A Zippo lighter is a refillable, metal lighter manufactured by Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Thousands of different styles and designs have been made in the seven decades since their introduction.
George G. Blaisdell founded Zippo Manufacturing Company in 1932, and produced the first Zippo lighter in early 1933, being inspired by an Austrian cigarette lighter of similar design. It got its name because Blaisdell liked the sound of the word "zipper" and "zippo" sounded more modern. On March 3, 1936, patent was granted for the Zippo lighter.
Zippo lighters became popular in the United States military, especially during World War II — when, as the company's website says, Zippo "ceased production of lighters for consumer markets and dedicated all manufacturing to the U.S. military." The Zippo at that time was made of brass, but as this commodity was unobtainable due to the war, Zippo used steel during the war years. While the Zippo Manufacturing Company never had an official contract with the military, soldiers and armed forces personnel insisted that Base exchange (PX) stores carry this sought-after lighter.
After World War II, the Zippo lighter became increasingly used in advertising by companies large and small through the 1960s. Many of the early advertising Zippo lighters are works of art painted by hand, and as technology has evolved, so has the design and finish of the Zippo lighter. The basic mechanism of the Zippo lighter has remained unchanged.
In 2002 Zippo expanded its product line to include a variety of utility-style multi-purpose lighters, known as the Zippo MPL. This was followed in 2005 with the Outdoor Utility Lighter, known as the OUL. These lighters are fuelled with butane. In August 2007 Zippo released a new butane lighter called the Zippo BLU.
A museum called Zippo/Case visitors center is located in Bradford, PA at 1932 Zippo Drive. This 15,000 square foot (1398 m²) building contains rare and custom made Zippo lighters, and also sells the entire Zippo line. The museum was featured on the NPR program Weekend Edition Sunday on January 25, 2009. The museum also contains an enormous collection of Case knives. Since the Zippo company's 60th anniversary in 1992, annual editions have been produced for worldwide Zippo collectors.
From 1949 to 2002 Zippos were also produced in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Since 1933, over 400,000,000 Zippo lighters have been produced.
Besides having gained popularity as “windproof” lighters, Zippo lighters are able to stay lit in harsh weather, due to the design of the windscreen and adequate rate of fuel delivery. As such, until recently they were highly popular with backpackers and within the military. Professional backpackers (operating in the wilderness) have however now turned away from the regular Zippo lighter in favor of butane lighters, heavy-duty matches, and flint rods. Many high-altitude and cold weather backpackers still prefer Zippo lighters because butane lighters are less reliable in cold weather.
A consequence of the windproofing is that it is hard to extinguish a Zippo by blowing out the flame. However, if the flame is blown from the top down, it will easily be extinguished. The proper way to extinguish the lighter is to close the top half, which starves the flame of oxygen, but unlike other lighters, this does not cut the fuel. One of the recognizable features of Zippo is the fact that it burns with a wick. Opening the top lid produces an easily recognizable clicking sound for which Zippo lighters are known, and a different, but similar click can be heard when the lighter is closed. This noise is produced by the spring-toggle lever, which is intended to keep the lid closed when not in use.
Current Zippos carry a suggested retail price between US$12.95 up to US$11,157.60 for the solid gold model, depending on the rarity and materials used in the given item. In 2001, according to the fall 2003 issue of IUP Magazine, a 1933 model was purchased for $18,000 at a swap meet in Tokyo, and in 2002 the company bought one valued at $12,000 for its own collection. During the 2007 75th anniversary celebrations, Zippo sold a near mint 1933 model for $37,000.
All Zippo lighters carry a lifetime guarantee, promoted using the trademarked phrase "It works or we fix it for free." The corporate web site boasts: "In almost 75 years, no one has ever spent a cent on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter regardless of the lighter’s age or condition."
From mid-1955 Zippo started year coding their lighters by the use of dots (.). From 1966 until 1973 the year code was denoted by combinations of vertical lines (|). From 1974 until 1981 the coding comprised combinations of forward slashes (/), and from 1982 until June 1986 the coding was by backslash (\).
In July 1986, Zippo began including a lot code on all lighters showing the month and year of production. On the left of the underside was stamped a letter A–L, denoting the month (A = January, B = February, C = March, etc). On the right was a Roman numeral which denoted the year, beginning with II in 1986. Thus a Zippo stamped H IX was made in August, 1993. However in 2001, Zippo altered this system, changing the Roman numerals to more conventional Arabic numerals. Thus a Zippo made in August 2004 was stamped H 04. There was a myth that Zippo lighters were made by prisoners, and the number identified the prisoner, or their crime and sentence length. Another myth was that a Zippo stamped 'H' was inferior to one stamped 'A'.
The cases of Zippo lighters are typically made of metal and are rectangular with a hinged top.
Inside the case are the works of the lighter: the spring-toggle lever that keeps the top closed, the wick, windscreen chimney, thumbwheel, and flint, all of which are mounted on an open-bottom metal box that is slightly smaller than the bottom of the outer case, and into which it slips snugly.
The hollow part of the interior box encloses a rayon batt which is in contact with the wick. The fuel, which is usually naphtha but can be any flammable and volatile liquid (e.g. denatured alcohol, mineral spirits), is poured into the batt, which traps it. It also contains a tube that holds a short, cylindrical flint. The tube has an interior spring and exterior cap-screw that keeps the flint in constant contact with the exterior thumb-wheel. Spinning this rough-surfaced wheel against flint results in a spark that ignites the fluid in the wick.
The batt once had a small hole in the bottom to facilitate easier refueling. It was often used as a place to store extra flints. Newer models do not always have the hole, and instead have a flap in the bottom of the batt (with the hinge on one of the short edges). The words "LIFT TO FILL" are stamped in black ink multiple times on the bottom, with the intention being that the user should lift the flap and squirt the fuel in to the batt material under the flap.
All parts of the lighter are replaceable. In all there are 22 parts, and the Zippo lighter requires 108 manufacturing operations.