The Zippo Lighter Story is a True Rags to Riches Legend.
A very young George Blaisdell, who had lasted just two years at a military school before being dismissed, found himself at work in the family business in Bradford PA. Wishing to strike out on his own, he journeyed to New York City to try his luck in the stock market, but soon had to return home to take over the family business when his father’s health failed. This is where George would learn the skills that would help him develop the very first Zippo lighter.
After a few years in the machinery business, he sold the Blaisdell Machinery Company and put all the money into the oil business. George soon found that he hated the oil business and was not particularly good at it. The one thing he did know was that he needed to do something, and do it quickly. The oil boom days were gone and things were tough. It was the time of the Depression and the 37 year old George had very little formal education.
George was however, very good at one thing, and that was golf. He played the game whenever he could. During the summer of 1932 George and his friends were at the local golf club when one of his friends lit a cigarette with a very odd-looking lighter. George asked him why he owned such an ugly looking lighter. His friend’s response ignited the fuse that would lead to the Zippo Manufacturing Company that we know today. IT WORKS, he said.
George purchased one of these ugly Austrian made lighters and with his background in the family machinery business, decided he could refashion it to make it look and work better. George fabricated a rectangular case and attached the lid of the lighter to the case with a hinge. He retained the chimney design of the Austrian lighter, as it did protect the flame from the wind. The result was a lighter that was not only easy to operate but it looked good to.
He had another problem and that was with the name he wanted for his new creation. He had always liked the word Zipper and wanted to call his new lighter a Zipper. Unfortunately another company held the patented for that name, but after tossing around some different variations of the word and settled on “Zippo”.
The next step was more difficult. He had to get the money to launch the Zippo Manufacturing Company. George soon found out that nobody had any faith in his idea to make and sell this new lighter. Most of his friends thought that it was an outright foolish scheme.
He now devoted himself to making this idea work. It had to work, for George and his family had no alternatives.
He must have been very stubborn and persuasive however in raising funds to start the new business. Within a few months he had raised enough cash to a rent a garage, buy $250 worth of equipment and hire two employees; the first Zippo Lighter was produced in early 1933.
The original Zippo patent was filed on May 17, 1934, and the basic design of the lighter remains the same to this day, with only a few minor improvements.
His knack for product promotion created the now world famous Zippo guarantee: “It works or we fix it free.”
At this point George was struggling along selling one or two lighter at a time when, in 1935, the Kendall Oil Company ordered 500 lighters, complete with their corporate logo for Christmas gifts. This gave the fledgling Zippo Company a much needed boost.
Throughout the ’40s, the company continued to grow and acquired several buildings on Barbour Street in Bradford.
The next great influence on the company was World War II. With America’s entry in the war all production at Zippo Manufacturing was dedicated to the U.S. military. The fact that millions of American military personnel carried the Zippo lighter into battle was just what the company needed to establishing Zippo as an icon of America throughout the world.
During the war the Zippo plant was operating at full production, turning out lighters for the military. This strengthened the company financially and made it a viable entity by the end of the war.
After 1945, George hit the road with advertizing campaigns to sell lighters to a peacetime America. Always a great promoter, he even created a car that looked like a lighter to further Zippos exposure in America.
Zippo’s were also produced in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada from 1949 until the plant was closed in 2002. The bottom stamp on the lighters produced in Canada reveal the Niagara Falls location. Niagara Falls is the only other place in the world where Zippo lighters have ever been manufactured.
Mr. George Blaisdell passed away on October 3, 1978. He was 83 years of age. He is remembered not only for the Lighter he designed and for the drive and determination to succeed in building his business, but also for the generosity and kindness that he possessed.
I do not attempt to present a complete history of Mr. George Blaisdell life in these few short paragraphs, but I do wish to bring to you a small glimpse into life and times of a true American Icon.
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