The zipper is a popular fastener for clothing, leather goods, luggage, and various accessories. Prior to the invention of the zipper, early fastening methods included laces, buckles, and buttons. In the nineteenth century, the most common method of fastening a shoe was to button up 20 to 40 buttons on each shoe, and zippers were invented as an alternative to this tedious practice.
Many inventors contributed to the innovative design of the zipper over the last 120 years, beginning with the “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” patented by Elias Howe in 1851. Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, made little effort to market his invention, perhaps because of his success with the sewing machine. In 1894, Whitcomb Judson, the inventor of the pneumatic street railway, marketed a slide fastener with hooks and eyes he called the “Clasp Locket”. Whitcomb and a financial backer, Lewis Walker, founded the Universal Fastener Company in 1894. The clasp locket was introduced to the public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and met with little commercial success.
Innovations came slowly until Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback joined the Universal Fastener Company in 1913 and patented the “Separable Fastener”, which is considered to be the prototype for the modern zipper. The first zippers were used during World War I as fasteners for soldier’s flight suits, life-vests, and money-belts.
Zippers were used for closing galoshes or rubber boots by the B.F. Goodrich Company during the 1920s. Goodrich president Bertram Work coined the name “zipper” to describe the metallic hissing sound when the slider is pulled up or down, and he intended the word zipper to refer to the company’s galoshes, and not the fastening device. He felt the fastening device should be properly called a slide fastener.
In the 1930s, French fashion designers raved about the ease of zippers in men’s trousers after the zipper beat the button in a 1937 contest of the “Battle of the Fly”. A children’s clothing sales campaign promoted the zipper a way for children to dress themselves.
Zipper design changed during World War II as metal became scarce, and plastic notches and coils were developed that could be woven into cloth.
Despite the introduction of Velcro closures, the zipper remains popular today in clothing, luggage, and outdoor equipment such as tents and backpacks for its reliability and strength. Today’s zippers undergo rigorous testing for strength, flatness, color-fastness, and shrinkage.
The invention of the zipper created an efficient way to close anything made of cloth or leather, and can also make as a colorful fashion statement in clothing or accessories.