A zippy tale of gadgetry, salesmanship

June 08, 1994|By Neal Lipschutz | Neal Lipschutz,Special to The Sun

Thought about your zippers lately? You probably don't think about them at all, unless one sticks or becomes undone at a particularly inappropriate or public moment. What's there to think about, anyway? Plenty, it turns out.

Deep into this fascinating story of the zipper and its struggle to attain its now universal acceptance, Robert Friedel quotes Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion to this end: "For the historian there are no banal things . . . He has to see objects not as they appear to the daily user, but as the inventor saw them when they first took shape."

Dr. Friedel, who teaches the history of technology and science at the University of Maryland College Park, takes this advice very much to heart. He provides an entertaining and scholarly history of the lowly zipper and makes it fit a larger picture of an early 20th century America -- brimming with optimism and in love with progress, technology and novelty for its own sake.

This is a serious book in the best sense of the word, though at first the zipper seems a silly subject for book-length attention. The book is never somber or stuffy, but it is thoroughly researched, sure in its tone and often willing to put its abundance of facts into the more meaningful contexts of technological and cultural change.

Here are some of the facts. The original inventor of the slide fastener was Whicomb Judson (1846-1909), a machine salesman turned inventor who could claim no big successes in his lifetime. He thought the forerunner of today's zipper (he got a first patent in 1893) would prove to be a better way to secure shoes.

Though clever, the original design just didn't work all that well. By 1917, the zipper (still not called that) needed a second inventor, a Swedish-born engineer named Gideon Sundback, who spent seven years in the United States experimenting with Mr. Judson's designs before making significant breakthroughs.

This being America, the real hero of the zipper story is perhaps Lewis ("the Colonel") Walker. He had nothing to do with its technological development but he did have the capital, energy and business vision to lead the corporate entity that pushed it and pushed it until the zipper finally emerged from the ranks of gee-whiz novelty to accepted necessity.

Why does a successful small-town Pennsylvania lawyer and businessman devote himself (and his grown sons) to the dubious proposition of imposing zippers on an unconvinced nation? Wisely, Dr. Friedel doesn't play amateur psychologist, but does note the Colonel possessed a "remarkable, inexplicable faith."

He also adds sociological context, writing that the "proudly bourgeois, capitalist society of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" strongly approved of "material ambitions harnessed to creative enterprise, even when the products of that enterprise seemed to most people largely unneeded and even unwanted."

We've all heard that necessity is the mother of invention and that major changes in economies are brought about by big technological advances. But Dr. Friedel convincingly shows that not always that simple.

Even when the zipper's functionality and reliability were improved, buttons, snaps and other fasteners didn't just disappear. It wasn't until the late 1930s that zippers became the ubiquitous ingredient in men's and women's clothing. That came only after two decades of hard selling.

Dr. Friedel deflates the idea that inventions spring up to solve specific problems.

He writes: "The human mind is indeed capable of formulating novel ways of doing or making things and does so often, stimulated not by specific hurdles to be overcome but rather by possibilities that present themselves. . . ."

He also ranges widely in popular culture to touch on the symbolic roles of zippers. Earlier in the century, social critics disturbed by the vast technological changes in Western culture seized on the zipper as the ultimate gadget, representative of what they saw as an unnecessary movement away from basics. Later, zippers became associated with sexuality (remember the

cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" album?)

Throughout the book, Dr. Friedel avoids taking himself too seriously. He is, after all, talking about zippers. He uses a polished prose style that harkens back to a more genteel time. He successfully strings together multi-claused sentences without becoming dense.

Simply put, this is an interesting and well-researched book. After reading it, you'll never again secure your trousers or evening dress in quite the same way.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.


Title: "Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty"

Author: Robert Friedel

Publisher: Norton

(Length, price: 288 pages, $23

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