The History of Zippers: Talon, Universal, and Gideon Sundback
These days, zippers are so commonplace on clothing that they largely go unnoticed–until they stop working that is. Few realize how much of a breakthrough they were roughly a century ago, and how they changed the construction of not only clothing, but also luggage, camping gear, and sporting goods in general. The company that eventually came to be known as Talon dominated the zipper market for much of the 20th century, and had a huge role in marketing and popularizing the “clasp locker.”
Now popular in repro garments, Talon zippers originally started under a different name entirely. Whitcomb Judson, often credited as the true inventor of what came to be known as the zipper, originally presented the grand idea at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair under the Universal Fastener Company. Unfortunately for him and unknowing consumers, it was a bit of a dud. While the idea was there, the marketing and practicality was not, and the zipper failed to catch on.
Not ones to accept defeat, the zipper men moved to Hoboken, New Jersey and brought on Gideon Sundback, the man who would come to define the modern zipper in 1906. Sundback was a Swedish-American electrical engineer and essentially the father of the zipper we see today. After ingratiating himself with the company through his good skills (and by marrying the plant manager’s daughter), Sundback devoted himself to improving the fastener.
By December 1913, Sundback not only perfected the zipper but also the machine that built them–now the “clasp locker” was ready for primetime. Sundback and FM&M didn’t actually coin the term “zipper”–that honor goes to one of their first clients, the B. F. Goodrich Company, who invented the term to advertise its use on their rubber boots. The names quickly became synonymous, and it began to appear on tobacco pouches and boots across the country, but it took another 20 years for the garment industry to adapt the zipper for use on jeans, jackets, and trousers.
Talon dominated the zipper market up until the 1980’s, when Japanese manufacturer YKK seized the zipper throne and has held it since. Talon is still rightly celebrated by nostalgists and historical purists, as it’s a window to America’s manufacturing past. While vintage shopping, it wouldn’t be shocking to find a classic Talon zipper on a perfectly-aged Schott NYC leather jacket and you can still see them today on repro jeans from Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Lee 101, and Sugar Cane.
So next time you look to examine your zipper, give thanks to Gideon Sundback that we can all close our clothes a little bit easier.