When José Feliciano sang his hit song "Light My Fire," he might have been thinking about Zippo lighters. Or maybe not. In any event, Zippo lighters stand just behind apple pie, baseball and Coca-Cola as classic bits of Americana. In 2012, the manufacturer announced the production of its 500-millionth lighter, meaning that every American must have one or two laying around somewhere. Let's explore why that is.
Interestingly enough, Zippo was founded in 1932 just as the Depression was tightening its grip on American life. Its patriarch was George Blaisdell, a creative type from Pennsylvania who was dissatisfied with the lighters of the day. The best were from Austria with a clever chimney-type design, but their construction was flimsy and they required two hands to operate. Blaisdell thought he could do better, and he did.
After a year or so of tinkering, he filed a patent application for a simple one-handed lighter with a wind-resistant chimney and sturdy metal case. Today's Zippos are little changed from Blaisdell's original design.
Despite its obvious advantages, Zippo's success was not guaranteed. The new lighters sold for $1.95 each — the equivalent of about $40 today — but the name was catchy and the design sleek and modern. Not insignificantly, each Zippo also included an unconditional lifetime warranty captured by the phrase "It works, or we fix it free!"
By the dawn of the new decade, a Zippo was the lighter to have. And then came World War II. In 1941, Zippo suspended its commercial production and introduced a military lighter with a non-reflective black crackle finish. American servicemen by the millions carried them into all theaters, putting Zippo firmly on the global map.
Following the war, the company resumed its consumer product business — now with a firmly entrenched market base. In the mid-1950s, date codes were added to the bottom of each lighter and subsequently a slimmer Zippo was introduced as an accessory for women. A decade later, Zippos of all stripes were being raised in darkened concert halls, creating a new market among non-smokers. And the promotional market was booming, too, Blaisdell having long recognized the sales appeal of imprinted and customized lighters. By staying focused and building on its core product, Zippo has maintained a worldwide following to this day.
As for collectors, they are numerous and enthusiastic. New Zippos can be had anywhere from $14.95 for a basic unit to more than $12,000 for a solid 18k gold model. The first promotionally marked Zippos were purchased in the mid-1930s by the Kendall Refining Company, and those remain collector favorites.
Since then, countless other customized models have been produced with logos and insignias of every description. Cartier, Dunhill and other high-end brands have created their own premium designs, and an original 1933 Zippo sold on the occasion of the firm's 75th anniversary in 2007 went for $37,000. Like most antique dealers, we have a few available in our gallery but demand always exceeds supply. Which means, if you have any old ones you're looking to sell, bring 'em in. We have plenty of buyers.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he's the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Antiques: A Zippo through the past