Vintage Ronson Varaframe lighter from 1957.

Ronson Varaframe lighter, 1957.

Man’s fire, the gods’ greatest gift. Forgive the overused metaphor, but I was as inspired as young Prometheus when I held hot fire in my hands, produced by my very own steel pocket lighter. A skinny eighteen-year-old takes on a serious swagger when he smokes a cigarette, and half of it happens right when he lights up.

In some long-gone circles, the measure of a man’s worth was his pocket lighter.  (The old films told us as much — just watch the shadowy faces of the great male film icons bathed in the flickering light). The cigarette lighter was a satisfying and necessary investment in the small cache of a man’s personal belongings, like his good leather wallet, a pair of jeans, or favorite hat. There was the timeless chivalry of lighting a woman’s cigarette with a bit of steel that lent a young gent a gleam of class, showing that he had more sense than his modern counterpart, the man who carries around a plastic Bic disposable (and pops off beer caps for his buddies.) The era when men wore hats on a regular basis may have come and gone (and come again) but the ghost of the lighter has maintained a home in his right hip pocket, as seen in every pair of Levis, the epitome of American ruggedness.

Advertising for Zippo lighter, 1959.

Zippo ad from 1959.

I’m the last person to romanticize smoking at any age these days, but I still appreciate the craftsmanship and simple mechanics of the classic pocket lighter. The rounded corners and heft as it sits in the palm of your hand are things of beauty, and the metallic ping! when you flip the lid with your thumb and tsssk! as flint strikes steel, followed by the slow rolling flame. There’s a kind of elemental masculinity to it that men of all eras can connect with.

In the 16th century the first lighters began to take shape as flintlock pistols were converted for use. In 1823, a German Chemist named Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner created a device that utilized the heat produced by the reaction of hydrogen to a platinum sponge. The bulky and highly dangerous invention, popularly referred to as “Döbereiner’s Lamp,” fell out of production by the end of the 19th century.

 

Vintage lighter made with brass.

Vintage brass lighter.

As demand for cigarettes became widespread in the 20th century, the lighter saw significant advances. In 1903, Carl Auer von Welsbach invented The Flint, which, when scratched, would produce a large amount of spark that would light the fuel. These first lighters included both pocket and table versions, and were called “striker lighters.” When a steel bar made contact with a small piece of flint, the resulting spark would ignite a piece of asbestos soaked in naphtha and create a flame. (Naphtha was later replaced by butane as the fuel of choice, having less odor.) Seven years later, New York craftsman named Louis Aronson applied for a patent for the Pisto-O-Liter, and in 1913 developed The Wonderlite, a permanent match-style version. The Ronson Art Metal Works would soon shift its focus from ornamental lamps, bookends and statues to full-time lighter manufacturing, renaming itself the Ronson Lighter Company.

Patent for Ronson banjo, 1933.

Ronson banjo patent, 1933.

The Great War began that same year, and with it came design changes. When soldiers realized that a sudden spark from a lit match could alert sharp shooters to their position, they began using wasted cartridges and glowing wooden blocks to start their cigarettes. Tinder wick lighters (in which a spark ignites the wick, allowing it to smolder rather than produce a flame) were made by a variety of companies to combat such dangers.

It wasn’t until 1926, however, that what we know as the first automatic flame pocket lighter was born. That year, Aronson’s “one finger-one motion” mechanism premiered as a feature of The Banjo, a lighter that was able to ignite and create a flame in one fluid movement. Known (cumbersomely) as the “Press, It Lights…Release, Its Out” system, the new innovation quickly became a staple in the industry.

Patent for Ronson pocket lighter, 1932.

Ronson pocket lighter patent, 1932.

 

Patent for Ronson Pocket Lighter

The Banjo’s overwhelming success and the growing popularity of cigarette smoking urged other companies to develop their own lighters. Companies like Colibri, Dunhill, Evans, Dupont, and Scripto started manufacturing their own versions.

