- 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.
For twenty years the slide-fastener, however much improved, was a flop. It was launched too soon, a fatal error with a new invention: who can forget the early ball-pen, famous for producing six copies and no original? In those days the smart thing to do with a new, untested and under-financed invention, as this book reveals, was to sell it to the government; but the slide-fastener had only a limited success as a closure for mail-bags. It was unreliable and it lacked a catchy name (‘The Hook-less Hooker’ was a non-starter). For a long time it was sold to housewives by fast-talking door-to-door salesmen who, if they made a sale, knew better than to return to the same address. One who did, after twenty years, was pursued by a man with a meat cleaver, or so legend had it. Despite, or because of, all the unscrupulous ‘parlaying’ by salesmen, there was ever the risk that the slide-fastener would ‘die aborning’ (a Friedel phrase). Two days after the United States Marines invaded Veracruz the company’s toughest salesman promised head office that he would sell a gross of fasteners in Pennsylvania for every dead Mexican. The will to win was there, but the resistance was prodigious. Not until autumn 1914 did sales look up, just as the Old World began the long haul to catastrophe. If British soldiers had worn zippered leggings instead of those much-loathed puttees, would their miseries have been alleviated? Probably not, given the frailty of the device. In post-war America it was the success of Goodrich’s zippered rubber boots which led to the first zipper boom – and it was Benjamin Work of Goodrich who invented the magic name zipper.
The zipper manufacturers had been happy to see their product used on ‘small but distinctive’ items, such as money belts, tobacco pouches and luggage, but human attire was the ultimate goal. Who would have guessed that some day inner-city coxcombs would strut about almost entirely clad in zippers? What stood in the way was the conservatism of the garment trade, which saw buttons as cheaper, less trouble to fit and less likely to upset the unions. A first bold attempt on the clothing market was aimed at children. If they could be given the means to dress themselves, instead of coming whining to their parents to have buttons fastened, it would do much for their self-esteem and turn them into self-reliant citizens. This rough-hewn psychological approach led to a brief spurt in profits. Stores were induced to show customers a short film entitled ‘Bye-Bye Buttons’, just as dentists today expect clients to watch videos on how to brush their teeth.
Only in the mid-Thirties did the ad-men pull out all the stops in their drive to turn the inessential into a ‘must’. They were already waging spirited warfare against body odour and ‘halitosis’, striving to make all humanity ‘nice to be near’. Now the attack was widened to take in ‘gap-osis’: the unsightly gaps left by buttoned flies and ill-fastened skirts. This was the ad-man’s idea of a courtship: ‘It started off like a real rush ... orchids, football games, sixth row on the aisle and all that. Then suddenly – p-f-f-f-t! It was all off! What happened? A true lovers’ tiff? No! Just “gap-osis”, the carelessness that kills glamour ... the untidiness that makes men shudder.’ Pictures of shocked pairs of eyes with dotted lines running to sartorial horrors helped to drive home the message. James Thurber was suborned to lend a hand, but his hippo-shaped woman afflicted by ‘gap-osis’ in the midriff looks scarcely the sort to worry about personal grooming or to spend good money on a mechanical contrivance in order to keep her man.
Britain was spared this high-powered campaign, but the zipper was making slow advances, along with chewing-gum and other non-necessities from America. The firm of Kynoch began manufacturing zippers in Birmingham in 1919 and a large-scale model was shown at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, though it is easier now to remember the knife with 1924 blades and the life-size model of the Prince of Wales in butter. Soon the Prince, who was regarded as an arbiter of fashion, was being credited with having a zipper in his trousers. Whether Hitler was similarly equipped does not emerge, but according to this book the Nazis were very keen on their blitz-verschluss. The most notorious sufferer from ‘gap-osis’ among world figures was Mahatma Gandhi. In the late Thirties high fashion in Paris succumbed to the fermeture éclair, as it was now called, and Schiaparelli used it not only for flamboyant effects but to accentuate the slimness of her models. The year 1937, says Friedel, was when the zipper won the struggle for ‘technical refinement and commercial acceptance’.
