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.”

The great zipper takeover

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.

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