Archive for Thursday, September 9, 2010

Zipping up

September 9, 2010

The simple zipper has revolutionized fastening of clothes in the past 70 years or so, however its failure can bring cold fear to the heart of most men. One momentary slip in memory can cause the zipper to be a symbol of mortification.

As most of you know, I do a lot of public speaking and every time that I step up to the podium I have this creeping fear that I have forgotten my zipper. Sometimes, even though everything is in order, I imagine a cool breeze and I am beset with worries. This is a fear that has bedeviled many speakers through the years. Unfortunately, I believe that the forgotten zipper syndrome is more prevalent in those of us who are a bit more mature.

Zippers can cause other problems, too. Has your zipper ever jammed or lost one of its tiny teeth? Normally this happens at the most inopportune time when you are miles away from home and have no time to find a suitable replacement for the damaged pants. The same is true with jackets. Sometimes zippers and the adjacent cloth become entangled. Again, this normally happens on a cold day. Despite the problems, zippers are usually very reliable and play an important role in our daily lives and perform extremely well.

I have vague memories of a time when zippers weren’t as popular and pants, dresses, etc., were secured with buttons. If my memory is correct, zippers started replacing buttons on men’s pants in the late 1940s. It is surprising, but I wasn’t able to find an exact date when buttons on men’s pants faded into oblivion and were replaced by the simple, easy to operate zipper. It seems that the zipper was first used in children’s clothing and then began the transition to adult wear.

The zipper traces its roots to Elias Howe who was one of the developers of the sewing machine. Howe received a patent in 1851 for an “automatic, continuous clothing closure.” No source I found seemed to know why, but the business savvy Howe never followed up on his invention.

For more than four decades, the idea of the zipper languished until Whitcomb Judson marketed a zipper-like product, which also had a unique name, “clasp locker.” Since Judson was the first person to try to grasp the commercial value of the product, he is now known as the “father of the zipper.” I’ll bet you’re like me and didn’t know and probably don’t care that the title existed.

Anyway, Judson made early attempts to market the product and he launched the Universal Fastener Company and was an unsuccessful exhibitor at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At that point in history, many probably believed the zipper was doomed.

All of that changed when Gideon Sundback came up with the idea of two facing rows of teeth that were pulled by a single piece. One story that I found said that Sundback devoted much of his time to his invention following the death of his wife. He also invented the machine that manufactured the zipper.

The big break came when the B.F. Goodrich Co. started using the device on galoshes and coined the name “zipper.”

By the 1930s, there were major sales pitches for the use of zipper in children’s clothing and it took the French to move zippers to men’s pants. In 1937, French designers started using zippers in men’s pants and advertised that the zipper could prevent the embarrassment of forgetting to fasten buttons. In retrospect it seems that they didn’t mention that zipping up could also be forgotten.

Without a doubt, the zipper is a great recently modern invention that has changed the way we dress. But, on the other hand, a forgetful moment and the zipper can be a great source of embarrassment.


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