Reader asks about Zippo lighter
Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of the items that they own. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.
This week’s question is about Zippos, a popular collector’s item.
I have a Zippo lighter that I found many years ago in the attic. (It) has the inscription “US Air Force Kadean Okinawa AB.” Is it a genuine Zippo lighter and how much is it worth?
You appear to have a fake. The misspelling of the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, is the first clue. There is no American air base called Kadean.
You didn’t send me a photo of the bottom of the lighter, so I don’t know if if had any markings. Zippo always marked its lighters with its logo name along with date codes or patent info. Lighters made from 1933 to 1957 can be distinguished by their style and model, along with patent or patent-pending marks, according to the company website. Date codes were added in 1958 for quality control, but over the years they have been a tremendous guide for collectors.
I’ve come across real Zippo lighters at auction before – from some of the earliest to modern – and have learned how to identify them based on the markings on the bottom, the number of hinges on the barrel (the earlier ones have fewer) and the number of holes in the chimney. This YouTube video offers other ways to spot a counterfeit, and there are many other guides on the web.
A 2011 Wall Street Journal story noted that factories in China make 12 million fake Zippos a year – rippos as they are called – matching the number of real ones made by the Zippo Manufacturing Co. plant in Bradford, PA. The imposters are getting better and better at faking the real thing, so you have to educate yourself on how to tell whether a lighter is a Zippo.
Zippo lighters were first manufactured in 1933 by George Grant Blaisdell, who had founded the company a year earlier. According to the company website, he was at a country club in Bradford and noticed how difficult it was for a friend to use his Austrian-made lighter. Blaisdell decided to re-design that lighter, developing one that not only looked better but was easier to use. He also gave his lighters a lifetime guarantee – “It works or we fix it free.”
During World War II, the company began making lighters strictly for American soldiers. With the use of brass prohibited during the war, Zippo came up with a lighter made of steel and painted in a black finish – the black crackle lighter. Its lighters were just as popular with soldiers in Vietnam, some of whom carved dates and locations, among other things, on the metal. Vietnamese merchants even carved images on the lighters and sold them to soldiers at flea markets, according to one article.
The reader’s lighter may have been made by an enterprising merchant in Okinawa or some other foreign country, and sold as a tourist souvenir. I could find no similar lighter like it for sale on the web.
In a forum on one site, I did find a photo of a group of lighters that included ones like the reader’s. The photo showed an unopened package of lighters bearing the names of the U.S. military services. The writing on the package was in both German and English. Someone replying to an inquiry about the origin of the lighters presumed that these were made for the German market.