Currently Reading: Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty

As so often happens, after I post about a topic, information just magically turns up.  Okay, so it wasn’t magic, it was due to a book recommendation by a new friend, Nadine Stewart whom I met in Atlanta at the CSA symposium this past May.  After posting about a zipper mystery, she pointed me toward Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, by Robert Friedel.

Well researched and documented, Zipper is not just the history of the object, but is also a look into how new technology becomes integrated into our lives.  The zipper is an object that we don’t really need, as for many years its job was adequately covered by buttons and snaps and pins.  The book tells not only how the zipper was invented, but how it became so much a part of our lives.

Robert Friedel is a professor of technological history at the University of Maryland.  The book is well researched and documented, Friedel having access to the archives of Talon International, the company that was instrumental in the development of the zipper.  And while it might sound like a pretty dry subject, Friedel manages to write an entertaining book.

I’m not going to give the full account of how the zipper was invented, and how it came to be so commonly used.  For that you have to read the book.  But I am going to point out some of the most interesting aspects of zipper development as it pertains to fashion and clothing.

The concept of the zipper was dreamed up by machinery salesman turned inventor, Whitcomb Judson, in 1891.  His idea was actually to take a standard closure – the hook and eye – and automate it.  The resulting patent showed a series of hooks and eyes that were connected by way of a slider.  Unfortunately, this invention was unsuccessful, mainly because the hooks were too easily bent.

This zipper was put into production in 1905 as the C-Curity.  Ads for it show it in a skirt placket, and it was actually used in some garments.  But it was just too unreliable, and worst of all, the device was not rust-proof, and so had to be removed before washing.  The next year, a Swedish immigrant and engineer, Gideon Sundback, was brought into the company to try and solve the problems with the fastener.  The result was an improved version called the Plako.

However, the new fastener still had problems, and so Sundback decided to try a new approach.  The hooks were discarded, and instead he took the idea of little indentions being connected to a matching rounded wire.  He kept the slide, and in 1913, had a working prototype of the modern zipper.  By 1915, the newly renamed company, the Hookless Fastener Company, was actively trying to market the “Hookless” to garment manufacturers.

Even though the Hookless worked well, it was a very hard sell.  Many of the garment makers had  had bad experiences with the C-Curity and the Plako, and wanted nothing to do with the new version.  The insertion of the device would mean a change in sewing procedures.  But the biggest problem was the price.  The Hookless was relatively expensive, and manufacturers could not justify using it when buttons and snaps were adequate.

Still, according to company records, almost thirty makers of women’s skirts had used the device in their 1916 lines.   The Hookless seems to have been of special interest to sportswear makers, and was used in riding skirts and pants for football and baseball.  But most garment makers were simply not interested in the device.

During the last days of World War I, the military actually bought Hookless fasteners and experimented with them, putting them in sleeping bags and flightsuits.  But for some reason the flightsuit prototypes were never put into production.

Though the Hookless company saw their fastener as being perfect for garments, it was another product that finally made the device profitable.  In 1918 a company started putting the Hookless in their tobacco pouches.  It was a clever use for a product that needed a better and more easily used closure than buttons or snaps.

The big breakthrough for the Hookless came when the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company approached the Hookless people about using the device in rubber galoshes.  In 1922, Goodrich began using the Hookless in a new boot they called the Zipper.  It was a smash success.

At the same time, the Hookless Fastener Company continued to court clothing manufacturers.  In the early 1920s the company did implement a policy of giving exclusive rights to makers.  This may be how Louise Barnes Gallagher was able to make the claim that she introduced the zipper into women’s dresses in 1922, though Gallagher was not mentioned in the Zipper book.  And even though she had the rights to use the Hookless, that does not mean she used it much, and it certainly did not lead to the zipper being adapted as a commonly used fastener in clothing.

On the contrary, the use of the zipper in fashion continued to be pretty much limited to galoshes, and to the use of them in handbags.  By the end of the 1920s, galoshes were falling in favor, and in 1931, for the first time since Goodyear first started using the zipper, there were more zippers sold to handbag makers than to Goodyear.

It was in children’s clothing that the zipper finally caught on in garments.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a movement toward children being taught at an earlier age to be more independent.  The use of zippers in clothing allowed the little guys to dress themselves, and there was a huge campaign to convince the makers’ of kids’ clothing to start using the zipper.

The next application of the zipper was in the fly of men’s pants.  The main problem was that the sewing application of the zipper was very different than that of buttons and buttonholes, but the Hookless people went to work developing an easy way to insert the zippers.  Then again, they targeted the young, with advertising of the zippered fly being aimed at boys and young men.  It worked, and by 1940s the button fly was the domain of the elderly.

As for the women, it is true that in 1935 Elsa Schiaparelli began using the newly developed colored plastic zippers in her designs.  She featured the zippers not so much as closures, but rather, as design elements.  Still, it was another two years before the zipper as closure really caught on in women’s clothing, especially in dresses.  In this same year, the Hookless Fastener Company renamed itself as Talon, Inc.  After that point, the zipper was not so much a novelty as it was an accepted part of how we got dressed.

And there’s more to the story.  Next week I’ll put some definite dates to the first use of the nylon coil zipper.  Stay tuned!


Filed under Currently Reading

6 responses to “Currently Reading: Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty

  1. Pingback: Ad Campaign – Talon Zippers, 1972 | The Vintage Traveler

  2. Pingback: Koret Purses, Aris Gloves, 1934 | witness2fashion

  3. Pingback: Ski Suits in the Stores, 1930s | witness2fashion

  4. Pingback: Zippers Are Good for Your Children: Ad Campaigns from the 1920s and 1930s | witness2fashion

  5. Pingback: Du Barry Fashions, August 1939 | witness2fashion

  6. Pingback: “Zip” — Slide Fasteners from Sears, 1930s (Part 1) | witness2fashion

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