Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bradford, McKean County
A native of Bradford, George Blaisdell invented the Zippo lighter.
George Blaisdell was born on June 5, 1895. He attended formal schooling until the eighth grade. In 1933, he sold his first Zippo lighter. By the 1940s, his company became extremely popular and began to expand. He supported the troops of WWII immensely and provided them with great lighters that always worked. He was respected in his community and the surrounding area. Blaisdell was also respected by his employees and put the company before his own personal interests. He passed away on October 3, 1978.
George Grant Blaisdell was born on June 5, 1895, in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Philo and Sara Blaisdell. He lived on the corner of what is now Congress Street and Blaisdell Avenue in Bradford. Blaisdell attended school until he walked out in the fifth grade. He hated school and told his family he was not going back. His father sent him to a military academy, but after two years he was suddenly dismissed. No one knows for sure why he was dismissed, but his hatred of formal schooling may be a good explanation. After returning home, he was put to work in the family business, Blaisdell Machinery Company. This is where Blaisdell learned the skills that would eventually help him develop the first Zippo lighter. Blaisdell had two daughters, Sarah Blaisdell Dorn and Harriet Blaisdell Wick.
While smoking on the porch of the Bradford Country Club in 1932, Blaisdell asked local businessman Dick Dresser why he was using a strange looking lighter. Dresser responded, "Well, it works." The lighter was produced in Austria and was windproof. This lighter would inspire him to invent the Zippo. Blaisdell like the sound of the word "zipper" and used it to create the name Zippo, which he felt had a modern sound. Blaisdell was determined to create an affordable lighter that was windproof and always guaranteed to work. That was exactly what he did. One year later, in 1933, the first Zippo lighter hit the market. It sold for $1.95. To this day, every Zippo lighter is guaranteed for life. As Blaisdell said, "It works or we fix it for free." The first Zippo factory employed three people, including Blaisdell, who also managed sales. The factory was located in the upstairs of the Rickerson and Pryde Building in Bradford. He obtained his first patent for the lighter on March 3, 1936.
By the 1940s, the Zippo lighter had become very popular. Sometime in the early 1940s, Blaisdell bought a building at 36 Barbour Street. The Zippo factory was in the back of the building and the office was in the front. Throughout the 1940s, the company acquired several buildings on Barbour Street and was able to build the factory across the street and make the original building just offices.
Each year, Blaisdell reserved a large number of seats on a train and took his employees to the Ice Follies in Buffalo, New York. He often said "If it weren't for the people of Bradford, there would be no Zippo; Zippo will always support Bradford and the surrounding area residents." He also maintained the ski slope, which was located in Callahan Park, so that all residents of Bradford could enjoy it.
During WWII, Blaisdell kept in contact with war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pyle wrote feature columns during WWII for Scripps-Howard Newspapers. He sent Pyle 50 to 100 lighters each month to distribute among the GIs. These lighters had a durable black crackle outer coating to ensure durability. Blaisdell and Pyle kept in contact until Pyle was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner in 1945. Blaisdell was very upset when he heard of Pyle's death.
In 1946, a problem was discovered with the flint used to light the lighter. Blaisdell stopped all shipping of lighters and spent around $300,000 to have the problem fixed promptly. Amazingly, every Zippo employee was kept on the payroll until the problem was fixed and lighter production was resumed.
One of his most popular advertising creations was the Zippo car. In 1947, Blaisdell bought a Chrysler Saratoga for $2,048 and had it customized. The car had giant lighter doors with lids that opened and closed. There was even a neon flame when the top was opened. The Zippo car led many parades in all 48 states and was driven by local salesman Dick O'Day. Blaisdell even sponsored a motorcycle club, for when it came to his attention that the local motorcycle club needed sponsorship, he helped immediately. He purchased the club special T-shirts and was made an honorary member.
Whether it was a club or a public service, Blaisdell was very supportive of anything local. In 1952, he bought local emergency services two bloodhounds, which were named Zippo and Zipette. He appeared in Life magazine in 1952. He was pictured in an advertisement for Lord Calvert Whiskey as part of an advertisement series called "For Men of Distinction. In 1953, Zippo opened its first complete factory on Congress Street in Bradford; this factory enabled them to fabricate the lighter cases as well as do their own chrome plating. Prior to this, they had been subcontracted to the Bush Brothers of Olean, New York, and Backus Novelty Company of Smethport, Pennsylvania. Also in 1953, Blaisdell lost his wife, Miriam Barcroft Blaisdell. Several years later, scholarships at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford were created in her memory by the Blaisdell family.
In 1949, Zippo purchased and opened a second factory in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. It was built to improve distribution outside the United States. However, it had to close its doors on July 31, 2002. The current offices, located at 33 Barbour Street, were constructed in 1954 and 1955. Blaisdell himself designed the lobby of this building. Underneath the staircase, his handprints, along with his family's, are displayed to be seen by all. When the lobby was carpeted in 1973, the handprints were the only part that did not get covered. During the '50s, one of Blaisdell's favorite pastimes was walking along Main Street in Bradford and chatting with local residents. He also enjoyed driving his sports cars through the hills and curves of the Allegheny Mountains which surround Bradford.
In 1963, Blaisdell accomplished another one of his dreams when he hosted the first Zippo Open golf tournament at the Pennhills Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Professional and Amateur golfers from around the U.S. competed in the tournament.
During a vacation at his house in Miami Beach, Florida, George Grant Blaisdell passed away on October 3, 1978. He was 83 years old. The entire company was saddened by his death. Blaisdell was chairman of the company until his death. A bronze bust plaque in honor of Blaisdell was given to his family by Zippo district managers and employees to show their appreciation for him. Zippo is currently run by Blaisdell's grandson, George B. Duke.