Evolution and History of the Zipper - From Neanderthal Man to Modern Day
How the Zipper Came to be Invented
Today, you can find zippers on nearly everything, from all sorts of clothing, luggage, pencil cases, pocketbooks, shoes, and so much more. 90% of zippers are manufactured in Japan with The YKK Company, being the biggest manufacturer. Zippers are something we all use, everyday, yet there was a time when zippers did not exist. What did people do before zippers were invented? Let’s take a tour from stone age times until today to see how important the invention of the zipper was to mankind.
Clothing Fasteners and Prehistoric Man
We can trace the first humans who wore clothes back to approximately 100,000 B.C.E. to the time Neanderthal man roamed the earth. Archaeologists found evidence of tools that early man learned to use the hides from hunted animals to keep themselves protected from the elements. It appears they used thin pieces of hide about the width of belts to tie the clothing around themselves.
In the next evolutionary stage of man, Cro Magnon man had even more intelligence. About 40,000 years ago, they used even more refined tools. They were able to make holes in their clothing and lace the animal skins and fur together. Archaeologists believe the fashion at this time was a tunic - 2 pieces that were sewn by the shoulders and held together with a belt or it was sewn on the sides . It is Cro Magnon man that invented the needle. Needles were made from thin narrow pieces of animal bone. They were sharpened at one end and had a hole at the other. This helped prehistoric man make their garments fit better, and may have resembled modern Eskimo clothing in the way they were constructed.
Belts Were the First Type of Clothing Fasteners
There is not much evidence that has been found from the clothing of early man. Much of the assumptions are based on cave drawings, fossilized imprints of stitched together animal skins, and some carved figures that have been found.
In 1991, a well preserved Neolithic Man from 5,300 years ago was discovered in the mountains of Austria. Evidence of his clothing was apparent. They found pant like clothing over his legs, a loincloth as a kind of underwear and a long sleeve coat like garment that covered his body, nearly to his knees. It was held together with a belt. He wore boots that were stitched together.
Men of the ice age started to carry pouches that were stitched together.
From the Bronze Age to Roman Times
During the Bronze Age, evidence was found that men and women’s clothing was held together with metal brooches and pins. The earliest systems of writing started to be developed and there is some description about the clothing people wore.
During the Iron Age, classical writers described people wearing closer fitting clothes made of wool or linen, and held together at the waist with a belt. They wore cloaks that were fastened with a pin or a brooch at the shoulder. Archaeological records have found evidence of the metal from these artifacts of clothing.
During Biblical Times, garments started to be made using linen, but were still fastened with belts.
In Roman Times, many articles of clothing were held together by metal hooks and belts. Those in ancient Rome who held more power, the senators as they were known. wore leather shoes made from leather and fastened with laces or wide straps while they walked and their slaves carried their sandals. The straps wrapped around their legs and was tied just above the instep of the foot. The common citizens wore shoes fastened with a leather strap running across the shoe near the top. Some shoes even had eyelets and laces.
The Invention of Buttons
In the orient, kimonos were tied around the front with cords.
People of the Renaissance used pins, brooches and belts to fasten their clothes. Buttons were designed as ornaments for clothing. Someone invented a loop of thread and fastened a button to keep clothes together. During the time of the crusades, around the 13th century, the buttonhole was invented. Clothing design took on a whole new look with the invention of buttons and buttonholes.
Centuries of Clothing Fasteners
In the 1200’s the idea of a buttonhole was conceived and buttons became a way to fasten clothes. Buttons have been around since 2000 B.C., but were used for ornamentation until the 13th century.
In the 14th century clothes had buttonholes on practically every part of the clothing. King Francis I of France placed an order 13,400 buttons of gold to fasten a velvet black suit when he met with Henry VII of England. King Louis XIV of France spent $600,000 in a year on his buttons. In the In the 1300’s a crochet and loop ( a precursor of the hook and eye) started to be in vogue in England.
1500’s big belts became very fashionable on clothing. In the 1600’s people used a combination of brooches, buttons and belts for utility and fashionable style purposes. In the 1700’s big buckles were used on shoes.
In the 1800’s high button shoes were in fashion, with over 20 buttons to close them. When hooks and eyes were invented they were used primarily for outerwear. In 1828, metal grommet eyelets that were laced up were used on corsets and bodices. Prior to 1828, eyelets were stitched, not hammered into clothing. In the 1847 front fastening hook and eyes were developed, especially for fastening corsets. In the 1840’s metal metal loops became fashionable.
The First Zipper is Introduced at The Chicago World's Fair
In 1851, Elias Howe who invented the sewing machine, created a device called an " Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure". It was a series of closure clasps that ran along crude metal slideswith a cord. The design didn’t reach the market due to his preoccupation with he sewing maching he patented.
