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Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty.

In his acknowledgments to this book, Friedel confesses to having felt guilty about how much fun he had researching and writing it. If it's a sin to enjoy diligent, down-and-dirty primary-source scholarship, Friedel has managed to inculpate reader and reviewer as well as himself.

There are three levels to Friedel's story: the technological and social tale of a device that didn't work properly until a quarter of a century after it was brought to market, the detective story of an historian who refused to believe that his primary sources were really in the Great Beyond, and the portrayal of a community - Meadville, Pennsylvania - innocently and unselfconsciously performing the funeral rites for its industrial death under the eye of a keen and sensitive observer. Any of the three would be a good read, but the combination is a real page-turner.

Efforts to invent a slide fastener, Friedel tells us, began in 1893, but the device didn't actually work right until about 1920. Frantic selling efforts in parallel with equally desperate design changes kept the idea alive in between. One of Friedel's most important points in this work is that we have been accustomed to thinking of new technologies as better solutions to perceived problems, and that with a few social and economic constraints, improvements will eventually be accepted. The zipper was, at least for its first 25 years, definitely not a better solution, and it's not clear even now if zippers are an improvement over buttons and hook-and-eye fasteners.

Getting clothing designers and the public to accept what was at first a clumsy and, in its application in trouser flies, perhaps even hazardous innovation, was basically the triumph of a dogged, not to say maniacal, sales campaign. Of the acceptance-of-improvement model, Friedel says "One of the great values of the story of the zipper is that it makes it apparent that such a deterministic view of our world simply makes no sense" (p. 124). Sometimes, the zeal of the salesperson, looking for problems to solve rather than solutions to known problems, is what shapes some significant component of the world. Isaac Meritt Singer, for example, worked in a related industry. Popularizer of the sewing machine and one of the first to exploit installment credit, Singer was reportedly such a persuasive character that he died with four concurrent wives, each with a house and children. While the zipper's "drummers," by Friedel's account, seem somewhat more regular in matrimonial matters, they move in a colorful a world of proto-Nazis, garment-making Jews, and eccentric designers like Elsa Schiaparelli. This, of course, is only the main plot of Friedel's yam.

Historians reading this work will enjoy Friedel's adventures in pursuit of The Sources. The number of secondary works cited in his footnotes is tiny; the zipper, for all practical purposes, had no previous historical scholarship. This is a work crafted almost entirely from primary sources. Except for the inevitable patent records, much of the early experimentation with the slide fastener is undocumented, but some records of the post-1900 innovation process, and, perhaps just as important, a good sampling of the sales correspondence, have survived. Told that the Talon Zipper archives did not contain the early material he sought, Friedel cultivated knowledgeable Meadvillians, including the local librarian, and eventually struck pay dirt on the floor of an inventor's descendant's garage.

The third layer of Friedel's story, the industrial death of Meadville, is told partly from the perspective of the historian's visits to the town, which lost jobs in the interval between his beginning the research and completion of the manuscript, and partly through newspaper accounts of Talon's long struggle to maintain market share against foreign competition. As an account of the birth and economic death of an American invention, Zipper is worth reading by those concerned with deindustrialization as well as historians of fashion, technology, and business.

Finally, Friedel gives us a brief glimpse into a different dimension of his technology: the zipper as social symbol. He shows us a device that, as the icon of swift clothing removal, has passed into immortality in Erica Jong's work, and in the expression "zipper control" to refer to sexual continence. It can be a metaphor for alternating merging parts, as in Germany, where autos entering a highway perform the "zipper maneuver." The zipper has become not only a standard feature of clothing but a powerfully familiar image of speed, efficiency and freedom.

What I liked best about Friedel's book is the way his history illuminates the familiarity of the device. There are, of course, a lot of histories of supposedly more important technologies, like the hydrogen bomb. Most of us, fortunately, have a lot more contact with slide fasteners than with nuclear fusion, but Friedel's is the first serious history of the zipper. Friedel is warmly recommended to anyone who likes to know why the details of life are the way they are.

Rachel Maines Maines and Associates, Ithaca, NY
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Maines, Rachel
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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