The American inventor and executive George Blaisdell (1895–1978) popularized and helped to devise the ubiquitous Zippo cigarette lighter.
George Grant Blaisdell was born in the small city of Bradford, Pennsylvania, on June 5, 1895, and lived there almost his entire life. His father, Philo Blaisdall, owned a firewood supply company, and both he and his wife, Sara Blaisdell, were upset when George decided to drop out of school during fifth grade, vowing never to return. Although Blaisdell was enrolled at a military academy, even that discipline could not curb his rebellious spirit. After two years of study, he was ejected from that school as well, for unknown reasons. Allowed home only if he contributed to the family financially, the underage George went to work at a business run by another family member, the Blaisdell Machinery Company.
At the Blaisdell Machinery Company, Blaisdell gained a basic knowledge of manufacturing, and this served him well later in his career. Gaining control of the company, he sold it in 1920, then became a co-owner of the Blaisdell Oil Company, which struggled economically during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1932, while at the Pennhill Country Club in Bradford, he observed a friend, Dick Dresser, struggling with a bulky Austrian-made cigarette lighter. “You're all dressed up,” Blaisdell said to Dresser (as quoted on the website of the Zigath Zippo Club of Indonesia). “Why don't you get a lighter that looks decent?” Dresser responded that it worked, and the seed of a marketing campaign was planted.
The modern lighter was an Austrian invention devised after scientist Carl Auer von Weisbach patented ferrocenium in 1903. This lighter flint made it possible to expose a small stream of flammable gas to a spark. The lighter belonging to Dresser was a model that improved on the early designs: it featured a small chimney that kept the flame stable even in the wind. Although it had been available since the late 1920s, this lighter was poorly designed, easily damaged, and awkward, requiring two hands to operate.
In his goal of improving on the standard lighter, Blaisdell's first step was to obtain import rights and start importing and marketing the Austrian lighter brand. Working with several other engineers, he then developed the Zippo lighter, which went on sale around 1933 or 1934 (sources disagree). This design retained the Austrian chimney design but was compact and sleek; nothing projected from the metal case when it was closed. Because the hinges of this early design were flimsy, Blaisdell's marketing scheme included an “It works or we fix it free” slogan. Like most aspects of the Zippo lighter design, this slogan has remained unchanged through the company's history.
Blaisdell is generally credited as the inventor of the Zippo lighter, and there is no question that he was the impetus behind its creation and the genius behind its marketing. According to Zippo collector Larry Tolkin, one of Blaisdell's colleagues, engineer George Gimera, may have actually invented the Zippo lighter. In fact, Gimera's name is the first one listed on U.S. patent US2032695, and subsequent patents filed by the company do not list Blaisdell or name him as co-inventor. The name was all Blaisdell: he chose the word “Zippo” because it suggested the sound of the flint mechanism and was simple and memorable, carrying a hint of 1920s slang.
When the Zippo went on sale for $1.95 each, Blaisdell's company had three employees, with Blaisdell as sales manager. Manufacturing took place in a corner workshop of the Rickerson & Pryde garage at 7 Boylston Street, in Bradford, which Blaisdell rented for 10 dollars a month. The first month's production run was 82 units. By 1938 the company had expanded to encompass the entire second floor of the Boylston Street building, and in 1938 Zippo established a front office at 36 Barbour Street. Although the main office has since moved, the Barbour Street structure remains in use as a Zippo storage facility.
To market his new lighter, Blaisdell took a creative approach. He gave away lighters to bus drivers, reasoning that they would gain wide visibility since there were few restrictions on smoking in the early and mid-twentieth century. A local business, the Kendall Refining Company, ordered 500 Zippo lighters emblazoned with its logo, jump-starting the company's many special-edition lighters. This innovation spread the Zippo name and also stimulated interest among collectors because each customized production run was limited.
Even in the company's early days, Blaisdell shared company profits with his employees; he would also rent out a train car to take workers to Buffalo's annual Ice Follies show and he maintained a ski hill in Branford for community use. Although a production problem stopped Zippo lighter shipments during part of 1946, he kept his entire workforce on the payroll until the problem was corrected. Blaisdell remained a model corporate citizen, among other things supplying two bloodhounds, Zippo and Zipette, to assist emergency services in Bradford.
In 1938 Zippo introduced a new lighter design with a smooth drawn-metal case, replacing the earlier model that used cut pieces of rectangular metal. The World War II years were beneficial to the company because U.S. Army soldier received cigarettes with their rations. Blaisdell even forged a friendship with famous U.S. war correspondent Ernie Pyle, keeping the noted journalist supplied with between 50 and 100 Zippo lighters a month to give away to soldiers. The arrangement lasted until Pyle's death at the hands of Japanese gunners in April of 1945, four months before the war ended.
Among the most visible of Zippo's public relations initiatives was the Zippo car, a Chrysler Saratoga purchased and customized under the supervision of Blaisdell himself. The car's doors were shaped like Zippo lighters, and they had lids that would open and close. The convertible top could be opened to produce a flame. The car was a fixture of parades nationwide, and Zippo opened a factory in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1949 to serve growing Canadian demand.
The profusion of special-edition Zippo lighters has made the lighter a perennial favorite among collectors. Zippo collectors’ clubs, and associated auctions of rare Zippo models, exist as far afield from Bradford as Indonesia, and the company maintains a staff position dedicated to dealing with collector inquiries. Beginning in the mid-1950s, date codes have been stamped on the bottom of Zippo cases, giving further precision to the collecting enterprise. Zippos have been used in more than 1,500 films and television programs, and the brand entered music culture when the sound that first attracted Blaisdell's attention was sampled on hip-hop recordings. In an age when small consumer products are almost invariably outsourced, Zippo continues to house both management and manufacturing operations in Bradford, not far from the corner on which Blaisdell founded the company; the Niagara Falls factory closed in 2002.
George Blaisdell married Miriam Barcroft, and together they had two children, Harriet Blaisdell Wick and Sarah Blaisdell Dorn. Miriam Blaisdell died in 1953; a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford bears her name. The man who blanketed much of the world with his company's lighters gave up smoking, and for his last 34 years had little use for the product he made famous. Blaisdell died on October 3, 1978, while on vacation in Miami Beach, Florida. His grandson George B. Duke serves as Zippo's present owner and chair of the board.
Investor's Business Daily, June 6, 2008, p. A3.
Morning Call (Allentown, PA), July 26, 1999, p. D1.
Blaisdell Family National Organization, http://www.blaisdell.org/ (July 23, 2016), “George G. Blaisdell.”
Pennsylvania Center for the Book website, http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/ (July 23, 2016), “George Grant Blaisdell.”
Vintage Cigarette Lighters website, http://www.toledo-bend.com/VCL/ (July 23, 2016), Larry Tolkin, “Who Really Invented the Zippo?”
Zigath Zippo Club Indonesia, http://www.zigath.com/ (July 23, 2016), “Philo Blaisdell House.”
Zippo Official website, http://www.zippo.com/ (July 23, 2016).❑