The History of the Zipper

YKK on Zipper
YKK on Zipper. Courtesy MorgueFile

It was a long way up for the humble zipper, the mechanical wonder that has kept our lives "together" in many ways. The zipper has passed through the hands of several dedicated inventors, though none convinced the general public to accept the zipper as part of everyday life. It was the magazine and fashion industry that made the novel zipper the popular item it is today.

The story begins when Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, who received a patent in 1851 for an "Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure." It didn't go much further beyond that, though. Perhaps it was the success of the sewing machine, that caused Elias not to pursue marketing his clothing closure system. As a result, Howe missed his chance to become the recognized "Father of the Zip."

Forty-four years later, inventor Whitcomb Judson marketed a "Clasp Locker" device similar to system described in the 1851 Howe patent. Being first to market, Whitcomb got credit for 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 debuted at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was met with little commercial success.

It was a Swedish-born electrical engineer named Gideon Sundback whose work helped make the zipper the hit it is today. Originally hired to work for the Universal Fastener Company, his design skills and a marriage to the plant-manager's daughter Elvira Aronson led to a position as head designer at Universal. In his position, he improved the far from perfect "Judson C-curity Fastener." When Sundback's wife died in 1911, the grieving husband busied himself at the design table. By December of 1913, he came up with what would become the modern zipper.

Gideon Sundback's new-and-improved system increased the number of fastening elements from four per inch to 10 or 11, 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. His 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 machine was producing a few hundred feet of fastener per day.

The popular "zipper" name came from the B. F. Goodrich Company, which decided to use Gideon's fastener on a new type of rubber boots or galoshes. Boots and tobacco pouches with a zippered closure were the two chief uses of the zipper during its early years. It took 20 more years to convince the fashion industry to seriously promote the novel closure on garments.

In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers. The campaign advocated zippers as a way to promote self-reliance in young children as the devices made it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. 

A landmark moment happened in 1937 when the zipper beat the button in the "Battle of the Fly." French fashion designers raved over the use of zippers in men's trousers and Esquire magazine declared the zipper the "Newest Tailoring Idea for Men." Among the zippered fly's many virtues was that it would exclude "The possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray." 

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