One of the most successful companies to challenge Ronson was Zippo, headed by George Blaisdell. Introduced in 1932, his windproof lighter became fierce competition for the attention of a new generation of smokers. “It works or we fix it free,”,Zippo promised its customers. This guarantee quickly gained the company recognition, making it one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lighters.

With precision metalwork in high demand during World War II, the U.S. military employed Ronson plants to produce ammunition 24 hours a day. Not to be outdone, Zippo won a valuable military contract and was commissioned to provide lighters to American servicemen. Ironically, even though U.S. soldiers were issued the Zippo lighters, American-made Sherman tanks were nicknamed “Ronsons” by German tank crews for their propensity to catch fire when hit by tank shells.

Vintage Zippo ad, 1969.

Zippo advertising from 1969.

For several years both Zippo and Ronson continued to hold true to their designs, occasionally introducing table and novelty gift lighters, but it was the classic design of their pocket lighters that continued to sell to a loyal consumer base. Both had a simple yet effective cam system and a tube next to the flint screw to hold spare flints, a design that still works incredibly well. In the early 1980s, however, high costs and the advent of cheap disposable lighters forced closure of Ronson’s production facility in England. For a time, a branch in Long Buckby (UK) sold a range of stylish and expensive butane lighters consistent with the firm’s great legacy, before being shuttered. Unfortunately, only the American arm of Ronson remains, selling mostly fluid and flints, a few inexpensive refillables, a naphtha-based Zippo clone, and a few butane lighters. In recent months, however, Zippo announced plans to purchase Ronson to expand their product line. Now, with a firm grip on the pocket lighter industry, can Zippo continue to hold the torch high?

9 Comments

  1. William
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 11:26 AM | Permalink

    Great article! And pretty thorough research.
    I still have my grandfather's old Zippo…and have never once bought a plastic lighter since. They're built like small tanks.

  2. satbhajan
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 4:37 PM | Permalink

    Never thought I would get swept up in an article about lighters, good work!

  3. elvira
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 1:12 PM | Permalink

    Very interesting article. I am very impressed with all the research.

  4. Ashley Wyatt
    Posted May 14, 2010 at 6:01 AM | Permalink

    I have came across a very old table lighter and was wondering if you could tell me how much it would be worth? It has a stricker like the 2nd photo from the top but it is in an old stand that I think is made out of iron. It also has 599 ingraved on the bottom of the stand. Any information you might have on this would be greatly appreciated. I am very curious thank you!

  5. Posted May 14, 2010 at 1:04 PM | Permalink

    Ashley – Sorry, we don't do estimates on lighters. But I'd love to see a picture of it. Please send it to Sebastian (at) Kaufmann-mercantile (dot) com.

    Thanks.

  6. Rafael Calvete
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 2:48 AM | Permalink

    Is fantastic the information about the history of the ligthters. I have a small collection of classic ligthters and all information about this small machiness are very well received. Thank very much Rafael

  7. Posted March 10, 2012 at 7:02 AM | Permalink

    Know what. I have a Pearl lighter just like the one shown above (the brass one) Just the same one. And it works. Every strike it works. I put in some zippo fuel and there it went. Mine has lost its casing though. Its without the outer part which is engraved. But everything else works. Its got pearl embossed on three places. One where the screw for the wheel is. One where we push the thumb down. and one at the bottom. Bottom one is the logo. Then is says "special" automatic lighter number 11219. Any idea what this one is? No pic on google with the number. Closest I got was this picture above. All I know is its at least British India because my grandad got it as a gift from a British Officer here in India. And it was of value to the officer. Email me on afzalykhan@yahoo.com

  8. zach
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:14 AM | Permalink

    where can i get a custom made ronson lighters . or if not custom made at least ronson lightrs cause i think they come with more assorted designs then the ones you get in zippo though they luk clasic

  9. Posted January 10, 2015 at 3:33 AM | Permalink

    Very detail research on Zippo lighters Zippo lighter fluid

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