First invented in 1823 and improved in the 1880s, pocket cigarette lighters were as common as keys or wallets by the early 20th century. The basic types of vintage lighters are manual (a spark from a flint striking a wheel ignites a wick or creates a flame above a gas valve), semi-automatic (the wheel also opens the fuel-source cover), and automatic (push-button).

The first manual lighters were called strike lighters and worked like matches. Users would scratch a flint using a wand with a hard metal tip and an attached wick; the flint would create sparks to ignite the wick, which was soaked with flammable fluid. By the 1920s, lighters had become functional as well as artistic with the advent of the semiautomatic lighter, in which the user flips open the lid and a flint wheel simultaneously spins and ignites the wick.

The automatic lighter was created by Louis Aronson, the founder of Ronson lighters, in 1926. It requires only the push of a button to create the flame, which stays lit as long as the button is held down. Early electric lighters were equally simple to use, and worked like the lighters in classic cars: The lighter was tipped with a metal coil and plugged into a larger housing element, which would heat the bottom enough to ignite a cigarette.

Through World War II, most lighters ran on Naptha, a petroleum mixture—after the war, Naptha was replaced by compressed butane. To attract female customers in the 1930s, some companies created lighters that combined various accessories, such as cigarette cases and compacts, and added rhinestones or decorative enameled designs. In the '30s, '40s, and '50s, Ronson produced the Ronson Master Pack, combining a lighter, cigarette case, and watch.

Vintage lighters vary from expensive, elegant objects made from precious metals to cheap novelty items, such as lighters that look like lipstick cases or little TV sets. Some lighters incorporated materials from notable manufacturers, such as Lalique glass or Lenox porcelain. Other key lighter manufacturers include Zippo, Dunhill, Penguin, Colibri, S.T. Dupont, Scripto, and Evans. Some of these companies also made table lighters.


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