E.S. Turner

  • Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty by Robert Friedel
    Norton, 288 pp, £16.95, February 1995, ISBN 0 393 03599 9

Dr Johnson in his Dictionary defined ‘network’ as ‘anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections’. How, then, would he have defined ‘zip-fastener’? Since a certain testiness was apt to impair his objectivity, he might have settled for something like: ‘a hateful device in which collinear interdigitation usurps the function of buttons.’ He would happily have concurred with Carlyle in deploring the rage for calculated mechanical contrivance to replace manual operations. What was (and is) so wrong with buttons, snaps, poppers, hooks, studs, laces, toggles, drawstrings, safety-pins and even old-time fibulae? But, as Robert Friedel shows, the passion for novelty has become the real mother of invention; necessity rarely enters into it. Today the greatness of a nation is measured by the aggregated lengths of zipper to be found in its people’s wardrobes. The zipper has ceased to be the sine qua non and ne plus ultra of the privileged West. Friedel’s book reveals that the Japanese have won the race to zip up the world; his figures show that the Yoshida company, with its doctrine of the ‘cycle of goodness’, now has 171 zipper plants and factories in 42 countries, turning out 1.25 million miles of fasteners annually. How much longer can the last noble savage resist the zippered loincloth?

Friedel does not mourn unduly over the Japanese exploitation of what was long regarded as the quintessence of Yankee know-how, and which the French called le fermetout américain. His multi-faceted book deals not only with the history and development of the zipper but with the philosophy of invention generally and the wiles of marketing; it shows how ‘collective creativity’ by the public can popularise a ‘damn thing’ that nobody wants; it describes the impact of the zipper on fashion, literature and the common vocabulary (‘Zip your lip!’); and, not least, it touches on the zipper’s part in loosening and undermining sexual mores. The chapters that deal with company history have their aridities (a touch of zip in the writing would have helped), but human interest keeps breaking in. Friedel is alive to the zipper humiliations we all face daily, among them ‘the impropriety of publicly working on one’s zipper’ (as with the separable zipper that wastes so many millions of man-hours in the effort to re-engage it).

Who were the pioneers of the zipper? Whose were the ‘names that should be on every infant’s tongue’ (as Beachcomber said of Bass and Worthington)? The first of them is Whitcomb Judson, a machine salesman turned inventor who was old enough to have served in the Forty-Second Illinois Cavalry in the Civil War. His first and favourite brainwave was a pneumatically-driven street-car, which failed because the mechanism could never be made leak-proof (for the record, Pilbrow’s Atmospheric Railway and Canal Propulsion Company involved British investors in big losses during the railway boom of the 1840s). The idea for Judson’s first slide-fastener, using hooks and eyes, was patented in 1891; he thought it would be suitable for shoes, or even corsets. His design was trumped by the Swedish-born Gideon Sundback, who replaced hooks and eyes by meshing ‘scoops’ similar to those used today.

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