The first patent for a slide fastener was applied for on November 7, 1891. The inventor was Whitcomb L. Judson, then of Chicago, who titled his application "Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes." They looked something like this: "On one side of an opening of a high top shoe is a row of hooklike clasps; on the other, a row of attachments. In between is a recognizable slide, feeding the separated rows in at one end and issuing them fastened together at the other (or vice versa)." The fastenings are what you might call clasps. When open, they spring out of the shoe, and when fastened, they are set down. The patent says, "these clasps... when in position on the flaps of a shoe... may be engaged one at a time in succession, by bringing the two parts of the clasps into their proper angular relation to each other by hand. But this is a tedious operation." The purpose of the slide (Judson calls it a "guide") is to force the clasps together and down, and it is removed after each use and turned around depending on whether you want the clasps to open and close. The entire invention was complicated and probably didn't work very well... but it was a start.
The patent took twenty-two months to be issued, probably because of it's complexity. During this time, Judson applied for another patent. He had significantly altered his designs for the fastenings. This time they looked more like hooks and eyes. The new device probably didn't work any better than the old one. But, Judson thought that his idea of "automatically engaging or disengaging the entire series of clasps by a single continuous movement," was really something special.
"Where did Judson get the idea?" you ask. Well, there were a few earlier devices that had some superficial resemblances to Judson's invention, but their principles of operation were all significantly different... none of the other inventions used a slide. So, it turns out that Judson did have a lot of inginuity. Although the fasteners (hooks and eyes) had been used for awhile, the clasp was all Judson's idea.
Judson's first partner was named Harry Earle. In the 1888-89 Minneapolis city directory, Judson is listed as a traveling agent for the Harry L. Earle Manufacturing Company. When Judson came up with the idea for the fastener in 1881, Earle had already become something of a promoter for another of Judson's inventions... a street railway that ran by long tubes kept spinning underground by compressed air. Earle attempted to raise enough money to put the fastener into production. He succeeded just enough to set up some small shops but not really enough to get things under way. Judson's invention was still, even after some improvements, not very good, and even the patents promised only usefulness for shoes and not much else. So, it turned out to not be a widely versatile fastener. Because of this, it is amazing that Earle found any supporters. Nevertheless, he kept perservering, and he found more and more. People from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey all invested money in the invention. Perhaps, the people all saw promise in the new invention, or maybe Earle was just a first-rate salesman.
There are a couple of other people that played an important role in the history of the zipper. One of these people is Colonel Lewis Walker. He was a lawyer and a businessman in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He had graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville and then set up his law practice there. He married into a long-time Meadville family, a very rich one. Meanwhile, one of his college classmates, James Williamson, had become a patent attorney in Minneapolis. Whitcomb Judson was even one of his clients. Eventually, through Williamson, Walker was introduced to Judson, and he and his family became significant investors in Judson's street railway companies. We must assume that he didn't get a very good return on these investments, but nevertheless, he also put his money into the fasteners. In 1893, at the age of thirty-eight, Walker and his family had a lot of money in the bank. Unfortunately, due to the great Panic of 1893, they had lost a lot of money. But they still invested everything when the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894.
Finally, in the early 1900's, the U.S. Post Office was persuaded to purchase twenty new mailbags with the patented fastener. And since the order was never repeated, we have to credit Earle's salesmanship. Judson designed and patented new and expensive machinery to aid in the production of his newest models. But, as with many of his previous inventions, the machinery was too complicated and didn't work. Also around this time, the ever-hustling Harry Earle went to Europe to try and sell the rights to the invention. He had no success, but he did manage to find a new source of capital in New York City. This is when he moved the entire operation to New Jersey. With this extra money he was able to hire more technical help.
Finally, in 1904, Judson made his last contributions to the cause. He simplified the design of the fasteners, making them into a series of hooks and eyes. Then, he clamped the two rows onto two edges of cloth tape. You could then sew the two pieces of tape wherever you had a use for them. This cloth tape idea is still used on the modern zipper.
This new modification was coined as the C-curity fastener and was brought to the market in 1905 by the newly organiazed Automatic Hook and Eye Company. The company was based in Hoboken. This new device was aimed at women in hopes that they would use it for their skirts and dresses. Still, the device did not work very well. The name itself was almost false advertising in suggesting that the device was "c-cure", and the slogan "women frequently remark that their skirt is sure never to open without their knowledge" suggests that the women whose skirts were open without their knowledge either didn't say so or weren't asked at all.
The C-curity fastener was the turning point in Harry Earle's career. After the C-curity fastener failed in the market, Earle quit and Colonel Walker assumed leadership of the company. He gave his brother-in-law the job of general manager and several other Meadville men were hired.
The company began to work on the C-curity fastener by hiring an engineer. The engineer's name was Gideon Sundback. He had German training in electrical engineering and was working as a draftsman for Westinghouse when he was hired. Shortly after arriving at the Automatic Hook and Eye Company, Sundback introduced a new model called the Plako Fastener. It was a modified version of Judson's design that changed the hook and eye mating so that it would be more secure. It was targeted mainly at dressmakers but was also used for men's trousers. The Plako Fastener did fairly well on the market compared to the other designs, but it was still unreliable because it wasn't flexible enough to remain closed when it was bent or twisted. But, the improvement did encourage the company's supporters. Peter Aronson even left his managing position to go to Paris, intent on selling the fastener to French dressmakers, coined as the Ferme-Tout Americain. Enough fasteners were sold, mainly by fast talking traveling salesman, to keep hope alive, and barely enough to keep a business alive. It is a miracle that the company persevered through the extremely hard years between 1906 and 1913.