And so to sex. In our own times the zipper, no longer held up as an aid to character-forming in children, has become, in Friedel’s words, ‘the tool and symbol of seduction’. It is ‘one of the most readily understood and powerful metaphors for sexuality, especially for an uninhibited and promiscuous sexuality’. It offers invitations to familiarity, intimations of immorality and visions of instant gratification. Who can overlook ‘the potential that even a balky zipper always presents of a quick and complete disrobing’? The device has spawned rude jests. Even before the last war, as I recall, there was a rumour in Glasgow that zippers were to be banned because they made too much noise in the cinema. Friedel, surveying popular literature, says ‘one of the most memorable evocations of zippers in modern fiction’ is to be found in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, but the passage turns out to be a paean to ‘ziplessness’; it also appears in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which was criticised for including it. In addition, Friedel offers an extract from a work called Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins, in which the smooth-parlaying seducer says to his prey: ‘Ahh, I love zippers. Zippers remind me of crocodiles, lobsters and Aztec serpents ... Little alligators of ecstasy, that’s what zippers are.’ And so on. Some readers may be disappointed by Friedel’s sceptical approach to all those saloon bar zipper stories – the woman squeezing her way to her seat in the theatre and finding her dress, or hair, trapped in a stranger’s zip; or the man who, adjusting his zip stealthily at the dinner table, unwittingly snares the tablecloth and, when rising, hauls everything to the floor. These tales come from all over the world and are apparently in the same class as the one about the dead granny on the car roof. There is nothing in these pages about men with zip-inflicted injuries being rushed to casualty wards. Surely medical journals could furnish a few horror stories of this kind? And did no disciple of Freud ever link the zipper with the male fear of castration?
It is hard not to feel a certain schadenfreude on reading that Meadville, Pennsylvania, once the zipper capital of America, where happy workers sang the company song, ‘Zipper Boots, Oh Zipper Boots!’, to the tune of ‘My Maryland!’, is no longer in business. Friedel describes a recent visit to Meadville in the wry, melancholic tone normally reserved for a pilgrimage to Leptis Magna, or Sodom. Why did he not also describe a visit to thriving Macon, Georgia, where a giant Japanese-backed ‘manufacturing facility’ produces several million zippers a day, and listen to the new company songs there? Who, some of us may wonder, is looking after the zipper needs of China? In a free market in Nanking a few years ago I saw rows of entrepreneurs at the kerbside operating forked devices for installing zips in trousers (a street tailor took a young woman’s inside leg measurement as I passed). No doubt high-capacity manufacturing facilities are now rendering this primitive, almost idyllic, scene obsolete. Zips for the loins of China. It sounds like a catchy book title but a depressing idea.
Surprisingly, Friedel laments that zippers can never be ‘the subject of intellectual discourse, the focus of anguished meditations on modern life’, for his whole book suggests otherwise. Leaving aside the zipper’s impact on sexuality, a natural subject for intellectual discourse, what is to stop anguished meditation on whether a whole century spent developing a superfluous gadget really represents a triumph for man’s unconquerable mind? Let the metaphysicians explain the link between the concept of zipping up the world and the Yoshida philosophy of the ‘cycle of goodness’ – summed up by the pious founder as ‘goodness will cycle back to us if we sow seeds of goodness and render goodness to others.’
Friedel’s book could set off more discourse than he thinks. Those who see the zipper as the catalyst of a new industrial revolution may well wish to ask why the author has concentrated on the wearable zip and virtually ignored the industrial zip. One must turn to the Guinness Book of Records to find that a zipper 2074 feet long was made in Italy to cover an aquatic cable. This is a long hop from the tobacco pouch. In 1989 a zipper 9353 feet in length was wound round the centre of a Dutch town by Yoshida (Netherlands), but Guinness does not reveal its ultimate purpose. Are zippers extensively used, perhaps, by the sort of people who wrap landscapes in sheets of plastic? But no more quibbling. ‘The zipper’s story is a dandy,’ exults the author, and he is to be congratulated on unearthing so much of it. His publishers are not to be congratulated on printing the page headings vertically in the outer margins, with tiny illegible letters dribbling one below the other, the result resembling strips of zipper rescued from a mangle.