No. 121 November, 2009
Harold Ratzburg was born at the start of the Great Depression and raised on a Dairy Farm in Wisconsin. He served four years in the US Air Force in the 50's and was stationed in Germany, where he met his wife Anneliese, who helped get him through College to become a Civil Engineer. After a time as a Highway Engineer and College Instructor, he wound up as a City Engineer of a small town in New Jersey. Twenty four years later he retired to become an old geezer telling old stories on his new fangled computer.
The Zippo Lighter Story
By Harold Ratzburg
Once upon a time, in 1932 to be exact, George G. Blaisdell invented the Zippo lighter in his garage. He wanted to design a lighter that was sturdy and that you could light in the wind using one hand. He named his windproof lighter after the word "zipper" because he thought it sounded "modern".
The first Zippos were square cornered and formed from rectangular brass tubing with the top and bottom pieces soldered to the hollow tubing to form the lid and bottom of the case. The hinge was soldered to the outside and the lighter was chrome plated. It sold for $1.95 and came with a lifetime guarantee.
The original design called for a shiny metallic nickel-plated case, but with WW II came shortages, including the brass and chrome used for Zippo lighters, so George used porous steel coated with black paint in stead. The result was a black, crackled paint job, so today's collectors refer to these rare models as "black crackle" lighters.
From 1943 through 1945, Zippo lighters, with that distinctive click they made when flipped open, were available only to Military personnel at U.S. Army exchanges and naval ship stores around the world. Soldiers liked to personalize their Zippos by scratching the surface of the lighters with their names, places they'd been, messages to loved ;ones or simple pictures. The lighter was so popular that it was named "the GI's friend", and after the war, the vets came home to civilian life as dedicated Zippo customers.
The company's archives are filled with letters from GIs detailing the services a Zippo lighter was called to perform, such as heating rations in a helmet, lighting campfires, sparking fuses for explosives, hammering nails and even signaling to fellow soldiers with the famous Zippo click. On several occasions, a Zippo lighter in a shirt or pants pocket even saved a life or prevented a wound by deflecting enemy bullets or shrapnel.
It would be nice to say that George Blaisdell sent all his lighters to the military because he was super patriotic, but that was only part of it. George, being the smart guy that he was, didn't want the Zippo Manufacturing Plant shut down for the war's duration as "unnecessary to the war effort" or refitted to make parachutes or fatigue caps. By working with the government, he could keep his factory at full production levels.
George Blaisdell became "Mr. Zippo" with the help of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who hung out with the front line troops in England, Italy, Sicily, Africa and later in the Pacific. Pyle's columns dealt mostly with the civilian soldiers and their day-to-day lives. Blaisdell enjoyed the column and sent the correspondent a Zippoo lighter with Pyle's signature engraved on the side. He sent 50 more for Pyle to give away, even though as George wrote in his letter, "You probably know nothing about the Zippo lighter." Fact was, Pyle knew all about the Zippo, as did every other American GI. "If he only knew how soldiers coveted them! Why, they're so popular I had three of them stolen from me in one year," wrote Pyle in his column. He finished the column by giving Blaisdell his nickname: "The fifty other lighters went like hot cakes. I found myself equipped with a wonderful weapon for winning friends and influencing people. All fifty-one of us were grateful to Mr. Zippo."
The tradition from WW 1 of decorating lighters with coins and crude engravings, or "trench art" continued on the Zippo in WW II. The GIs soldered coins or unit insignia to them or even scratched or engraved maps and names of places they had been to personalize their prized Zippos.
The majority of the lighters from 1936--1945 can be easily recognized by rounded corners and the absence of the post 1946, concave bottom. The WW II bottoms are flat or bulge outwards in varying degrees even to the point that the Zippo will not stand upright on a flat surface. That must have annoyed some soldiers because other GIs could use their lighters as a light source if they had a surface to stand it up on.
The WW II lighters with the black crackle finish, distributed only to the PXs for the people in service, mistakenly were stamped with patent number 203695. The correct number should have been 2032695. Now that is something for the really picky collector to look for and rejoice over and brag about when one is found.
THE ZIPPO AS A COLLECTIBLE
The Zippo company has produced more that 325 million lighters since its founding in 1934, so there is plenty to go around. Today the company produces several lighters for all the branches of the services and for all the specialty units such as SEALs and Rangers. Every Navy ship has had its own lighter that includes a picture of the ship, its name, and its number.
Zippos commemorate leaders and Battles of WW II, the Wartime surrenders, the Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and the more recent Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so you really can have your pick of fields for a collection.
From what I have found however, it is the WW II lighters that have fueled the most interest and command the highest prices. On Ebay, a black crackle finished lighter in almost any condition will go for $100.00 or more, and one adorned with coins or insignia or other trench art will go as high as $300.00, maybe even more. So check out your Grand Daddy's or your Daddy's souvenir box-----you never know. However, as I have said before, something that personal to your relative, like his dog tags, should really stay in the family showing your respect for his service to our country.
VISIT TO THE ZIPPO MUSEUM
I have visited the Zippo Museum in Bradford;, PA (located about 150 miles north of Interstate Route 80 in northwest PA) and found it pretty awesome. There are literally thousands of Zippos on display, although I found the WW II lighters to be just a very small part of the overall museum.
More interesting, (to me), was a work room visible from the visitor's center where about a dozen workers were busy repairing Zippo lighters that had been returned to the company.
Zippo has a lifetime guarantee on every lighter that they make that they will repair it for free if it fails for any reason, and the company does stand behind that guarantee. Send them your broken lighter, and it will be repaired.
If you are into Zippos as a collector, the company produces the Zippo Lighter Collectors' Guide containing illustrations of the lighters and descriptions of the series, as well as an explanation of the date code found on the bottom of every Zippo lighter.
copyright 2009, Harold Ratzburg