new customers. As Lewis Weiner detailed in Scientific American (pdf), a New York tailor started buying them to make money belts for sailors whose uniforms didn’t have pockets during World War I. In 1918 the Navy adopted them for flight suits, and it steadily made its way into civilian products such as gloves and tobacco pouches, until its biggest opportunity yet came in 1923. B.F. Goodrich Company incorporated the fasteners into its rubber boots, calling them “Zippers,” because of the noise they made.
Sales took off. “Hookless Fastener, which was the sole maker of slide fasteners in the U.S. from 1917 to 1926, saw its sales rise from 24,000 in 1917 to more than 60 million in 1934,” Weiner wrote. “By that time the company had changed the name of its fasteners to Talon, and in 1937 it also changed its corporate name to Talon, Inc.”
Talon no longer has the market cornered, of course, and there are a number of companies making zippers today, including the one most people probably know: YKK, founded in Tokyo in 1934. It’s the dominant zipper producer globally, and probably made the zipper in the fly of any jeans you own.
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, though, that zippers would take over as the go-to fastening for fashion. Shoppers had to be convinced of their benefits. A so-called “battle of the fly” played out between the button and zipper as they competed to be the preferred closure for men’s pants. Esquire magazine ultimately sided with the zipper because of its style and potential to limit “unintentional and embarrassing disarray.” The zipper also won influential proponents such as Prince of Wales and other English aristocrats who helped convince men it had a place in their pants.
Women were starting to see the zipper’s appeal, too. The couturier Elsa Schiaparelli was among the first to use exposed zippers on her clothing as a design element, and when Levi’s finally introduced zippers on its jeans in 1947, it did so to attract female shoppers. “While western women who worked on ranches had been wearing men’s button fly jeans for years, many proper women on the East Coast considered the button version of jeans to lack modesty,” the company explained in a blog post. (Ironically the zipper has also become a suggestive sexual symbol; just look at Andy Warhol’s cover for the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers.)
Though zippers got off to a slow start—Friedel says you could argue it was quicker to develop the airplane or computer—they’ve since rapidly spread across the world, and well beyond. Even spacesuits routinely use zippers.
“Technology advances by responding to failure, and failure here is not only in the sense of outright breaking, but also in the sense of failing to work smoothly and intuitively,” Henri Petroski, an engineer at Duke University, remarked to the BBC about the zipper last year.
The zipper didn’t exactly solve a problem without a prior solution, but it did the job well enough to catch on. It may as likely have kept failing. Yet today, it’s hard to imagine everyday life without them.