George G. Blaisdell founded Zippo Manufacturing Company in 1932, and produced the first Zippo lighter in early 1933, being inspired by an Austrian cigarette lighter of similar design made by IMCO. It got its name because Blaisdell liked the sound of the word “zipper” and “zippo” sounded more modern. On March 3, 1936, a patent was granted for the Zippo lighter.
Zippo lighters became popular in the United States military, especially during World War II — when, as the company’s web site says, Zippo “ceased production of lighters for consumer markets and dedicated all manufacturing to the US military”. Period Zippos were made of brass, but Zippo used a black crackle finished steel during the war years because of metal shortages. While the Zippo Manufacturing Company never had an official contract with the military, soldiers and armed forces personnel insisted that base exchange and post exchange stores carry this sought-after lighter. While it had previously been common to have Zippos with authorized badges, unit crests and division insignia, it became popular among the American soldiers of the Vietnam War to get their Zippos engraved with personal mottos. These lighters are now sought after collector’s items and popular souvenirs for visitors to Vietnam.
After World War II, the Zippo lighter became increasingly used in advertising by companies large and small through the 1960s. Much of the early Zippo lighter advertising are works of art painted by hand, and as technology has evolved, so has the design and finish of the Zippo lighter. The basic mechanism of the Zippo lighter has remained unchanged.
In 2002, Zippo expanded its product line to include a variety of utility-style multi-purpose lighters, known as Zippo MPLs. This was followed in 2005 with the Outdoor Utility Lighter, known as the OUL. These lighters are fueled with butane. In August 2007, Zippo released a new butane lighter called the Zippo BLU.
A museum called “Zippo/Case visitors center” is located in Bradford, Pennsylvania, at 1932 Zippo Drive. This 15,000-square-foot (1,400 m2) building contains rare and custom made Zippo lighters, and also sells the entire Zippo line. The museum was featured on the NPR program Weekend Edition on Sunday, January 25, 2009. The museum also contains an enormous collection of Case knives. Since the Zippo company’s 60th anniversary in 1992, annual editions have been produced for Zippo collectors.
From 1949 to 2002, Zippos were also produced in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Since 1933, over 500,000,000 Zippo lighters have been produced.
In 2009, Zippo announced plans to purchase Ronson Consumer Products Corporation, a long-time competitor in the lighter market. On February 3, 2010, the deal was finalized.
In March 2011, due to significant decrease of sales from 18 million lighters a year in the mid-1990s to about 12 million lighters a year recently, combined with increasing pressure on people not to smoke, Zippo Manufacturing Co. tried offering a wider variety of products using the Zippo name, such as watches, leisure clothing and eau de cologne. This strategy is similar to the success Victorinox Swiss Army Brands Inc. has had selling watches, luggage, clothing and fragrance.
On June 5, 2012, the company manufactured its 500,000,000th lighter as well as celebrated its 80th anniversary.