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The History of the Zipper
Whitcomb JudsonGideon Sundback
Photos: Inventors
Whitcomb Judson Gideon Sundback
zipper
Illustration: drawing of a modern zipper
More of This Feature
View the original 1917 Sundback patent for the "Separable Fastener"
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Clothing
Clothing Fasteners

By Mary Bellis

It was a long way up for the humble zipper, the mechanical wonder that has kept so much in our lives 'together.' On its way up the zipper has passed through the hands of several dedicated inventors, none convinced the general public to accept the zipper as part of everyday costume. The magazine and fashion industry made the novel zipper the popular item it is today, but it happened nearly eighty years after the zipper's first appearance.

Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine received a patent in 1851 for an 'Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.' Perhaps it was the success of the sewing machine, which caused Elias not to pursue marketing his clothing closure. As a result, Howe missed his chance to become the recognized 'Father of the Zip.'

Forty-four years later, Mr. Whitcomb Judson (who also invented the 'Pneumatic Street Railway') marketed a 'Clasp Locker' a device similar to the 1851 Howe patent. Being first to market gave Whitcomb the credit of being the 'Inventor of the Zipper', However, his 1893 patent did not use the word zipper. The Chicago inventor's 'Clasp Locker' was a complicated hook-and-eye shoe fastener. Together with businessman Colonel Lewis Walker, Whitcomb launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. The clasp locker had its public debut at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and met with little commercial success.

Whitcomb Judson's Clasp Locker
Illustration: Whitcomb Judson's clasp locker

Swedish-born (who later immigrated to Canada), Gideon Sundback, an electrical engineer, was hired to work for the Universal Fastener Company. Good design skills and a marriage to the plant-manager's daughter Elvira Aronson led Sundback to the position of head designer at Universal. He was responsible for improving the far from perfect 'Judson C-curity Fastener.' Unfortunately, Sundback's wife died in 1911. The grieving husband busied himself at the design table and by December of 1913, he had designed the modern zipper.

Gideon Sundback increased the number of fastening elements from four per inch to ten or eleven, had two facing-rows of teeth that pulled into a single piece by the slider, and increased the opening for the teeth guided by the slider. The patent for the 'Separable Fastener' was issued in 1917. Sundback also created the manufacturing machine for the new zipper. The 'S-L' or scrapless machine took a special Y-shaped wire and cut scoops from it, then punched the scoop dimple and nib, and clamped each scoop on a cloth tape to produce a continuous zipper chain. Within the first year of operation, Sundback's zipper-making machinery was producing a few hundred feet of fastener per day.

View the original 1917 Sundback patent for the "Separable Fastener"

The popular 'zipper' name came from the B. F. Goodrich Company, when they decided to use Gideon's fastener on a new type of rubber boots or galoshes and renamed the device the zipper, the name that lasted. Boots and tobacco pouches with a zippered closure were the two chief uses of the zipper during its early years. It took twenty more years to convince the fashion industry to seriously promote the novel closure on garments.

In the 1930's, a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in the 1937 in the "Battle of the Fly," when French fashion designers raved over zippers in men's trousers. Esquire magazine declared the zipper the "Newest Tailoring Idea for Men" and among the zippered fly's many virtues was that it would exclude "The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray." Obviously, the new zippered trouser owners had not yet discovered the experience of forgetting to zip-up.

The next big boost for the zipper came when zippers could open on both ends, as on jackets. Today the zipper is everywhere, in clothing, luggage and leather goods and countless other objects. Thousands of zipper miles produced daily, meet the needs of consumers, thanks to the early efforts of the many famous zipper inventors.

Next page > View the original 1917 Sundback patent for the "Separable Fastener"

artwork ©MaryBellis

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