Whitcomb L. Judson is credited with the invention of the zipper. His friend had a stiff back and couldn’t fasten his shoes. Judson invented a slide fastener with hooks and eyes and a slide clasp the connected them. A person could open and close this fastener with one hand. On August 29, 1893 the “clasp locker” was patented.The device was so complicated it had taken 22 months for patent approval. This precursor to the zipper was not much of an improvement over buttons, but it was a new innovation. He introduced it at the Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1894, Judson started the Universal Fastener Company in Chicago. With investors and some changes in the zipper, the company was renamed the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company. Years later the company name became the Automatic Hook and Eye Manufacturings and Machine Company. By 1904 the company moved to Hoboken New Jersey and more changes were made to the zipper called “C-curity” fastener which was able to be attached to clothing with clothing tape. It was especially used for women’s skirts.
Zippers are Slow to Catch On
They started to be used in clothing in 1905, but were not very strong, so they were not very practical. Gideion Sundback, a Swedish born scientist improved on Judson’s zipper in 1913. He called it the “hookless fastener” and patented it under the name Plako.
Sundback kept making improvements and in 1917, patented it as the “separable fastener”. In 1917, 24,000 zippers were sold. This newest improvement made the zipper more reliable and became a fashionable way to fasten clothing through interlocking components similar to the zipper we know today.
The U.S. Army became his first customer. During WWI, zippers were used on military clothing and gear for the troops. In the 1930’s zippers became popular in children’s clothing to help them dress themselves.In 1936 the slider was patented. In 1937, a French designer used zippers in men’s pants.
Esquire magazine touted the new fashion as “the newest tailoring idea for men”. When zippers were first invented they were not strong enough to keep clothing closed. They were used mainly with boots and as closures for tobacco bags. In the 1950’s zippers started to be better made.
The Word Zipper is Created
B.F. Goodrich Company started making galoshes known as the “mystic boot”, with the new zippers Sundback designed in the 1920’s. It caught on very fast, as the shoes were easily closed with one hand. Legend has it was a Goodrich executive, Bertram G. Work, said “zip her up” imitating the sound and the word zipper was born.
In 1925, Goodrich trademarked the word zipper as a fastener for its shoes. The word zipper started to be used for all products , and Goodrich was unable to keep the use of the word exclusively for themselves. The word zipper became part of the public domain. By 1930, Goodrich was ordering millions of zippers per year.
By 1939 3 million zippers per year, were being produced for shoes and clothing. By the end of the 1940’s a billion zippers were being manufactured and sold. During WWII, many German zipper factories were destroyed. Metal became scarce and a “plastic ladder” device improved the zipper once again.
Today, the Zipper Industry is a Multi Billion Dollar Business
In 1934, 60 million zippers were sold. In the 1960’s YKK kept improving on the zipper. They started to make them with DuPont nylon to make them more flexible and stronger. Levi Strauss began to substitute the zipper for their button up jeans.
Zippers continued to be improved upon. They were used in jackets and designed to open on both ends. Today, YKK accounts for over 50% of the zippers produced in the world.
Today the zipper market is a multi billion dollar industry, with hundreds of zipper manufacturers sharing the great demand to produce this invention. The zipper is an intricate device that continues towards perfection. We still deal with the zippers that separate, and engineers continue working on improvements to this day.
Tips for Taking Care of Your Zippers
Tips for stuck zippers:
- Grease the teeth of the zipper with wax from a candle to help the slider ease along
- brush white vinegar on the front and back of the zipper to clear away tiny particles that could be blocking the zipper mechanism.
- If the slider gets caught on a thread or the clothing itself, pull the slider back gently to release the thread.
- If you are ironing clothing with zippers, close the zipper and cover the zipper with a piece of cloth as you iron the item.
Different Types of Zippers
type of zipper
mostly used for
coil (also known as nylon or polyester zipper)
most popular type of zipper
women's skirts and dresses
teeth are hidden
usually made of metal alloy
to match clothing
Polyethylene resins and mainly polyacetal resins
open ended zippers
box and pin" mechanism to lock the two sides of the zipper into place.
closed end zippers
closed at both ends.
Zippers endure a series of quality tests to ensure they will work reliably:
- zippers are examined for proper proportion and dimensions.
- they undergo a flatness and straightness test with gauges to eliminate defective and curving zippers
- the teeth of zippers are tested for strength and durability. A machine is used to stretch the zipper to determine what force the teeth separate from the material. This also categorizes zippers from heaby duty to light weight quality.
- Zippers are compressed to see when they break.
- Zippers are tested to measure how much force it takes to zip it up and down.
- It has to meet the quality control of the fabric
- zippers are tested in washing machines and in hot water, with bleach and abrasive chemicals to make sure it can withstand laundering.
- The cloths zippers are attached to are tested for shrinkage after it is exposed to heat and hot washes. Heavy duty zippers should have no shrinkage.
Where Would We Be Without Zippers?
Man has come a long way since we first started wearing clothes in the stone age. The zipper, is rarely thought of as a complicated device, yet its intricacies are constantly being improve upon to make a better zipper. Its innovation has made our lives easier in many ways. Where would we be with zippers? The impact of this invention spurred the clothing industry, the practicality of sleeping bags, and of the many things we use in our everyday lives. The zipper is proof of something so ordinary creating extraordinary benefits for us all.