Collecting Vintage Cigarette Lighters

June 30th, 2008

In this article, Eric Beeson talks about collecting vintage cigarette lighters, including brands such as Zippo, Ronson, and Dunhill.

Cigarette lighter collecting is a hobby that never gets boring. Just by browsing eBay auctions for ten minutes, for example, I recently found a lighter shaped like a lion’s head, one made of jade and gold, and an electric lighter in the shape of a woman’s face that hangs on the wall.

cigarette lighter with flameA flame we can carry in our pockets is something that we take for granted, but it was much harder to make fire in earlier times. The match wasn’t invented until about 1805, and early matches were expensive and dangerous. The lighter wasn’t invented until 1823 by a German chemist named Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner. He created the precursor to the lighter, which he called the Feuerzeug (often referred to as ‘Döbereiner’s Lamp’). The device created hydrogen gas in a tube from a reaction of sulfuric acid and zinc together, which would ignite after passing through a platinum sponge. The Feuerzeug was a huge success, with an estimated 20,000 in use by 1828.

But the Feuerzeug, in all its effectiveness, was not very safe, and would probably be illegal today. Various other types of lighters appeared throughout the late 1800’s, most of them making use of a wheel striking a ferrocerium flint, or a similar flint-like substance. Lighter development advanced greatly during World War I, as soldiers found them much more useful than matches, which caused a large spark when lit, easily giving away the positions of soldiers in the dark.

The basic shape of the modern cigarette lighter can be traced back to its ancestor, the match holder. In the 1800’s, safety matches had not yet been invented, so match users were victims of accidental ignitions far too often. By keeping them inside metal cases, they stopped the danger of pocket fires. This shape, roughly rectangular with rounded edges, became the prototype for almost all cigarette lighters. In fact, some crude lighters have been housed in match cases.

Lighters of the early 1900’s are hard to find, as many have fallen into disrepair, or rusted due to poor construction. By the 1920’s, lighters had become functional as well as artistic. The shapes and designs reflected the modern aesthetic, such as the early Art Deco patterns and styles.

At that point, there were three basic types of lighters. The manual striking type, the semiautomatic type, and the fully automatic type. The manual striking type, such as a Zippo, has the user physically make the spark come in contact with the wick by means of turning a flint wheel or striking the flint themselves. Another type of manual lighter, commonly known as a permanent match, contains a well of lighter fuel in which a metal-enclosed wick sits in. This metal matchstick is then struck to a flint, igniting the fuel-soaked wick inside the tube. Various companies have made these over the years, in portable and table lighter forms.

group of cigarette lightersThe semiautomatic lighter first appeared about 1922, and is still standard for many reusable lighters. The user will flip open the lid or push a button that opens the cover, which will simultaneously spin a flint wheel and ignite the wick. This is a common design for table lighters.

Ultimately, the automatic lighter was created by Louis Aronson, founder of Ronson lighters, in 1926. Nicknamed the “Banjo” for its distinctive shape, the design became immensely popular. Aronson was telling the truth when he released it with the ad slogan “Push, it’s lit; Release, it’s out.” The automatic lighter requires only one motion – the push of a button – to create the flame, and as long as it’s held down, the flame stays lit.

All the aforementioned lighters ran on naptha, a petroleum mixture that would be poured into a well filled with cotton, where the wick could absorb it. In the late 1940’s, new technology arrived on the scene, and soon many people favored the new butane lighters. The compressed butane, as opposed to naptha, allowed the user to control the flame intensity, and eliminated the need for a wick. Others claim that butane became popular because it had a less pervasive odor than naptha – though most people I know who use lighters or who grew up around smokers are nostalgic for the smell of a naptha lighter. Butane lighters are the most common type today, as butane is the fuel of choice for disposable lighters, such as Bic, that you’d buy in a grocery store.

Lesser known than their flint-based counterparts, Piezoelectric lighters were first marketed in the late 1950’s. Piezoelectrcity was discovered in the early 1800’s, but wasn’t used for lighters until Ronson started making them. Piezoelectricity works by creating compressed pressure between quartz crystals, creating an electric spark.

cigarette lighter gridThough lighters have changed drastically over the years in terms of design and technology, one brand remains nearly unchanged since it was founded over 75 years ago. The Zippo Manufacturing Company was founded by George Blaisdell in Bradford, PA, in 1932. Presumably Blaisdell liked the sound of the word ‘zipper,’ and thought ‘Zippo’ sounded modern and hi-tech. Inspired by an Austrian lighter which claimed to be windproof, Blaisdell improved on the design, creating a product almost identical to the Zippo we know today.

Zippos became immensely popular over the next few years, and their sturdy, windproof construction made them ideal for soldiers. They were standard issue during WWII, and when supplies ran short, miniature lighters were made out of two top halves, saving metal. This vintage of Zippos is hard to find, as many were left behind or lost, and those that survive are extremely valuable. Many of the lighters made for soldiers were covered in a ‘black crackle’ finish that soldiers could carve names and drawings into with knives or pins. ‘Trench art,’ as it has become known, increases the value of a Zippo lighter significantly.

Zippo became an aesthetic icon, as well as one of functionality and quality. By the 1950’s Zippo was making custom-decorated lighters for different companies, clubs, and teams to be used as advertising or gifts. It wasn’t uncommon for businesses to give monogrammed lighters to their employees for celebrations of service or retirements. Introduced in 1956, the Zippo Slim was another development, adding a thinner, sleeker lighter to the company’s lineup.

Today, Zippos can be found with any number of designs, ranging from sports teams’ logos to tattoo-style art. What makes Zippo unique is its design that has remained nearly unchanged for over 75 years, plus its lifetime guarantees. If a Zippo breaks, it can be sent to the factory for free repair. As a collector myself, I enjoy being able to have all my pieces working, to say the least. Zippos are also popular among collectors because each lighter since 1955 has been stamped with a date code, and for pre ’55 lighters, the year can be identified by a number of features of the stamping. This information is readily available on the internet, making it easy for a collector to get started.

close up of zippo cigarette lighterThough Zippo is considered its own genre within the lighter-collecting world, non-Zippo collectors have just as much to work with. Dunhill lighters, for example, were introduced in Britain in 1923 to immediate success. Ever since, Dunhills have been regarded as the cream of the lighter crop, with new models selling for as much as a thousand dollars. Older models are even more valuable, starting with the single-wheel flint and naptha styles dating from the 20’s, and the single and double-wheel butane lighters from the 1930’s. Though WWII slowed down business greatly, Dunhill made a comeback in the 1950’s with their thumbroller-ignition lighters, a design which is virtually unchanged today.

On the less-pricey side of the spectrum, Ronson has been making reliable lighters for almost 100 years. Known for inventing the fully automatic lighter in 1926, Ronson’s designs have been copied continuously since then. And the automatic lighter isn’t Ronson’s only claim to fame. The company also made the first refillable gas lighter, the first adjustable-flame gas lighter, the first plastic lighter, and the first electronic-spark system. Their most famous models, the Varaflame and the Comet, are highly sought by collectors worldwide.

I’ve only mentioned three famous brands, but as I said before, the potential for lighter collecting is endless. Just to name a few other brands, Penguin, Colibri, ST Dupont, Scripto, and Evans have all enjoyed rich histories as well.

With the drop in popularity of smoking, reusable lighters have become rarer, but companies such as Zippo are still going strong, and there appears to be a renewed interest in them. There are hundreds of lighter collecting clubs around the world, and more are founded every year, so collecting is now a popular hobby for all ages.

Good luck, and happy hunting!

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136 comments so far

  1. Andy Says:

    @ Danny Mac & Garry Maguire

    I also have an elfa tank and know nothing about its origins. Mine is just as you describe except in stainless steel not brass. It has “original elfa tank” embossed on the front but nothing on the back.

    Why doesn’t anyone know anything about this brand?

  2. Bruce Says:

    A few people were asking about the clear plastic fluid lighters with the fishing fly, dice, golfer, etc inside. These lighters were made by a few different companies. The most common and popular is the Scripto Vu. I have been collecting lighters for about 25yrs and have acquired quite a few of these lighters. They are one of my favorites because i remember my dad using them. They tend to get quite scratched up and cloudy-mainly bacause they were used and would rub on everything in your pocket all day long. If you put a bit of fluid in them and swish it around, the plastic will get quite clear and you can tell what is inside. I have about four of these that are still in the original boxes with the papers. Iam not 100% sure but i believe the fisrt Scripto’s were made in approx 1955-57. very common in the 60’s and early 70’s.
    you can pay varying amounts for them.
    Good luck
    Bruce

  3. Isaac Says:

    I have a few Penguin lighters (not your high end expensive ones) because I love the fact that almost everybody had one in the 50’s 60’s which makes them a common people lighter and the more interesting for me. The thing is that I barely can find any information about them online besides the Ebay sellers usual talk. I recently got one that is different than the wick models (which does not have). And even more surprising is that does not have the P nor the Penguin logo on the metal top. Just says PENGUIN japan on the bottom. no patent no model no nothing.
    Were there fakes going on at the time?
    Or did Penguin changed to something different in time?
    It looks like the normal no. 18250 but smaller and all the parts are exactly like it.

    Hope you guys don’t mind answering that for me but I’m not here to try to make a profit or anything like that. I just love those cheap lighters no matter what.
    Isaac

  4. claire corn Says:

    i found a lighter today at my churchs’ yard sale. it is in the shape of a pistol,it has sides of some sort of shell. it says contintental,new york on the bottom and made in occupied japan. would appreciate any info.

  5. jimmy Says:

    I have an old handpainted Marlboro red butane lighter that has the wheel on the side that strikes the flint and a flap on top that releases the gas as soon as u open it and another side flint lighter that’s old as dirt too and I just wanna kno about them to see how old they are and wat the story is behind them

  6. Devin D. Says:

    I recently came upon a Lord brand automatic lighter which has a depiction of Iceland with its the countries flag in the center that is fully functional and also says on the reverse side “Armed Forces Open Mess Hall” but cant find any info on its history so any help would be greatly appreciated

  7. J.E. Vizzusi Says:

    “I think its important to note and deserves a Article as well is that the Company “Kreisler” which dates back to the 1920’s became rich and famous for their Watch Bands and Watch Bracelets and well Watch Fobs before that. They were a standard brand of Bulova and many other notable Watch Companies of the day. Then disaster hit when cheap automatic and manual watches hit the market in the late 1950’s and most of great American Watchmakers of the day were quickly gone. Companies such as Kreisler had to resort to making Lighters and boosted the Finest Butane Lighter in the World. Their off-shoot in West Germany no longer able to handle the watch band business designed the Colibri which is also excellent and fairly cheap to collect. The Crocodile covered Colibri Butane with Matching Case from West Germany is a favorite of mine. Lest to say, many watch companies, another is Elgin, ILL. had to resort to other products for a fast buck to bail them out of the dying high end watch market of the day. Elgin cigarrette cases are nice but not half as nice as any watch they ever made… Sad but True!
    JV -Time & Again- Appraisels and Restorations

  8. Ina Says:

    I’m looking for replacement of round lighters that fit into the top of table lighters. Anyone know where I can obtain these?

  9. paul duffield Says:

    i,ve recently came into possesion of a marusho lighter its shaped like a formula 1 racing car its excellent condition boxed what value does it have as i cant find anything about these on the web ,thank you

  10. Randy Fisk Says:

    I have an unusual type of lighter. it is a cigar lighter. The only information that i was able to find is the patent on this. I have searched the web to find one like it with out any luck. the best way for me to describe this item to you is for you to look at the patent. this is the patent info,,,, Patented May 5 1931 1,803,361… application filed August 31 1927 serial No. 216,763. The inventor is Jason C Stearns of Worcester Massachusetts. I hope you can help me with this matter of the questions of how many were made and what it may be worth. thank you for your time, i hope to hear back from you. R Fisk

  11. Jim Stein Says:

    I recently received a Win International lighter, still in the original case and never used. Original battery, no corrosion, with the instructions. My question is what do I really have here. Instructions were dated 1979, and the case is molded plastic with “Made in Japan” and “No 16” on the back. I am just beginning to appreciate the nature of collecting lighters and I would welcome any advice.

  12. Terry VanArman Says:

    I have a red Parker lighter, dated Apr. 2, 1912, Austria, and what looks like the initials MFB inside a diamond shape. Came across it in my Grandfather’s things, and just wonder about it’s origin, etc..

  13. christopher john Says:

    Hi,I have what must be a modern copy of a ww1 petroleum brass trench lighter,somebody is clearly still making them.My question is ” where can I get a new wick from,the Zippo one’s are much to thick.Any help would be welcome.Thank you.cj.

  14. dike Says:

    i have a lighter that was made in japan it is called a aria when you light it it plays a tune does anyone know anything about them i neverv seena nother

  15. don Says:

    i just found a zippo lighter and it has and ingraved oval shape on the front and it says phillies then some kink of ingraved mark on the other side there is nothing on the bottom of lighter but there is on the inside of it and it says pat.2517191 ive looked every where and cant seem to find the one i have. so is it fake or a rare zippo don

  16. Deborah Gallatin Says:

    I’m currently in the process of making a trade for a WW2 pinup girl Zippo style metal lighter. On the flip top lid are the words “Swing Through Summer”. On the base is a picture of a pinup girl on the right side, with wording on the left that reads” So magnificent we had to give it a special designation”. Below this is a signature that looks like it reads Bell Kause. Both the signature and the words on the lid are in red, the rest are in black, including the picture of the pinup. Can anyone help me identify who made this lighter, and whether it’s worth my time making a trade. Thank u so much.

  17. Martin Angus Says:

    Hi
    I have the same as Demos It is a ronson banjo re issue with the same thing on the front it is in mint condition it has never seen fuel the finish is a brushed silver effect.
    I do not want to fuel it as it may devalue it does anyone know what it is worth, Not that i want to sell it, it is my prized ronson amongst all the others.
    Thanks
    Martin

  18. Martin Angus Says:

    Hi Re info on black swan records and your ronson
    Just follow this link
    Regards all who are interested in history
    Martin
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Swan_Records

  19. walter Says:

    I have a penguin lighter 18250 with rogers a man,s shop on the front,and the three store location on the back, can’t find information on line about the store that was open during the 1950-1960 the store was located in the bay area (n.calif).Iwould be grateful if anyone has any information about the store and the value of the lighter.

  20. Mic Says:

    I came across a small red snd black lighter today in a cylinder shape. Maybe and 1″ 1/2 in height. It says frech line transatlantique on the bottom and top. Trying to find out as much as i can about it. The only thing missingis the wick.

  21. Lynda Says:

    I have a Hadson gold gas lighter that is in its box and engraved on the side says Kennedy House. It was my dads and he passed away. He was always involved in politics. I know it is old, but in excellent condition. Can you tell me if you know anything about it?

  22. Gaige Says:

    I have a winston lighter that I found when I was looking through some old junk, well old treasure I guess and I don’t know what I should do with it

  23. Adam parkinson Says:

    Hello fellow lighter buffs.I’ve recently bought aa antique brass lighter of a friend who bought it 38 years ago from an antique shop in England.he was told its pre WW1 and im pretty sure he’s right.its brass with the letters J.A engraved in the middle.the only markings are.patent pending and foreign made on the screw lid for the fuel.it has a snuff arm that lifts up and down to extinguish the flame.i can’t work out how to post a photo here but id love to hear from anyone that can help me identify and value it

  24. steve Says:

    Hello all, I recently found a gold golfball lighter in the box. This lighter is a golfball with a wood driver standing next to it. amazing it still works! i can’t seem to find any info about it anywhere. Can anyone help?

  25. Hannah Says:

    Hi, I was wondering if anyone could help me with some info on a lighter that my father gave to me. It reads ‘Ronson BANJO, This period was the Jazz Age’ and below there is an engraving of a record labelled Black Swan and ‘Oh Daddy’ below it. The cap over the flame reads ‘Ronson Lighter US Patent Dec 31 1918.’ I’ve been searching for anything about this lighter and i have found nothing. So if anyone knows anything i’d be really grateful.

  26. Vicky Tracy Says:

    I was just wondering if anyone knew anything about a butane lighter that is of a naked little boy that the flame comes out of his penis. He stands on a dark green box and he is a brushed bronze color and the ignitor button is located on top of the box behind him and it is square in shape and also a brushed bronze color and on side of box it has a oblong plaque like message on the side that reads BIG BOY. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Pretty sure it was made in Japan PATENT NO. ( 98324407.3)

  27. Barry K. Hastings Says:

    I have checked over five thousand lighters and have never found the one I have. It is a lighter weighted at the bottom and can not tip over.

  28. stephanie a Says:

    Does anyone know anything about hadson lighters I found a few very unique with pin up girls not sure about the age but for sure vintage

  29. DONNA MOXLEY Says:

    I have a small Brother Lite with two snaps on the back guessing for a belt ,that military would have used back in 40s / 50s. Made in Japan . Can you tell me anything about it & worth.? It works, but needs cleaning . Should I clean It?

  30. Jack Says:

    @Vicky Track: My grandfather had a lighter just like the one you describe, except the box is brown, not green, and on the front it says BABY in bronze on a plaque, not BIG BOY. Has the patent number on the bottom side (98324407.3) (also how I found your comment online). I’ve been trying to get it to work for a while. How can I be sure it takes butane?

  31. Carole Lang Says:

    I have a very old plastic lighter that is stamped on the bottom Miller, pat. pend.
    It is from Big Chief Drilling Co Oklahoma City.
    Any ideas about the Miller brand lighter?
    Thank you, Carole

  32. Bobby Says:

    I got a lighter from my grandfather I’m not sure we’re he got it its gotwriting on the bot that says Colibri patented made in West Germany it’s silver and has weird design and then a plane silver square in the corner of the the design

  33. Al Says:

    I recently was given my Father in laws WIN 1000 Butane lighter. It uses flints for the spark and looks like a Dunhill with the roller on the side. But I know nothing about it. I’d really like to know how to fill it? It seems to have a fill port in the bottom but looks like it requires a needle of some sort. Any info is appreciated.

  34. David Says:

    I have a lighter. Stamped on the bottom is Mastercraft Japan. It has an insignia for the 8th Airforce on it; which may have been added to the lighter, after the manufacture. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  35. Lynn Biasillo Says:

    I have a Lightson lighter that sits in a metal “wooden shoe”. The shoe has a windmill on the top and tulips and figures of a man and woman on each side. It has the letters in a circle on the bottom.

  36. Nancy Says:

    Hi, I have two eastern maintenance co contractors, pittsburgh, penna lighters. The shape is similar to the one you have at the top of your page, but is missing the fling roller. Do you know if these are worth anything?

    Thanks,
    Nancy


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