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Zippo Lighters Under Fire?

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I’m generally not one to place much stock in conspiracy theories, but when an American institution comes under senseless attack from within, it gives me pause to reconsider my cherished beliefs. Events I’ve encountered over the past several weeks have left me no choice but to conclude there’s a conspiracy of hydra-like proportions slithering unnoticed through our country. It’s so far-reaching, it’s almost impossible to unearth its roots. And so insidious, it goes largely unnoticed.

One of the last testaments to American ingenuity, the venerable Zippo lighter, is systematically being dismantled by agents working under the auspices of homogenization. The network is vast, and so sublime that even its agents are unaware of its power. The average Joe — citizens like you and me — never sees the effects of homogenization — until it strikes us on an immediate level.

At first, I had no reason to suspect there were forces working in concert to undermine the proud tradition of the Zippo lighter. Thinking that the corner convenience store might stock flints or lighter fluid was a shot in the dark at best, even though this particular location carried every brand of cigarette known to man. Not surprisingly, I fared no better at the liquor store across the street. But I couldn’t help but note both locations offered a variety of refillable butane lighters alongside the obligatory disposable Bics and Scriptos. Undaunted, I went to a nearby drug store where I had purchased flints before, only to be met with a vacant stare from the post-pubescent clerk. Finally, I visited the tobacco bar at my newly remodeled neighborhood grocery store. In the course of the store’s makeover, photo processing and DVD rentals had been eliminated, but the floral section had been expanded as a freestanding kiosk within the store. The tobacco bar had been redone, too. Flints and lighter fluid had fallen victim to the consolidation process, but the selection of butane lighters and disposable lighters had been expanded.

Clearly, this was no mere coincidence. Only weeks before, I was able to purchase Zippo flints and lighter fluid with ease. Now, wherever I went, clerks extolled the virtues of disposables and butane. As tempting as it was to surrender to the inevitable, something I couldn’t explain — something innate, something American — spurred me to not forsake the Zippo. Bic lighters, and their imitators, lure unsuspecting consumers with promises of convenience. They neglect to mention how they’re actually little explosive devices. Only a few days ago here in Dallas, a disposable lighter was responsible for the decimation of an SUV. It had been left in the vehicle for hours in the Texas heat, and when the owner tried to use it, it exploded in his hand. Of course, he dropped the lighter immediately, but the little Chinese-assembled IED completely torched his vehicle.

I would never suggest that French companies like Bic, or American-based novelty companies dealing in throwaways, are undermining our way of life by outsourcing the manufacturing of their little flamethrowers to China. However, it’s blatantly apparent that 79 cent lighters don’t really represent convenience, and actually are potential environmental hazards. They don’t last very long, and when they do work, it’s only haphazardly, particularly in the outdoors. As a result, they’re routinely tossed aside by frustrated users, presenting fire hazards — and if they don’t combust, their plastic casings languish forever by the roadside.

Zippos, on the other hand, are an American engineering marvel, elegant in design, legendary for their reliability. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Zippo, and they’ve remained relatively unchanged since they first appeared. It’s impossible to improve on perfection, and for what it does, nothing has ever beat a Zippo. Assuming they’re fueled and the flint isn’t worn away, they will, as promised, light under the windiest conditions without fail. And if anything should ever go wrong with it, the company will replace it at absolutely no cost. After my father died, I came across one he owned, with the lid missing. I sent it to Zippo, and it came back from Zippo’s manufacturing plant in Bradford, Pennsylvania, good as new.

Zippos have been lauded by presidents, generals and soldiers for decades, and not without good reason. During WWII, Zippo suspended commercial sales, and only made the lighter available to the military. Eisenhower and MacArthur, as well as countless grunts, lauded it as the only flame upon which they could depend. There are stories of its metal case stopping bullets during battle. And of course, as per the unconditional guarantee, such damaged lighters were replaced with no questions asked.

A Zippo isn’t just a lighter — it’s an accoutrement that you selfishly guard. You might own several, with each one having its own backstory, but you never throw one away. Each one reminds the owner of a particular point in his or her life — a bittersweet romance, an affair with a fast car, a little social victory — all sealed with that distinctive click as the Zippo is closed. There’s a little piece of American history in every Zippo.

You don’t get that with a Bic lighter, and you don’t get it with a novelty butane lighter emblazoned with skull-and-crossbones or crude feminine silhouettes. All those give you are frustrations and bad memories of misplaced adolescence. In our throwaway culture, that’s how we mark time. We paste over our past with fiberboard facades and call it progress. It’s not evolution, though — it’s surrender to homogenization.

