Back to Clippings Index

Inventors fumbled with tricky zippers
July, 29 2002
Toronto Star

Men often complain about unhooking bras.

Only the smoothest of lady-killers can remove one with ease but there was a time when removing a guy's pants was just as tricky.

Just ask Basil Sloman of Willowdale.

When he was demobilized from the British Royal Navy in the 1940s in London, England, he was offered a civilian suit of his choice.

"You had three choices," he recalls now, "a dark-gray chalk-stripe three-piece suit, or a dark-blue patterned suit, or a light-blue suit."

Sloman selected the dark gray model, which came complete with a zipper fly, known as a "zip" in those days. He wore it on a memorable date shortly afterward to London's Finsbury Park Rink Cinema.

Back then "the pictures" played constantly, he recalls. You might arrive in the middle and watch until it looped around to the point where you came in. But Sloman says he wasn't so interested in the picture.

He and his date, Pam, sat in the back of the theatre and after much fumbling she finally asked, "Where's the bloody buttons?"

She had never seen a zipper before. Sloman ended up having to demonstrate how it worked.

"Oooh - what a good idea!" he recalls her saying.

Pam wasn't the only one who found the zipper tricky. When zippered items were first sold to the public they came with instructions. In fact, the complex design is what held the zipper back for many years.

The zipper's invention is sometimes attributed to a Canadian. Even the Canadian Heritage Web says so but the claim appears to be unfounded.

Elias Howe, an American, registered the earliest known patent on something resembling the modern-day zipper. Howe patented his "automatic continuous clothing closure" back in 1851, then never bothered to pursue the zipper commercially. Some historians say he was just too caught up developing the sewing machine.

Forty years later, Whitcomb Judson of Chicago filed patents for a similar idea.

Judson's "clasp locker" was designed with shoes in mind. In his book, The Evolution of Useful Things, author Henry Petroski notes that the high-buttoned shoes that were fashionable at the time were a pain to take on and off. A special buttonhook had to be used, he said, to pull each of the buttons through their tiny hole.

Judson's clasp locker was supposed to simplify that process.

To his credit, Judson was smart enough to realize that the locker might have other uses. In the 1893 patent, he notes that it may be useful on "mail-bags, belts and the closing of seams uniting flexible bodies." He put clasp locks on his own shoes and showed them off at the World's Columbian Exhibition that same year.

But like so many inventions, the problem was making the darn thing work reliably.

Whitcomb, who was an engineer, continued filing patents refining the design. But the orders weren't exactly pouring in, partly because the clasps were difficult to manufacture. Petroski says that each clasp had to be installed individually on the shoe or garment. It would be several years before Judson would develop the fastener to the point where the whole thing could be easily sewn into place.

By 1904, the invention was looking a lot like a chain of hook and eye clasps and was renamed the C-curity. But despite all the design advances, people still found it difficult to use. The fasteners would pop open accidentally or jam.

The military was interested, though. Petroski says one of the earliest uses were in First World War aviator suits.

Enter Gideon Sundback. Here's a man whose legacy has been embraced by Canadians, which is odd because he did so much of his research and development elsewhere.

Sundback was born in Sweden and later immigrated to the United States where he eventually got a job at Judson's Automatic Hook and Eye. There he continued to work out various problems with the fasteners for many years.

He put the zipper's teeth closer together and developed a machine to mass produce his new design out of wire. His 1917 patent for a "separable fastener" lists him as "a subject of the King of Sweden, residing in the State of Pennsylvania."

There is some evidence that he eventually opened up a fastener company in St. Catherines, Ont., but clearly Canada is not the cradle of the zipper. And even if Sundback were the acknowledged inventor of the zipper, the Swedes would have first bragging rights, and then maybe the Americans.

It was also an American who came up with the name "zipper." Bertram Work, president of the B. F. Goodrich Company in Ohio, reportedly named the fastener after the sound it makes.

In 1921, he ordered several hundred thousand of Sundback's fasteners for a new line of boots the company was developing and he likely heard a lot of zipping as a result. Goodrich called his footwear the Zipper boot.

Sundback's company decided to market the zipper as the Talon, likening the teeth of the fastener to the claws of an eagle.

Despite its lack of long-term brand power, the Talon sold well. By the late 1930s, zippers - actually Talons - were really taking off.

The zipper was even making headway overseas.

In 1934, Tadao Yoshida founded his own zipper company called Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha, also know as the YKK Corp. That's what the YKK on the pull tab of many zippers stands for.

With the help of designer Elsa Shiaparelli, the zipper finally became a hot fashion trend.

They started appearing on all kinds of clothing for men, women and children.

They even wound up a certain pair of trousers that became the focus of Sloman's eventful date with Pam.

Back to Clippings Index