If you have ever used a suitcase, worn a jacket or boots, chances are you have used a zipper. Zippers are sometimes stubborn, but we can’t imagine our lives without them. Zippers have been around for over a hundred years, but do you know how they were invented? You can thank World War I the next time you zip up your jacket.
Where the idea came from
We can credit Elias Howe for the idea of the zipper. Howe, an American innovator who helped invent the sewing machine, had many ideas up his sleeve, including the zipper. He patented his idea in 1851, but set it aside to focus on the sewing machine.
It wasn’t until 1893 that entrepreneur Whitcomb L. Judson presented a patent for an “automatic closing device actuated by a slide mechanism.” In layman’s terms: a zipper. But Judson coined the term “clasp hooker.” He immediately established a company to produce the new device, creating the slogan “pull and it’s done.”
In 1906 the company hired more engineers to continue operations, but the idea didn’t go over too well with the American public. The zippers had sharp hooks and tore fabric.
So, when did the idea become popular?
In 1917, Judson’s lead engineer, Gideon Sundback, applied for his own patent. His invention looked more modern, like the zipper we would find today. Sundback’s invention became so popular he eventually opened his own business, The Hookless Fastener Company. That same year, a New York City tailor, Robert J. Ewing, put Sundback’s zippers into money belts, and that’s when the invention took off.
World War I soldiers used money belts because their uniforms didn’t have pockets. They used zippers all the time and sales increased for Sundback’s company.
Surviving the Great Depression
By the 1920s, Sundback’s company was making over 10,000 products with zippers. Everyone loved the invention, especially when it was added to boots.
But by the 1930s, the Great Depression consumed the United States. Boots were no longer selling, but the zipper survived. We now have one of the best (and useful) inventions. Chew on that next time you zip up your jacket.