Trust me — the Homogenization Conspiracy is not a figment of my fevered imagination. It’s not relegated to the Zippo, either. The perfect little lighter is just a pawn in this. If the dark forces that dictate our tastes can covertly take out an American icon like the Zippo by denying us its fuel source, what’s next? Rise up, America! If you don’t do it now, future generations will be consigned to a world ruled by overlords whose only allegiance is to disposability. And the world will end with the telltale click of a Zippo slamming shut…

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About Ray Ellis

  • Charles Mongomery

    Mythbusters found that it would require an in car temperature of 350 degrees to blow up a butane lighter and a car left in Death Valley could never get that hot, so your story about the exploding Texas lighter must be untrue.

  • Ray Ellis

    Sorry, but Mythbusters is not infallible. Temperatures in Dallas were over 100 degrees that day, and the SUV had been left in the heat all day long. I’ve seen the videos. and NBC news is not in the habit of making these things up.

  • Ray Ellis

    In fact,
    here’s the link

    I don’t make these things up.

  • anon

    too bad you can’t light a bong or a bowl with a zippo and not taste gas. then indeed, it would be perfect.

  • Ray Ellis

    You’re right– nothing the lingering taste of sulphur. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

  • Otis B. Driftwood

    “NBC news is not in the habit of making these things up.”

    Sorry, but NBC News is not infallible either. They were caught using rigged footage about the dangers of GM’s sidesaddle gas tanks.

  • Alex

    Taste gas? There’s no gas in a Zippo. The fuel is naptha, and it doesn’t really have an odor when it’s burned.

  • Ray Ellis

    I’ve already provided you with the link, Otis. This was a local story. By the way, it wasn’t a butane lighter– it was a cheap little disposable.

  • eric

    I would blame camel, they’re passing out worthless butane lighters everywhere AND taking your name and address.

  • telos

    Mr. Montgomery, the Mythbusters episode you are referring to was about spontaneous combustion in the car. The incident in Dallas was not a case of spontaneous combustion. He lit a spark. The superheated gas spread extremely quickly which is what heated gas does. Kaboom. End of story.

  • Ray Ellis

    thanks, telos. Very succinct!

  • Mary K. Williams

    There is something about a Zippo – you just can’t get from a Bic.

    Keep fighting Ray!

  • Zippy McBurnalot

    Oh good, I’m not going crazy. My last trip to the local drug store that had kept my supplied with Zippo supplies for years concluded with a clerk giving me a confused dog look. I managed to score some fluid at the grocery store but I’ve drawn a blank on flints.

  • Reality

    One time back in the summer of 1999 my car was parked all day in Canoga Park, CA. This is the San Fernando Valley where temperatures reach well over 100 degrees in the summer. When I finished work and returned to my car my lighter was in little bits and pieces all over the two front seats. No it didn’t cause a fire but it sure as hell blew up. It wasn’t a Bic but it still blew up…

  • SuperKiller

    Zippo makes a butane lighter now. It’s very similar to the traditional Zippo, and has a lifetime warranty. Called “Zippo Blu”. Check it out, maybe it is the answer you are looking for.

  • Zippo Lover/Bic tolerator

    I do love Zippo lighters. Flint shortages are common. What I do is have my co-workers give me their expired Bic lighters. Bic lighters are very high quality and they always use over sized flints so that the gas runs out before the flint. Since the Bic flint is so long, by the time the lighter runs out of gas, it is just the right length to fit in the Zippo. The Bic flint is just a little harder to strike as it is a denser metal, but it does work. Though it does leave a little bit more flint dust in the chamber resulting in more frequent cleaning.

    Back to the Bic lighters being high quality. I’ve found that Bic lighters almost always ignite on first strike (right up until they are almost out of gas). It has been rare when I had one go bad, but it did happen. I sent them an email I found on the Bic website and asked if they wanted the lighter for quality control inspection and was promptly mailed a special box to mail it back to them (postage paid) and a coupon for five free lighters. I didn’t even ask for the coupons, I was just trying to help out as I hadn’t ever had a Bic that took five or six strikes to get a flame (and the lighter was full.)

    I still love my Zippo and use it all the time, but a Zippo usually can not be stored for long periods of time in survival kits, glove boxes, or other areas without drying out (short of vacuum sealing it). Nor can they be submerged under water for anything but a brief moment. So sealed propane/butane lighters do have their place. I’m not knocking the Zippo, I love them, but they do have their drawbacks as I just mentioned.

    I prefer my Zippo but have no problem keeping Bic lighters around either. I hate the cheap disposables, they never last past a pack of cigarettes.

