Zippers, Lubricants & History

zipperlube2My curiosity about the origin of zippers was triggered when a friend found this in the back of a long-ignored drawer in a 100 year old house.  It looks and feels like a crayon; it’s not a crayon.  It’s a zipper lubricant called ZIPPER SLIK.

The front of its label contains instructions on how to use (“open zipper, rub into teeth, work briskly”), promising that it “makes old zippers work like new.”  The lubricant, so states the label, is “stainless [and] greaseless” and ensures “no more bind [and] no more stick.”

As I held the zipper lubricant in my hand, I recalled my (American) grandmother telling me about having to put wax on the zippers the denim pants of her twin sons (one of whom was my father).  This was the first  time I had actually seen zipper lubricant.

So of course, being me, I started to read up on the history of zippers.

The zipper had many names throughout its development, including:  Automatic Continuing Clothing Closure; Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes; C-curity; Plako Fastener; Hookless Fastener; Separable Fastener; and Clasp Locker.  Though Elias Howe (also the sewing machine inventor), came up with the first closing gizmo in 1851, the modern zipper didn’t appear right away.  In 1893, American electrical engineer Whitcomb Judson established the Universal Fastener Company in Chicago.  One of his employees, Swedish-born inventor and mechanical engineer Gideon Sundback, improved upon Judson’s designs and patented his (Sundback’s) invention in 1913.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the military was the first major customer of the zipper during World War I.

zipper_picWhy the name?  B.F. Goodrich used it for its boots and golashes in the 1920s.  The moniker comes from the sound (“zip”) made when moving the fastener up and down.  (Pic from American Culture & Technology.)

I briefly lived in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which proclaimed itself to be the birthplace of the zipper.  (I remember there was a bar called the Zipper – and no, I was never in it.)

Tzipper_workershe modern zipper was produced by Talon Zipper, originally Universal Fastener Company (the one established by Whitcomb).  Talon later moved to Meadville, and it was there in the 1920s that the modern zipper began to be mass-produced.  In 1940, half the town’s population worked for Talon. (Photo taken in the 1920s at the original Talon factory in Meadville; source)

Until the 1970s, the zipper industry was Meadville’s most important industry.  Today, Talon is no longer in Meadville, and the largest zipper manufacturer is YKK, an international Japanese-owned company.  Here is the link to a brief but succinct article about Meadville and zippers by Mike Froncillo and Lindley Homol:  Zip It Up: Talon Zippers (Spring 2009), at the Pennsylvania Center for the Book.  The article contains pictures of: Sundback’s patent drawings for the original drawing; Sundback; and a Goodrich advertisement its boots called “Zippers.”  See also American Technology and Culture.

Back to the zipper lubricant.

zipperlube1The back label of the lubricant offers more information.  This lubricant was the compliment of Sea Cliff Cleaners & Laundry Services (est. 1918), an establishment in the Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco.  It was in existence in the late 1960s, though its name had changed to Sea Cliff Fine Cleaners & Dyers.  Now the business site holds an antique/junk store.

Did my grandmother use these little waxy zipper lubricants?  I think not.  My grandmother and grandfather were very poor, and using a cleaning and laundry service in the middle of the Depression would have been an unnecessary luxury.  I am sure she used candle wax!  (Very frugal and creative people, my family!)



About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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14 Responses to Zippers, Lubricants & History

  1. I am about 10 years behind you but don’t remember ever seeing one of the wax sticks. I wonder when they went out of use? Hmmm.


  2. What a great idea – is the zipper for storing treasures?


  3. Thanks for the tip about furniture polish! The older I get, the less inclined I am to abandon my clothes after a year or two!


  4. I was pleasantly surprised!


  5. It was fun to research!


  6. I like looking at old pictures too. I found one of the old Talon factory but it wasn’t as interesting – I thought – as that of actual people. 🙂


  7. What an interesting piece – I really enjoy writing that makes me look at the everyday in a new way, that makes the invisible, visible and curious. I particularly enjoyed peering at the zipper factory workers – great pic.


  8. Or olive oil for metal ones, spray furniture polish for the plastic ones. How we fasten our clothes is a fascinating history and I bet the need for zipper lubricant says for the thrifty mores of a previous generations who didn’t abandon their clothes after a year or two. 🙂


  9. caityrosey says:

    Me either. But I’m sure my grandmother had things like that. Or the melted candle version. Thrifty soul.


  10. That was an interesting and enjoyable read. Zippers are such a great invention. I am glad they got the initial problems of popping open fixed! LOL! My young ones love “sack boy”. He is a little amigurumi character in a (non violent Hooray) video game who has a zipper in his middle section. I have made a lot of “sack boys” using zippers from the thrift shops. 🙂


  11. Carol says:

    We had and used one of these wax sticks when I was young (I’m 65 now). It may still be in my Mom’s sewing machine cabinet — I’ll have to look!!!


  12. rthepotter says:

    And I never knew about zipper wax either!


  13. teabeaknits says:

    What an enlightening piece – thank you for teaching me something today 🙂


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