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History of the Zipper

Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2022

History of the Zipper

The history of the humble zipper is a surprisingly short one, considering how ubiquitous this small device is now. Compared to previous fasteners, the zipper was fairly complex and so required “modern” machinery to design and produce it.

Despite being short, the history of the zipper is pretty interesting. So, let’s look at when zippers were invented and who invented the zipper.

Who Invented the Zipper?

A Swedish-American engineer called Gideon Sundback is generally credited with inventing the modern zipper as we know it. He registered his first patent for the device in Germany in 1909, but it wasn’t until 1917 that he received a patent for a device called a “separable fastener”. As the name suggests, this was the modern zipper in its first true design.

But as with any good invention, Sundback didn’t invent the zipper in a vacuum. He built upon previous designs and concepts that led to the idea of a zipper. A quick summary is as follows:

  • In 1851, inventor Elias Howe came up with a garment fastener that was essentially a complicated drawstring. However, he was too busy inventing the sewing machine, so he stuck with that.
  • In 1893, Whitcomb Judson developed a more complex type of hook-and-loop fastener for shoes. It looked similar to a zipper but without the slider to draw both sides together.
  • Between 1909 and 1917, Sundback adapted the design of the zipper to increase the number of teeth to make zippers more secure.
  • In 1923, Sundback sold his rights to Martin Othmar Winterhalter, who added ribs and grooves rather than joints and jaws (different ways of fastening zipper sides together).

Initially, zippers were used mainly in shoes and tobacco pouches. This is partly because clothes were fastened with buttons or laces, which most people were content with. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

When Were Zippers Invented?

The zipper was invented (technically) in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1923 that the name was first used. An American company called B.F. Goodrich Company used Sundback’s design on boots and coined the term zipper. Goodrich came up with the name based on the noise a zipper makes when you use it!

Zippers remained an institution in footwear for nearly 20 years until, in the 1930s, they were added to children’s clothes. Marketing campaigns labeled them as improving kids’ independence because they meant they could dress themselves. From there, zippers exploded into adults’ fashion, starting in men’s pants as the fly and making their way into womenswear.

Interestingly, it was around this time that the idea of a fully separating zipper took off. Until now, zippers were used for drawing together 2 sides of a garment, such as fastening boots or doing up the back of children’s overalls.

A fully separating zipper doesn’t take that much more technology. Rather than having connected teeth sewn into a garment, the zipper has an insertion pin and retainer box. These essentially allow you to align both sides of teeth before running the slider up them.

The first real use of a separating zipper was on jackets, specifically leather jackets. This was partly because of changes in fashion – until the 1920s and later, casual fashion closely resembled formalwear. Most men wore suits and women wore dresses. You’d wear these regardless of what you were doing, although there’d be differences in fabrics and cuts depending on the time of day and event.

However, as more people shifted towards obvious casual wear (such as trousers for women and no ties for men), the zipper came into its own. Plus, it wasn’t until people saw the zipper in action that they realized how time-consuming buttons actually are!

Another important factor was women’s suffrage. Lace-up dresses were seen as oppressive and unnecessary – women were shifting towards flapper dresses and trousers. Although these didn’t necessarily use zippers, it was the beginning of a trend away from stuffy, formal clothes.

What Do We Use Zippers For?

Zippers are now, without question, the most common type of fastener used. They’re fast and convenient and offer greater garment security than buttons. Although there isn’t really anything we don’t use zippers for, some of the most common uses include:

Another major benefit of the zipper is that it can easily be made waterproof. While the basic design isn’t watertight, we can do this by applying waterproof coatings during the production process. Doing so means no water will get through the metal teeth or the tape.

But we can go one step further and have airtight zippers too. NASA developed an airtight zipper that it uses on space suits. Not only do these zippers need to be airtight but they also need to resist massive differences in air pressure. Considering they still follow the basic zipper design, it’s impressive that such a humble item can be so functional.

How a Zipper Works

Considering how technical zippers are compared to buttons, their design is actually pretty simple. To understand how they work, we must briefly discuss the basic components, which are:

  • The teeth. These are the metal (or plastic) parts that run down both sides of the zipper.
  • The slider. This is the part you move up the teeth to draw them together.
  • The tape, which is what’s sewn into the garment to fix the zipper in place.
  • Insertion pin. This is specific to separating zippers and runs through the slider into the retainer box.
  • Retainer box. This is the part at the bottom of the zipper that holds both sides of the teeth together.

So, how does a zipper work?

In short, the slider runs up the teeth and draws them together. The teeth are shaped like hooks that fit into hollows on the tooth below. When forced together at a certain angle, the teeth lock into place by the hook fitting into the hollow.

Done properly, it’s almost impossible to separate the teeth apart by pulling on them. A high-quality zipper will take a lot of force, which is why they’re so useful for things like bags, but also for clothing. However, the slider can easily separate the teeth using a plow-shaped wedge. It pivots the hooks and hollows away from each other, drawing the teeth apart.

Although there are some minor differences between different types of zippers, they all follow this basic process. For example, invisible and double-sided zippers need slightly different functionality, but they still involve 2 sets of teeth locking together.

Considering we’re all so familiar with the concept of a zipper, the zipping process itself is quite complex. That said, a zipper is also very simple: it’s 2 strips of metal teeth that lock together. But the complexity of how this works is part of why they weren’t invented until recently. It wouldn’t have been possible to design and manufacture the important parts without modern industrial equipment.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now know everything you wanted to (and more) about the history of the zipper! Compared to buttons and laces, zippers are very modern, but they were also fundamental in the clothing revolution of the early 20th century. Without zippers, we wouldn’t have such an extensive range of clothing.

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