  • Darth Tater

    i live in seagoville texas right outside of dallas and it was on the news so…. as for lighters explodeing i had a friend who had one burst no flame just pressure damn near took his hand off we never could figure out why it burst

  • Zippo Lover/Bic tolerator

    Zippo Blu

    Looks like Zippo is addressing my concerns about dryout/water/etc… They are going butane with a new model.

  • bubba

    Naphtha is obtained in petroleum refineries as one of the intermediate products from the distillation of crude oil. Of couse naphtha has an odor. I’ve used my Zippo for 30 years and “yes” there is a taste and odor that it lends to cigarettes.

  • Zippy McBurnalot

    ZL/Bt – interesting thought on the flints, I hadn’t considered checking a Bic or something similar for a replacement.

    If you’re making a survival kit/emergency pack kinda thing, I suggest having both a butane and a Zippo. After you fill the Zip, run a ribbon of electrical tape around the lid to seal it. Stays good for years, although you should be checking your kit yearly and replacing those things that degrade with time.

    That way if you accidentally submerge the Zippo you can use the Bic/whatever to dry it out 😉

  • Zippo Lover/Bic tolerator

    Good point about the tape. The only problem with electrical tape is that the glue dries out in less than a year, especially in high heat.

    You did point out to check your survival kits yearly, that is a good point. Though my kits will always have Bic lighters in them. Like you pointed out, the plastic will be around for 10,000 years. The flint and everything else will rust away, but the plastic container of fuel will be around forever. A Zippo would never survive that.

    Like I stated earlier, I am a Zippo lover and user, I have used my Zippo to light a room during blackouts, hunting through caves, etc.. , but the Zippo is not the only tool in the box for fire. Bic lighters have their place and are also an awesome source for flints. The Bic lighter flints also last ten times longer than “yellow packet red flints” since they are denser though they do cause more dust.

  • Zippo Lover/Bic tolerator

    To clean the chimney of the dust from the Bic flint all I do is use the cheap yellow bottle Ronsnol fuel on a Q-Tip and swipe the chimney. Once I am satisfied that it is clean I strike it once to burn the fuel off and I am done.

    Once in awhile I will pull the wick and hit it with an old tooth brush soaked in fuel.

    In a pinch I have also used alcohol, cologne, gasoline, diesel, and kerosene as replacement fuels and they all worked. Just don’t use cologne for lighting anything tobacco, it totally ruins the taste and will stick with you forever.

  • Valarius

    Last I checked, Wal-Mart sold lots and lots of Zippos and wick replacements. Don’t know about the flints, though.

  • BicUser

    Zippos… meh. The reason it’s going away is because they are a PITA all the time. Refillable butanes are the way to go… wind resistant, very hot, long lasting (besides the fuel).

    That of course is in our convenient society. Take away access to convienent stores and the like and neither is the way to go. That’s why a good box of waterproof matches is always great to have handy.

  • Ray Ellis

    With around 450 million Zippos out there, I hardly think they’re going away.

    #23– You’re right. I finally found fluid and flints at Wal-Mart.But living as large as Dallas, you wouldn’t think it would be that hard to find lighter fluid.

    I’m learning a lot of DIY tips here. Thanks, all.

  • Brad Schader

    Zippos are also fun. You can’t do all those nifty tricks with a Bic. Only a Zippo works. Then there is the sound of a Zippo. The excuse to play with my Zippo is the biggest part of smoking I miss.

  • RJ

    EPIC article! You are made of win, sir. :-)

  • Ray Ellis

    Why, thank you, RJ, sir. :)

  • dankery

    bic lighters a sketchy. one time i tossed one onto the top of my desk and it exploded on impact. it sounded like a fucking shotgun blast.

  • Marcia L. Neil

    Since World War II, a book has been expected from Zippo detailing its market initiation and operations in Europe, to be available in the public domain. Instead Zippo chose to diversify, adding golf ball manufacturing to its lighter product line. Most recently, local journalism tells us that a line of Italian handbags is the next company offering–an idea, however, resulting from provocative telephone call-demand strategies that ritually assail others who have names deemed foreign on their birth certificates (i.e., ‘Italian hand bag’, with regard to post-natal condition resulting from continuous harassment).

    Such recent book titles in the marketplace as ‘If I Did It’ and ‘Harry Potter’ reflect that effort to put such a book on bookstore shelves.

  • Ray Ellis

    That’s almost interesting, Marcia. If only it made any sense. . .

  • Chris Beaumont

    I have never been a smoker, but I’ve always wanted a Zippo.

    @Marcia: Huh?

  • Marcia L. Neil

    …and the historical hotel/apartment house fires in Paris, France 2006-2007, the suspicions continue. What inducements were made to the French to secure photographs of the city from its various bridge perspectives is not quite known, although some of that country’s participants are thought to be lost forever in the Mediterranean Sea after the sinking of the cruise ship the ‘Sea Diamond’ near Greece. All to fill out U.S. gallery agendas–what a scandal. The Three Rivers area in Allegheny County, PA, gave a premier showing.

