Born from an idea that originated on the golf course
By Mary Heyl
Zippo lighters and Case knives: few brands are more commonly associated with American ingenuity and manufacturing than these two. What’s more, these companies are still exclusively based in the United States and employ a combined 800 people just an hour south of Ellicottville on Route 219 in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Discover the unique history of these American icons at the Zippo/Case Museum located at 1932 Zippo Drive, and learn more about the museum’s upcoming events this summer!
The golf course is where the idea for the Zippo lighter was born more than 80 years ago. While golfing at the Bradford Country Club, George G. Blaisdell noticed his friend struggling to use a European-made lighter on the course. Although the lighter worked well, it required two hands to use and its case was thin and easily damaged. Blaisdell set out to improve upon this design, and in 1932, he created his own lighter.
Its signature design is very recognizable and still used today. Blaisdell’s lighter has a small rectangular case with a hinged lid that opens to reveal the original European chimney design. Unlike other lighters made in the 1930s, Blaisdell’s lighter could be operated with one hand and had a durable case designed to withstand frequent use. This modern design required a modern name; Blaisdell liked the sound of the word “zipper,” so he created his own variation, “Zippo,” for his lighter!
As with any new invention, it took time for Blaisdell’s product to gain traction. To get it into the hands of more potential customers, Blaisdell was known for occasionally giving prototypes to area bus drivers who could show them to their passengers. Zippo/Case archives manager Shirley Evers identified just such a lighter last April when she was a guest on the popular History Channel show, Pawn Stars. Evers appeared on episode 5 of Season 14 to compare a customer’s lighter, believed to be a Zippo prototype from the 1930s, to other prototypes from the same decade. Evers successfully identified that this was, in fact, a genuine Zippo prototype and valued it at $3,500 to $4,000!
Indeed, Zippo lighters are highly collectible, especially those from World War II when Blaisdell’s invention skyrocketed. In 1941, the Zippo plant (which was and still is located exclusively in Bradford) ceased production on lighters for consumer markets and manufactured lighters exclusively for the U.S. military. Zippo created the steel-case lighter with a black crackle finish for millions of American military personnel, thus making Zippo an American icon.
According to Evers, one of the most popular exhibits at the museum is the Walter Nadler lighter, which was carried by a World War II soldier. In 1992, a Zippo lighter manufactured during World War II mysteriously turned up in a desk drawer in the Zippo archives, and had the following hand-etched on it: “June 6, 1944, 0630, France.” This discovery prompted an urgent search to find the owner of this lighter and understand its history!
Unfortunately, the owner, Walter Nadler, had already passed away, but his family shared his miraculous story. While crossing the English Channel, Nadler etched his Zippo lighter before storming Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day. It had been lost in the sand during the invasion and assumed missing, along with its owner. Although Nadler’s wife received news of his death, she refused to believe it was true. Fortunately, at the end of the war, Nadler returned home very much alive, but his lighter remained lost until its discovery in 1992. This year, visitors can look forward to an enhanced military exhibit, which includes additional memorabilia donated in support of the Nadler lighter.
Visitors to the museum travel from around the world, especially from China and Europe. The museum’s military section is one of the most popular, as Zippo lighters have been carried into every war and conflict since WWII. Evers encourages visitors to experience history come to life at the museum, but also to appreciate the science behind the manufacturing. “Visitors of all ages are fascinated by ZAC, the audio-kinetic ball machine. Every time a ball is launched, it takes a different path, activating lights, chimes, or opening the giant lighter and knife. In the same exhibit room, there is a Case knife design that was included on all of the Apollo and Gemini moon missions,” said Evers.
Each Zippo lighter is still made in the Bradford manufacturing facility, which is located just down the road from the museum. The company is still family-owned, as Blaisdell’s grandson, George Duke, is the sole owner and Chairman of the Board of Zippo. Many museum visitors are surprised to learn that Zippo still stands behind its famous guarantee that set Blaisdell apart from all other lighter manufacturers: “It works or we fix it free.” Visitors can experience this guarantee firsthand: From 9:00am to 3:30pm each weekday, the Zippo Repair Clinic team restores lighters to working condition by replacing hinges and performing other repairs in the back of the museum.
According to Evers, “Video tours of both Zippo and Case manufacturing processes are available in the museum, as well as clips from some of Zippo’s biggest moments on the silver screen.” That’s right, Zippo lighters have appeared in more than 2,000 films in every genre; Zippo lighters and Case knives have also appeared on countless primetime network and cable television shows over the decades.
On Saturday, July 21st the museum will be hosting a special event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Zippo and Case becoming sister companies. This event will be open to the public and will also celebrate the 20th birthday of the famous recreated Zippo car. In 1998, the museum created a replica of the famous 1947 Chrysler Saratoga, which Zippo purchased and designed to resemble the company’s lighter. “Productmobiles” such as this were famous for traveling the country in the 1940s and 1950s to promote different brands. The replica Zippo Car has been traveling the country since 1998, participating in parades, tradeshows, company-sponsored events and more, although home base is the Zippo/Case Museum.
Also this summer, Zippo is sponsoring the Blaisdell Pro Am & Open at the Penhills Club in Bradford on July 23rd and 24th. The Blaisdell Pro Am is one of the premier club professional Pro Am Tournaments in North America, as participants compete for a $10,000 cash Pro purse and $20,000 Amateur purse on July 23. On July 24, PGA Club Professionals will participate in an 18-hole stroke-play Open for a $50,000 first place prize in the $100,000 Professional Purse Event. Registration is available online at blaisdellproam.com.
The museum is also home to the Zippo/Case flagship store, a destination for all serious collectors. Evers explained that the museum is the only location in the world that carries every stock item in both Zippo and Case’s catalogs, plus exclusive collectibles not available anywhere else. In addition to shopping for Zippo and Case souvenirs and apparel, visitors can also design their own custom Zippo lighter, as well as get onsite engraving of select Zippo and Case products.
The museum is free to visit and is open 7 days/week from 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Saturday, and 11:00am to 4:00pm Sunday. To learn more, visit www.zippo.com and follow Zippo on Facebook.