Collector's Corner: Zippo Cigarette Lighters
By Michele Alice
Though cigarette lighters had been around, in one form or another, for some time, it was in 1926 that what we know as the first automatic lighter was born. That year, the Ronson Art Metal Works applied for a U.S. patent for its "PRESS - it's lit, RELEASE - it's out, one finger - one motion" mechanism. That first lighter, the Banjo, retailed for $5.00. In moderately good condition, it now easily fetches $100-200 at online auction sites.
Spurred by the growing popularity of cigarette smoking by both men and women, and by the phenomenal success of Ronson's Banjo, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, marketing unique designs or improvements. One of the most notable of these was the Zippo Windproof Lighter invented by George Blaisdell in 1932. Backed by its now famous, "It works or we fix it free" guarantee, Zippo quickly became one of the world's largest manufacturers of lighters. The first Zippos retailed for $1.95. A 1936 model recently sold at an online auction for $870.
Like match makers, lighter manufacturers also found profitability in the marketing of their products as miniature billboards. Lighters were perfect canvases for the logos of cigarette manufacturers, brewers, and motion picture studios. They could be used to commemorate historic events, or as souvenirs from destinations like Las Vegas or Washington, D.C. They were available at most major sporting events.
Since 1926, hundreds of millions of lighters have been sold around the world by Ronson, Zippo, Evans, Dunhill, Dupont, and Scripto, just to name a few of the major manufacturers. (And that's not counting the ubiquitous, non-refillable, disposable lighters made of plastic that I have not included in this discussion.)
The sheer number of different lighters has forced collectors to specialize. A few seek out the ones with cases made of special materials like Bakelite, sterling, leather, or wood. Some concentrate on particular models by particular makers, while others search for favorite designs, from Camel cigarettes to lions and tigers and bears. Military, hunting, and racing themes are popular, as are railroad, automotive, and aviation (especially now that the federal government has banned lighters beyond airport checkpoints as of February 15, 2005).
Zippo lighters are especially popular with collectors because they are generally easier to date than others. Most Zippo lighters are stamped on the bottom with a date code which can be deciphered by going to Zippo Click, or one of the other Zippo sites listed below.
Now, here are a few tips if you've decided you'd like to begin collecting lighters:
The lighter should be drained of fluid. Some sites also recommend removing the flint, which, it is claimed, can deteriorate over time and damage the lighter.
Engraved and hand-painted designs often command higher prices than do designs that have been attached.
Watch out for fakes. As the prices of lighters have skyrocketed, with some going for several thousands of dollars each, unscrupulous individuals have begun to alter common models by attaching or engraving designs in imitation of more expensive specimens.
The best defense against fraud is knowledge, and to that end, the following sources of information are recommended.
"The Big Book of Cigarette Lighters: Identification & Values," by James Flanagan
"The Golden Age of Cigarette Lighters (Schiffer Book for Collectors)," by Ira Pilossof
"Zippo Companion," by Avi R. Baer, Alexander Neumark
"Zippo: The Great American Lighter," by David Poore
The Lighters Collectors Guide
Photo-illustrated index of vintage lighters.
On The Lighter Side (OTLS)
International collectors club. Convention and show dates; links to members' and manufacturers' websites.
History, how-to service page, products.
Check out their Zippo Collector's guides.
Great site with lots of photos of vintage Ronson lighters, history, "Ask the Expert" page, repair resource page, more.
Zippo-sponsored collectors club. Most content limited to paid membership, which also includes Click, a quarterly magazine, but free access to section on collecting (date codes, history, clubs, museums, etc.).
Zippo Manufacturing Company
Facts, contests, product catalogs, more.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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