Rio History: Zip It!


Special to the PRESS

Though it seems second nature to us today, because no one had ever seen such a device before and few could figure out how it worked, the first zipper came with a set of instructions!

Whitcomb Judson is generally given credit with inventing the zipper but that honor really belongs to Elias Howe.
Howe received a patent in 1851 for his latest invention, the “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure.” At the time, Howe was engaged in a prolonged court battle with Isaac Singer over the patent rights to the newly invented sewing machine. Ultimately, Howe prevailed and settled for many millions of dollars. Perhaps it was the success of his lawsuit which caused Elias not to pursue marketing his clothing closure. Regardless, Howe missed his chance to become Father of the Zipper.

Forty-two years later, in 1893, Whitcomb Judson marketed a “Clasp Locker,” a device similar to Howe’s 1851 patent. A complicated hook-and-eye shoe fastener, the clasp locker was first shown to the public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Ever the optimist, Whitcomb and fellow business man Col. Lewis Walker, opened the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. Sales were poor, with only 20 of the new fasteners being sold to the United States Postal Service for use on heavy mail bags.

Judson’s patent seemed doomed until the arrival of Gideon Sundback, an electrical engineer hired to work for the Universal Fastener Company. Sundback, who married the plant-manager’s daughter Elvira Aronson, was given the task of improving the new-fangled fastener. Saddened by the death of his wife in 1911, Sundback became a recluse, spending most of his time working at his drawings and plans. He increased the number of fastening elements from four per inch to 10 or 11. The innovative Sundback also added 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. Sundback also designed and built a new machine that cut scoops from a specially designed Y-shaped wire, then punched the scoop dimple and nib, and clamped each scoop on a cloth tape to produce a continuous fastener chain. The patent for the ‘Separable Fastener’ was issued in 1917. Within the first year of operation, Sundback’s machinery was producing a few hundred feet of fastener per day.

The B. F. Goodrich Company decided to try Gideon’s fastener on a new type of rubber boots. Goodrich himself liked the zipping sound made by the new fastener and renamed it “the zipper.”

It took almost 20 years before the garment industry took note of the new device.

In the 1930’s, the use of zippers was touted as promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress themselves. Esquire magazine declared the zipper the “Newest Tailoring Idea for Men,” and among the zippered fly’s many virtues, was that it would exclude “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray.”

Obviously, the new zippered trouser owners had not yet experienced the embarrassment of forgetting to “close the barn door!”

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