Sundback kept making more and more improvements on the fastener and on the machines that helped make it. He also helped to keep the Hoboken company alive by doing odd jobs. In 1912, he came up with a radically new design from the fastener. This was the result of him throwing himself into his work after his wife's tragic death. In the new design, the hooks and eyes had been totally abandoned. This "Hookless #1" actually least resembled the modern zipper out of all the earlier models. It used the slide to force one side of the fastener, made of cloth tape with a beaded edge, into metal clamps on the other side. So, it superficially resembled the modern Ziploc fastener. One major flaw was that the wear on the cloth tape was so severe that it stopped working after only a few uses.
This new invention spurred on the creation of the Hookless Fastener Company. The whole operation was reorganized under this name and moved to Meadville. "Hookless" must have caught on due to the fact that "Horseless" had just swept the world and "Wireless" was cutting- edge technology.
Although this new design did fairly well on the market, Sundack was back at the drawing board in 1913. His new design, the "Hookless #2" (Walker first called it the Hookless Hooker) was the modern zipper. The main thing he did was change the fastener elements so they no longer looked like hooks and eyes but like small interlocking "scoops" that would fit together tightly when joined by the slide and then release each other when seperated by it. Actually, in this design the mated fastening elements don't really fasten. They won't even hold together unless the entire sequence of scoops being secured and the two ends of the sequence secured (one end is usually secured by the slide itself). Whitcomb Judson had actually had this idea in one of his 1896 patents, his idea was simply too complex for it to work.
Another invention was patented in Switzerland that was very close to Sundback's idea by Katharina Kuhn-Moos in 1911. Hers has elements that are remarkably like those of Sundback's, but there are also a lot of significant differences, enough to make it unlikely that it could have been successfully manufactured without being changed.
The recognition that the "Hookless #2"'s design was far superior to any of the previous fasteners came very quickly, but it still took almost ten months to get it on the market. It would be impossible to make one of these zippers by hand for many reasons. The scoops were much too small to work with using your hands and if you messed up, the whole system wouldn't work.
Late in 1914, the twenty-year search for a working slide fastener was finally over. Now the problem was, "who's going to buy this thing?" Efforts to sell to everyone from department store buyers to government purchasing agents had always been a part of the company's strategies. Now that the product actually worked, promoters had to get serious. The first targets were the department stores. Then came the actual clothes makers. The women's wear buyer from the nearest big department store, McCreery's of Pittsburgh, thought that the fasten was really cool. Not only did she provide a glowing testimonial that could be used by salesmen, but she also offered to introduce the company to clothes makers and designers in New York City. Colonel Walker saw New York's clothes district as very important and decided to send his two sons off to the city at the end of 1914. They both left their very successful careers and spent the next few years struggling to sell the fastener.
The Walker's years in New York were almost a total failure. Although some clothing designer and manufacturers admired the fastener, fashion, tradition, and economics combined to defeat it. The first notable outlet for it came when an enterprising young tailor from Brooklyn recognized the potential market for money belts for the flood of soldiers and sailors heading through the navy yard for Europe. His product caught on quickly and gave the Hookless company it's first taste of success. About 24,000 money belts were sold in those wartime months. Then, even more uses were found by the military for the fastener. They used it for special flying suits for the Navy, then life vests, and on fuselage coverings. Although the armistice ended these sales, the war had still exposed several thousand Americans to a handy invention.
For almost two decades, the zipper was mostly sustained by it's novelty, rather than it's practicality. It's kind of funny to still think of the zipper as a novelty fifty years after it's invention. The zipper was being used on tobacco pouches, handbags, rubber overshoes (Zipperboots, introduced by B.F. Goodrich in 1923), children's jumpsuits, sweaters, and many other things. This success eventually gave the citizens of Meadville enough prosperity to help them get through the Great Depression.
Because work clothes, such as overalls, were based more on practicality than on fashion, they were more open to the idea of the fastener because of it's practicality. There were also many ad campaigns for children's clothing and the zipper. One of these was a campaign to convince parents that they were holding their children back if they didn't provide them with zippered clothing. The main part of this campaign was a movie entitled "Bye-Bye Buttons." This campaign's success was short lived however because children tended to want clothes just like their parents' clothes.
Adult clothes makers were once again approached and in the summer of 1937, the men's clothing industry almost unanimously voted "yes." This was because in 1937, the zipper was no longer strange to most men. It began to show up in everything from overshoes to hunting jackets and was convenient, inconspicuous, and reliable.
Women's fashion also became more open to the idea of the zipper in 1937. Many designers had been experimenting with them for several years. Colorful plastic zippers had become available in the mid 1930's and these caught the attention a certain designer named Schiaparelli, the same designer who made the color "shocking pink" popular. In 1935, her collection of gowns was covered with bright, very conspicuous zippers, often contrasting in colors. Their purpose was mostly just to call attention to themselves. The zipper also became popular in Paris in 1937 when the industry called for sleeker, trimmer lines.
All of this helped to make the zipper no longer a novelty, but a household item. By this time there were many different companies who manufactured zippers. Overall, about three hundred million zippers were sold in 1939, twice as many as two years before. Nowadays, there are too many to count. As you can see, with a lot of good old fashioned creativity and perserverance, the whole world was changed.
There... I hope you learned something.
"I wanna go home!"