This iconic American brand has been around since 1933, but you might not know its rich history.
1. The original lighter was inspired by a clunkier Austrian version.
The idea for the windproof lighter emerged in Bradford, Penn. in 1932. George Blaisdell was smoking a cigarette on the porch of the Bradford Country Club when he noticed a local businessman using a strange lighter from Austria that had a protective top. Blaisdell asked the man why he used such a cumbersome lighter, and he replied, “Well, it works.”
Blaisdell decided to make his own version of the lighter. He called it a Zippo because he liked the sound of the word “zipper.” The first models were sold in 1933 for $1.95 (a little over $35 in today's money).
2. Getting off the ground took a while.
Even a special lighter needed help building momentum during the Depression. In 1936, Zippo ran its first ad in Esquire. The advertisement was a total flop—the company didn’t see any evidence of additional sales.
3. “The Fan Test” helped Zippo win converts.
The handy design of the Zippo lighter’s chimney helped it stay lit even in a strong breeze, and the company touted this feature in its early advertising. Ads challenged readers to use the “Fan Test”—holding a lit Zippo in front of a fan—to show just how windproof the lighter was.
4. World War II improved the company’s fortunes.
The company struggled for much of its first decade, but this changed when Zippo started selling to the military during the war. American troops could buy the lighters in Army Exchanges or Ship Stores, while soldiers in Zippo’s home of McKean County, Penn. got theirs for free. The men brought the lighters to the front lines and found the rugged design to be a great match for combat situations. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle famously put it, “The Zippo lighter is the most coveted thing on the battlefield.”
5. A fish chipped in on later marketing efforts.
The Zippo lighter’s tough design made it a favorite among soldiers, and the company cleverly played up this durability in its postwar advertising. A 1960 print ad recounted a story from a retired fish and game officer about a local fisherman who caught an 18-pound pike in a New York lake, only to discover a Zippo in its stomach. To the fisherman’s amazement, the lighter lit on his first try.
6. Every lighter is made in a single factory in Bradford, Penn.
Zippo sells 10 to 12 million lighters annually, and they all come from one place: The factory in Bradford, Penn., where the lighter was first invented. The company has less than 1000 employees.
7. Each Zippo lighter is backed with a lifetime warranty.
If you ever break your Zippo, you can get it repaired, regardless of when you purchased it. Buyers have definitely taken the company up on its offer; Zippo has made about eight million repairs to date.
8. A Zippo lighter can save your life.
One veteran told Zippo that his wife gave him the windproof lighter before he went to fight in the Vietnam War, and the pocketed Zippo stopped a bullet. Even in civilian life, the handy gadgets can be lifesavers. In 2010, a man was shot by a burglar but survived thanks to the Zippo in his pocket.
9. It has stood the test of time.
In 2010, the handy lighter was included on TIME’s list of the 100 greatest gadgets of all time.
10. The Zippo Car is missing ...
When Blaisdell was a kid, he saw a Lifesavers Pep-O-Mint car. The marketing vehicle stuck with him, and in 1947, he transformed a Chrysler Saratoga into the first Zippo Car. The company’s district managers drove the Zippo-equipped ride around the county until 1950. Unfortunately, the giant lighter was too heavy, and the Zippo Car’s tires kept blowing out.
The company eventually took the troubled car to Pittsburgh’s Toohey Motors to have the lighter get-up transferred to a sturdier Ford. The quoted price for this unusual request was so staggering that the company asked the shop to hold on to the car while execs weighed the cost. Then things apparently got a little busy for Zippo’s leadership team, and they forgot to give Toohey Motors a call.
It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later that Zippo finally called to check up on the car. They discovered that the auto shop had closed, and there was no sign of the vehicle anywhere.
11. But its spirit lives on ...
The original Zippo Car never reappeared, but in 1996, Blaisdell’s grandson George B. Duke decided to recreate it using another 1947 Chrysler Saratoga. However, this version is lighter than the original and boasts a sturdier suspension to keep the tires from blowing out.
12. Blaisdell donated two awesomely named bloodhounds to his town.
Zippo’s founder was generous with more than just lighters. In 1952, he donated two bloodhounds to Bradford’s emergency services team. For a marketing punch, the pups’ names were Zippo and Zipette.
13. You can visit the Zippo museum.
At the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford, visitors learn about Zippo’s history, visit the Zippo Repair Clinic, and check out an American flag made from 3000 Zippo lighters. You can also see both the first lighter and the 500 millionth lighter Zippo made. They look fairly similar, although the older one is a little bigger. The first lighter has a business card tied to the side. On it, Blaisdell wrote: “First Zippo lighter—do not touch.” According to Zippo's Corporate Media and Communications Manager Patrick Grandy, it's the most visited museum in northern Pennsylvania.
14. One Zippo isn’t enough for some fans.
There are 14 lighter-collecting clubs around the world. One community is called OTLS, or “On the Lighter Side.” Another American club is called Pocket Lighter and Pyro Gadgets. Zippo fandom spreads far and wide; there are even clubs in China and Japan.
15. China loves Zippo.
China is the largest international market for Zippo, so the company operates 14 stores scattered around the country.
16. Frank Sinatra was buried with one.
Also found in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ coffin: Camel cigarettes, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and dimes (in case he needs to make a payphone call).
17. You can smell like the Zippo lighter lifestyle.
“In Italy, Zippo is known as a premium lifestyle brand, so it made a lot of sense to launch a line of fragrances there,” Grandy says. The options are Zippo Original, On the Road, In the Blue, and Zippo—The Woman. Apparently, they smell quite good, and nothing like lighter fluid.