EDIT: Visit the completed project and learn about the background, development, adoption, and impact of the zipper.
I intend to investigate the history of the zipper for my American History and Technology class project. My project will be divided into several parts, discussing the zipper’s antecedents, its invention, its possible alternatives, and its adoption and interaction with American culture.
Why the zipper? “The zipper,” according to Robert Friedel, author of Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, “is the perfect vehicle for exploring how and why men and women seek to create new things and how difficult it in fact can be to change the ways of the world, no matter how clever and ingenious our inventions are” . The zipper may seem like an uninteresting topic of exploration, but it has a rich history that makes it a perfect artifact of discussion. It is likely no one has ever waxed poetic about the zipper as a validation of industrialization and capitalism like the railroad. Maybe there has never been a zipper on display in an important American building as a reminder of strength like a hunk of steel. Perhaps the zipper had not changed the very basics of our society. But like those behemoth innovations, the zipper has become such a part of our daily lives and identities that we take it for granted. And to be fair to the poor, neglected zipper, there are probably a fair number of Americans who can say they have never ridden a train, but how many Americans can say that they have never used a zipper?
The U.S. Patent Office approved several early designs that only vaguely resembled today’s zipper. One of these devices was an “automatic, continuous clothing closure,” patented by Elias Howe in 1851. However, Howe’s design never reached market, likely because Howe was concerned with promoting one of his other inventions, the sewing machine.
The first patent to use a slide device, which enabled the fasteners to be brought together in a semiautomatic way, belonged to Whitcomb Judson. While Judson’s design used recognizable fastening devices like clasps, hooks, and eyes, the addition of a slide proved to be innovative. Judson’s first patent was issued in 1893, and he continued to work on simplifying his design.
Despite Judson’s proclivity for overly complicated inventions, he found a partner in Harry L. Earle and his manufacturing company. Earle tired to raise money to put Judson’s device into production, but he met with little success. Despite Judson’s constant improvements, his design did not work particularly well. Nonetheless, Judson designed and patented machinery to make his fastener. Finally, in 1904 he created a design using hooks and eyes connected to a fabric tape, which could then be attached to shoes and garments. Judson’s new design made the first commercial introduction of the fastener possible.
The Automatic Hook and Eye Company of Hoboken was created to produce and sell Judson’s new design, called the C-curity fastener. The fastener went to market in 1905, mostly marketed towards women, but it was mostly unsuccessful. Swedish born, Gideon Sundback was hired to work for the company, and there he perfected the design of the zipper. He first made modifications to Judson’s design, making the hook-and-eye connection more secure. The Plako, as it was called, was marketed towards dressmakers and for men’s trousers, where it enjoyed some success. However, the Plako also proved to be unreliable, not being flexible enough to stay closed when bent or twisted.
Sundback continued to work on the device, and in 1912 he created a new design for the product, abandoning the hook-and-eye system. His Hookless #1 design used a slide to force one side of the fastener, made of cloth tape, into metal clamps on the other side. However, the wear on the fabric tape proved to be too much, and the fastener could only be used a few times.
Nevertheless, the company reorganized into the Hookless Fastener Company. In 1913, Sundback designed the Hookless #2, which introduced the interlocking system used in the modern zipper. He changed the fasteners from hooks and eyes to small interlocking scoops. These scoops fit together tightly when joined by the slide and were easily released when separated by it. New mechanical innovations allowed Sundback device to be mass produced.
While a workable slide fastener had finally been invented, it still needed a market if it was to be adopted. The zipper found its first widespread success in 1918 when the United States joined World War I. The Hookless Company added zippers to soldiers’ money belts, Navy flying suits and life vests, and fuselage coverings. While the end of the war also ended the company’s military sales, thousands of Americans had been exposed to the zipper. By 1937 the zipper had become a common addition to men’s and women’s fashions, and it quickly gained popularity outside the apparel market as well. After nearly half a decade, the zipper was no longer considered a novelty.
Many of my primary sources will come from a free patent website, http://www.freepatentsonline.com/, which provides files of original United States patents. The patents include drawings, technical descriptions, and possible uses for the inventions.
There are some early devices that vaguely resemble an early design of the zipper, including Elias Howe’s automatic, continuous clothing closure, U.S. Patent No. 8,540 (1851).
+ “Fastening for Garments.” United States Patent Office No. 8,540, patented Nov. 25 1851. FreePatentsOnline. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/0008540.pdf (accessed January 31, 2009).
Whitcomb Judson designed a device based on pervious clasps and hooks, but he added a slide that allowed the fasteners to be brought together in a semiautomatic way. Judson constantly worked on improving his design to make it more practical. Some of his patents include a hook-and-eye shoe fastener, U.S. Patent No. 504,037 (1893), and a clasp locker/unlocker for shoes, U.S. Patent No. 504,038 (1893).
+ “Shoe Fastening.” United States Patent Office No. 504,037, patented Aug. 29 1893. FreePatentsOnline. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/0504037.pdf (accessed January 31, 2009).
+ “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes.” United States Patent Office No. 504,038, patented Aug. 29 1893. FreePatentsOnline. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/0504038.pdf (accessed January 31, 2009).
Gideon Sundback streamlined Judson’s fastener and designed the interlocking teeth system used in zippers today. He also constantly worked on improving his device. One of his patents includes a separable fastener, U.S. Patent No. 1,219,881 (1917).
+ “Separable Fastener.” United States Patent Office No. 1,219,881, patented Mar. 20, 1917. FreePatentsOnline. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/1219881.pdf (accessed January 31, 2009).
Friedel, Robert D. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1994.
+ Friedel’s book will likely be my most crucial secondary source, as it is entirely dedicated to a history and discussion on the zipper, including its place in American culture.
Friedel, Robert. “The History of the Zipper,” Invention and Technology Magazine 10, no. 1 (Summer 1994). http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1994/1/1994_1_8.shtml (accessed January 31, 2009).
+ Friedel further discusses the history of the zipper in this article.
Friedel, Robert, and Alexander Horniman. “Zipper!” Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Web site. With Good Reason Archives. http://www.virginiafoundation.org/media/wgr/archives/2007/jan07wgr.html (accessed January 31, 2009).
+ Robert Friedel and Alexander Horniman discuss how the zipper illustrates the limitations and expectations of technology and the meanings we place on technology.
Lienhard, John H. The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
+ It is somewhat difficult to think of the zipper as a machine, but Lienhard’s perspective as an engineer when discussing the zipper will keep that distinction in mind.
Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts- From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers- Came to be as They Are. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.
+ Much like Friedel, Petroski also discusses the history of the zipper, as well as other ordinary artifacts, and how it came to be ordinary rather than novel.
Petroksi, Henry. Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
+ Petroski spends a section discussing the zipper from the scientific thinking required for its invention to the concerns of creating a market for the invention.
Smith, Vaclav. Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences. Oxford University Press, USA; illustrated edition edition (April 13, 2006
+ Smith writes on 20th Century inventions, including the zipper, and how they have integrated into society.
“The ABC of Zip Fasteners.” COATS Industry Web site. http://www.industrie.coats.de/zip/zipabc/ (accessed January 31, 2009).
+ This website provides technical aspects of the zipper. It describes zipper models, types, components, and length definitions.
 Robert Friedel, “The History of the Zipper,” Invention and Technology Magazine 10, no. 1 (Summer 1994), http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1994/1/1994_1_8.shtml (accessed January 31, 2009).