Friday, September 13, 2013
Stuff I Love #5: Zippo lighter
Few machines are perfect, in that any attempt at improvement would only diminish them. A spoon comes to mind. Oh, you can alter the size for the task at hand—a teaspoon for coffee, a tablespoon for soup, a serving spoon to ladle out creamed corn. But the basic design -- an oval bowl attached to a stalk -- cannot be improved upon.
Ditto for a Zippo lighter, the perfect fire machine. Even better than a spoon, since varieties of size are not necessary. Just one rectangular metal block, 1 3/8 inch wide by 2 1/8 inches tall, slightly rounded at the top. I carry one and I don't even smoke -- it's a joy just to hold, to feel those dimensions in the palm of your hand. To be honest, I'd value a chunk of metal that size, just as a talisman. Something solid to grasp. The fact that a Zippo also lights stuff is a lagniappe, an added bonus.
And light things it does. The top opens with a snap. Run your thumb against a toothed wheel, striking sparks against a flint, setting fire to a cotton wick that sits in the center of a chimney vented by 16 holes. The chimney keeps the wind from blowing out the flame. To extinguish the fire, just close the top with a ca-thunk, like a luxury car door slamming.
They're inexpensive. When George Blaisedell sold the first one -- the name "Zippo" taken from "zipper" -- in 1933, it cost $1.95. You can buy one almost exactly like it now for $12.
Changelessness is part of the appeal. The brass Zippo lighter I've been carrying around forever is almost precisely the device outlined in Blaisedell's patent application of March 3, 1936. A Zippo is like baseball. Okay, like baseball, Zippo has played around with change, introducing various thinner models, trying to improve upon perfection and catch the fickle whims of shifting public taste. But those are like the Designated Hitter Rule -- distractions from the pure form of the original. The original remains the best.
The Zippo has style. When James Bond gives the FBI his accoutrement wish list in Live and Let Die, he asks for "a Swank tie-clip in the shape of a whip, an alligator skin bill-fold from Mark Cross, a plain Zippo lighter." Frank Sinatra is buried with his Zippo, the better to light his pack of Camels in the afterworld. You can buy a solid gold Zippo (in 18K, $14,786.28, complete with cherry wood display case) though I would not recommend it. One of the joys of a Zippo is, if you lose yours—and I have—you're out 12 bucks, and you go get another. No biggie.
It's sturdy. The company could have economized. Made it out of plastic, like everything else. The Zippo is over-engineered. There's no need for this case that would stop a bullet and has. But then they might have to rethink their lifetime warranty, expressed in seven words: "It works or we'll fix it free." You could probably break a Zippo, but you'd need a hammer.
I think that's the heart of why I love my Zippo. The company didn't cheap out, didn't compromise. You can look at so many products just ruined by economizing—Cracker Jack comes to mind. Once upon a time, they gave you a real Toy Surprise Inside. Now it's some worthless paper crap, a sticker, nothing. Worried about choking death liability, no doubt. Even a 7-year-old feels cheated.
Not with Zippo, probably because it's still family owned -- by Blaisedell's grandson, in fact. They sell about 18 million lighters a year, half a billion so far.
It's hard to imagine who, with the option of a Zippo, would use a disposible butane lighter instead. Drug addicts I suppose. Teenagers who don't know any better. People to whom aesthetics mean nothing. The same people who prefer fast food to real food.
With a Zippo, you're ready for anything. I wouldn't hike without one—if I get lost, and have to spend a cold night in a national park, my campfire is going to be lit by a Zippo. It'll never happen, but having the Zippo gives me confidence, security, reassurance. A Zippo is practically a piece of military equipment. Soldiers love them. "The most coveted thing in the Army," Ernie Pyle wrote during World War II. In Vietnam, troops would engrave and decorate their Zippos as expressions of their inner selves.
Nor is the Zippo good just for lighting things. The lighter fluid inside is very much like dry cleaning liquid, and I've opened it up and used the cotton inside to remove spots from clothes, in a pinch. I've used the little bit of extra space in the top to store tiny items. With a Zippo, you're always ready to tuck a loose diamond in your pocket and not worry about losing it.
As much as I've used its flame, I've used my Zippo to burn off nervous energy -- snap the top open, clunk the top closed, snap open, clunk closed. Repeat that a few times, and suddenly the fugitive thought you are seeking arrives.
Finally—and this is least important, but still real—Zippos are the most cool you can buy for 12 bucks. You pull out a Zippo, people ooo and ahh. They want to see it, hold it, touch it. And who can blame them?