Indiana Jones considered his a lucky charm. Ricky Ricardo pulled his out at the club. And Don Draper’s is key to the guy he really is. What is this incredible tool that all the leading men kept secreted away in their trousers?
The Zippo lighter, stupid.
Specifically, the Zippo regular windproof lighter, patent number 2032695. There are lots of ways to light a cig—uh, sorry, we mean a campfire—but only one of them dispenses a heady cloud of American cool along with that whiff of lighter fluid. No matter who you are, said a writer for Cracked magazine, “it’s impossible not to look like a badass when holding a Zippo.”
And plenty of us do. Nobody’s sure how many Zippos are out there, but two years ago, the company turned out its 500 millionth one. There are lots of proud American brands out there, but only Zippo is still selling a signature product that’s stayed the same since 1933—and 2013 was Zippo’s biggest year to date.
What can account for such a steady burn? Some say it’s the legacy. Pennsylvania oilman George G. Blaisdell invented the Zippo in 1933 after watching his golf partner struggle with a clunky lighter, and the Bradford-based company still turns out 70,000 lighters a day. Perhaps it’s Blaisdell’s unconditional lifetime guarantee: “It works or we fix it free,” a refrain the company still sings. Ask Zippo’s global brand manager Brent Tyler, and he’ll offer you another good reason.
“A Zippo lighter is a sensory-rich product,” Tyler said. “The simple styling for the eyes, the distinctive sound of the opening, the familiar smell of the fluid, the substantial weight and signature shape in the hands, and the taste … well, we guess that’s up to the user.”
But perhaps the best reason is the one that encompasses all of the above. Zippos are one of the rare products that confer a national identity by conferring millions of individual ones. In the 160 countries in which Zippo is sold, nothing says America better than … a Zippo. During World War II, journalist Ernie Pyle called the Zippo “the most coveted thing in the army.” His words held true a generation later, when 200,000 servicemen carried a rifle and a Zippo into Vietnam. Even in the jungle, the lighters always lit. One of them, in 1966, stopped a bullet.
Today, eight decades after George G. Blaisdell sold his first Zippo, the lighter’s signature click continues to turn up in songs, just like its glinting steel case has flashed on the screen in over 1,500 movies and TV shows. It’s too bad none of them dealt with the time a Zippo turned up in the belly of a great northern pike. The astonished fisherman pulled the lighter out.