  • Zippo Lighter Diva

    Many thanks, love the article. Posted it as a link on several of my Zippo sites.

  • HC

    I hate to break it to you, but zippos are terrible. The fuel evaporates by the end of the day so you need to keep a can of lighter fluid in the back of your car, sater than a bic, i hardly think so.

    they stopped stocking the fuel because it makes fags taste awefull and nobody wants to use it. Its all about allocative effeciency: use the retail space to promote proper butane lighters rather than refils and parts for nasty, unreliable Zippos.

    (This isnt your usual UK slags off america post, i have had numerous zippos and thrown most of them out on the side of the road in frustration at their lack of reliability). To this day they litter the M6, oh the irony.

    Clippers are the future. 99pence each, resist the wind better than a zippo, use isobutane which is safer, cleaner and lasts longer.

  • Ray Ellis

    HC, you must be buying knock-offs. One would not make a habit of tossing Zippos out of cars, if for no other reason than it’s not cost effective.

    I don’t know what you’re calling “lighter fluid,” but a fill in a Zippo lasts considerably longer than a day, even with heavy use. You must remember, however, to close the lid when not in use.

    Oh, I daresay nothing is more resistant than a Zippo. I live in one of the windiest cities in the US, and Zippos have never failed me.

  • mason

    Marcia L. Neil: you sound like my english teacher… go buy a bic and throw it at your desk.

    I just bought my zippo from wall-mart where they are a good $5 cheaper. Fortunately, the world won’t end anytime soon… as long as wall-mart is still around XD.

    also, zippo has an online store, which obviously you people /could/ get to. so stop using bic flints!

  • JoE

    I like messing around with Zippo’s and I don’t even smoke lol It’s just fun to hear it click when it shuts and when I use it for various things it works well.

    Bics work kinda if you get a crowd of people around you on a windy day

  • Wally

    I’m a Bic user now, they never have failed me. Zippo’s are a pain in the butt. The flints on Zippo’s last about a week, so it’s really cheaply made, the gas last about 1 or 2 days, also you have to keep cleaning it.

    I don’t have the time for all the maintenance Zippo lighters requires. I just use my Bic disposable lighter for about every 2 months and I’m happy. Bic’s don’t break, they don’t smell, no cleaning is required, no need to change the fluid every 2 days, no need to change the flints every 1 or 2 weeks.

    Time is money, and I don’t have time to waste to maintain a damn lighter.

  • cdawg

    Whoever says Zippos are crap obviously has never had a real one. Flints do not need to be replaced once a week, maybe once a month under heavy use, but ive yet to achieve killing one in less than 2 months. Granted I barely smoke. Honestly if I have to refill it more than once a week its rare, and if thats hard for you than fine, but I prefer my Zippo, you can keep your bic.

  • Zippy

    1. A person who believes ANYTHING that Mythbusters says will believe… anything. A cheap plastic lighter sitting in a closed vehicle, out in the hot Texas sun CAN and WILL get hot enough to explode. It would seem like common sense, but…

    2. MSN news IS in the habit of making things up! I’m just kidding, there’s no such thing as propaganda or disinformation in the good ol’ U.S.A.

    3. If you light a cigarette or a pipe with a Zippo, it DOES TASTE LIKE FUEL.

    Now that I got that off my chest..

    Great article. Very well written. I share the same love for Zippos that you do. However, even something as near-perfect as a Zippo could use a few minor tweaks after 75 years.

    – The taste of the gas. I don’t really blame the lighter, but the fuel. It definitely tastes and smells a lot like BBQ lighter fluid.

    – Also, the fuel evaporates WAY too fast. I have one that I use for emergency’s that I only fire up about once a week. EVERY TIME I use it, I have to refill it. It doesn’t matter how much I soak it, it constantly needs refilling.

    – And finally, the ol’ Zippo leg burn. Anyone who has been in the habbit of carrying one in their pocket knows how irritating lighter fluid can be when it soaks into your outer (and god forbid) inner thigh. OUCH!

    All in all, I really don’t blame the Zippo at all, BUT THE FUEL. If a fuel was designed that was tasteless, slighty thicker, and that didn’t have the habit of leaking out and evaporating, THEN Zippo would be 100% perfect. Hands down.

    Until then there’s always IMCO lighters 😉

  • kingtat

    Great Article,I mostly agree, just don’t keep pushing the fire hazard angle,as being a con for butanes,those incidents are isolated compared to the fact that zippo’s don’t go out if you drop them!!