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The Fasten-ating History of the Humble Zipper


Hey, McFly. Look down at your pants.


Chances are there are lots of tiny metal teeth down there, interlocked tight, keeping your britches from hitting the floor. We're talking about the humble zipper, the unsung modern marvel that dutifully eliminates the "possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray." (If yours happens to be down, go ahead and take a second to zip it up. You're welcome.)

Today, zippers are an afterthought. They're on everything from purses to hoodies to backpacks, even on slick Nike sneakers specially built for individuals with disabilities. But, like all modern marvels, they weren't always ubiquitous. It took some 80 years and some zippity-slick marketing for the mechanical wonder to finally break through to the mainstream.

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The origins of the zipper date back to 1851, when Massachusetts machinist Elias Howe patented the "Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure." His contraption was loosely similar to the zipper as we know it today, though it was inefficiently pulled shut with a flimsy string. Over time, Howe grew frustrated with slow progress and gave up on his prototype. After all, he had his original claim to fame to fall back on -- the first-ever U.S. patent for a lockstitch sewing machine.

Four decades later, serial inventor Whitcomb Judson picked up where Howe left off, patenting his own newfangled fastener. The mechanical engineer and salesman called the bulky doodad the "Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes." He created the hook-and-eye-style closure as a single-motion solution to the many buttons that made the popular boots of the day such a headache to put on and take off, especially after a long, grueling day's work in a factory.

Judson prematurely unveiled his invention at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where -- talk about poor timing -- it kept snapping open. And accidentally pop open his brainchild continually did over the years as he tried in vain to perfect it. Unimpressed with the malfunctioning fastener, the shoe and clothing manufacturers he'd hoped to win over never did bite. No matter, first to market with such a creation, Judson is still widely referred to as the father of the zipper.

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One of the next makers to take a crack at the concept was Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer. Between 1906 and 1913, he busied himself streamlining Judson's design, eventually devising two neighboring rows of intermeshing teeth. The sturdy metal prongs satisfyingly yanked into a single unit with a slider pull tab. And so was born the "Separable Fastener" zipper we know and take for granted today.

Sundback may have zipped up a better zipper, but retailers still weren't sold on it. The durable version he created was mainly relegated to gloves, tobacco pouches and boots, right up until World War I. During the Great War, his zippers were reportedly used in U.S. Navy flight suit prototypes. The leather aviator garments didn't pan out, at least not at first. However, they did unbutton the garment industry's budding appetite for zippers.

Zippers didn't make a widespread splash until 1923, when B.F. Goodrich slapped Sundback's gizmos on galoshes, molded rubber shoe covers that people used to slide over their dress shoes to stop them from getting wet and muddy. The then Akron, Ohio-based rubber-manufacturing giant cleverly nicknamed the fasteners "Zippers," short for "Zip "er up," a playful onomatopoeia representing the zzziiip sound they made when zipped up.

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From there, the invention spread like wildfire, first throughout the children's clothing sector (as a way to encourage independent dressing), and later the larger garment industry. It was buh-bye button fly and zippers quickly became as common as pants.

Originally made of metals like nickel, brass and aluminum, zippers now also come in molded plastic and nylon and in every imaginable length and hue. They started from the bottom, now they're everywhere, probably even somewhere on you right now. Perhaps now you'll have a new appreciation for the modest zipper, that mini workhorse you unthinkingly zip past day in day out, when covering up your birthday suit.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the YKK imprinted on the majority of today's metal zipper pull-tabs stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha, the Japanese manufacturer that makes roughly half of all the zippers in world. (Mystery settled. That's been bugging us for years.)

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