Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 29, 2010: The Zippo Museum

Last week, I guest blogged at the Savvy Grouse, about visiting the Bradford PA Zippo Museum.  At the Savvy Grouse, my posts are kept to 250 words, but the rough drafts I write are usually much, much longer.  I thought it might be interesting to publish the director’s cut, if you will:

In 1932, at the Bradford Country Club, Pennsylvania businessman George G Blasidell watched a friend trying to light a smoke in the wind.

Original Zippo patent

A year later, he created the first Zippo – based on an Austrian design her had seen.  77 years later, The Zippo/Case Factory Museum in Bradford PA had been on my to-do list for some time. With The Kid now going to school in upstate NY, and our drive going right past the museum, last weekend, we decided the time was ripe.

Fourteen custom-made Zippo street lighters line the drive leading up to the building. Over the entrance towers a 40-foot Zippo lighter with pulsating neon flame.

The Museum also features Case Knives including an “astronaut knife” from 1964 the size of a machete. (“What would an astronaut need with a knife like that?” I wondered aloud. “Duh,” The Kid responded, “How else will they kill aliens? Everyone knows out Earth bullets are powerless against them.”)

The Museum traces how Zippo became part of American culture. Especially moving were the letters from veterans – in one case an officer writing to a damaged Zippo – the only recoverable personal effect after a plane crash – could be repaired to be sent to the Airman’s wife. In fact, Zippo and the Armed Forces have such a close relationship that the entire production of their lighters was sent to the troops from 1943 until the end of the Second World War.

It’s not all melancholy. Zippo has also embedded itself into art and music too. Cesar Baldaccini, the Nouveau Réalisme artist, sculpted a piece made entirely of crushed Zippos in July 1997 (although at first glance, one might think that his would be anti-ethical. The second question that comes to mind is, could the repair factory fix all of these and return them to working capacity?)   Their website ZippoEncore allows bands to create custom silkscreened Zippos for merch tables and also provides Mp3 downloads (the lighter being a pre cell phone concert staple in order to  for the audience to light and hold high during power ballads and the like).


“Zippo” by Cesar

The lighters (and Case knives) are made in Pennsylvania – part of our manufacturing base that didn’t disappear. And they’re not just crafted, but repaired here in a glass walled “Clinic”. Zippo is famous for their lifetime repair policy. There’s a long list and showcases of damaged Zippos in from of the glass walled repair factory (empty, sadly when we were there) including my favorite – a Zippo found inside a bear’s digestive system. No word of the hunter who owned it.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAview inside the Zippo clinic


Damaged Zippos sent into the clinic

The museum is 15,000 square feet, and the store is packed full, but understaffed. We waited for 10 minutes before abandoning our purchases and heading home to buy our “souvenir” lighters locally – that’s the impressive thing about Zippos, they’re so woven into the fabric of Americana – you can find them just about anywhere.

But that leads to the obvious question – why?  Who the heck uses a Zippo anymore – I mean sure, living in an economically devastated area, there are still lots of smokers and my hometown is slowly moving to a bar/tattoo shop/discount tobacco-centric downtown area.  But the patrons of these establishments use the two for a buck bic–style disposables made in China.  The smooth guy in the suit using a Zippo only exists on Mad Men.   For a long time, I carried a bronze slimline Zippo that my father presented me with on a birthday.  But I didn’t smoke and eventually came to the conclusion that he whiff of butane I carried around me wasn’t as enticing to the ladies as I originally thought.  I did, however, play with it a lot.  Flicking it open with the satisfying metalling click, using the fabric of my pants to spin the wheel against the flint, and then snapping it shut without touching it.  It was ‘50s butch and satisfyingly annoying to those around me.

The Museum, and the Zippo itself is a fetish - a man-made object that has magical power over others. The concept and values of 1950s masculinity is transferred to the lighters and it’s worshipped here in this Bradford shrine.  

Here masculinity exists as it no longer does (or perhaps never has) – pin ups decorate the wall, men like Arnold Schwarzenegger use Zippos while dressed in camo.  Here, the lighter itself represent the ultimate man – indestructible, smooth, and dangerous.  The Museum represents the masculinity of the maker – the lighters so well made that they are endless repairable.  Unlike the common lighters of today, they don’t exist as disposable items, but as objects of reverence to be passed down, to be decorated with badges of military experience or fraternal organization, or pin ups.  When they're lost, it’s because you were eaten by a bear when hunting, or the lighter was destroyed by the heavy machinery that is rare in America today.

To visit the museum is to understand what we think we’ve lost and how worried we are about what we have.

The Zippo/ Case Museum (1932 Zippo Drive, Bradford, PA 16701 (For GPS use Chestnut St. Extension) (814)-368-1932) is free and open to the public every day except for New Years, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

Map picture


John Noel Bartlett said...

The museum is interesting, and is truly a slice of Americana. I enjoyed your take on it.

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.