By Jim Lee
How many of us have noticed the first thing to go haywire in a favorite coat is the zipper? Or is it just me?
It happens with sweater zippers, too.
Of course most of us don’t really concern ourselves with coats and sweaters this time of year — but I never claimed to be normal. Maybe I should take up basket weaving or something.
In a time in which it is technologically possible to send some clown to Mars, why doesn’t something as commonplace as a coat zipper stand up to usage?
I mean, how complicated can it be? Did cave men from way-back-when have this much trouble fastening their bearskin tuxedoes?
There’s no anthropological evidence of Paleolithic buttons, so they must have had zippers. Anybody with half a brain can figure that out, and I have been told that I do indeed possess half a brain.
Aside from those prehistoric versions, how did this goofy contraption invade our otherwise serene society?
I started nosing around about it and came up with some observations. You knew this would happen, didn’t you?
Zippers have many applications. A Florida department store sells something called a zipper tie (at $12.99). It’s a clip-on tie with a zipper in back for adjusting how it fits. Now there is a gift for the man who has everything, except no dude with half a brain will wear a tie unless forced at gunpoint.
My original confusion about the application of this device occurred in the Army. The flies on my fatigues had buttons while those on my dress uniform trousers had zippers. To this day this makes no sense to me.
The zipper’s first commercial application was rubber boots (galoshes) made by B.F. Goodrich Company. The boot was called the “mystic boot” and was also called the “zipper boot,” hence the permanent name for the fastener. It enabled people with bad backs to fasten their galoshes easier (with one hand).
The word “zipper” comes from “zip,” the sound of a rapidly moving object. By the way, the “YKK” seen on zipper tabs is an abbreviation of Yoshida Kogyo Kabushililaisha, a Japanese zipper manufacturer since 1934 — I dare you to tell that to somebody who doesn’t care.
Zippers for coats came later because the early zippers were not open at both ends. Maybe that’s why they wear out so easily. In the 1930s, zippers were promoted in children’s clothing because they made it easier for them to dress themselves.
The zipper was called “an automatic, continuous clothing closure” when sewing machine inventor Elias Howe patented it in 1851. Howe never marketed it, though.
About 40 years later, Whitcomb Judson patented his “clasp locker” for fastening shoes and founded the Universal Fastener Company. He introduced it to the public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair but did not get much commercial success from it.
Swedish-born Canadian electrical engineer Gideon Sundback, a Judson employee, improved the design and patented his “separable fastener” in 1917. This was the birth of the modern zipper.
Of course they were metal originally, but now zippers may also be nylon or plastic. The fabric part is called the tape. The two rows of teeth are the gear with a gear stop at the bottom and a top stop at the other end. The slider — with slider body, tab and tab holder (crown) — opens and closes the gear. See how fascinating a zipper can be?
Now, what do we do about that zipper on my favorite coat? Do I need a tailor with half a brain?
Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: