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.
A 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.
The 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.
Though 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.
Though 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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