A typical morning for me (Ray) goes something like this: I get up, shower, shave, and get dressed for work. I button my shirt, zipper my pants, tighten my belt, and tie my shoelaces. I then go to the kitchen to make my lunch. I put a sandwich and snacks in Ziploc bags, throw them in my canvas lunch bag, and close the zipper.

Before I head out the door, I put on a light jacket and zip it up. When I get to work, I go through security where I unzip my lunch bag, show the guard the contents, and then zipper it back up.

Some days, I get calls asking me to test a piece of equipment. I throw my tools in a backpack and close the zipper. When I get to the work location, I unzip the backpack to get to my tools.

Do you see a recurring theme? Devices such as buttons, belts, laces, and zippers are actually tools that are known as fasteners. They are very useful, and you probably use them more than you think! This issue’s column will focus on the invention of one of these devices, known as the zipper.

The World Before the Zipper

As already mentioned, zippers fit into a class of mechanical devices called fasteners. A fastener is used to connect two or more things together; that is, to fasten them to one another. If you think about using a zipper, you usually think about an article of clothing such as pants or a coat, and rightly so. The zipper fastens two pieces of cloth together. It also provides a simple way to unfasten the same two pieces. That is the beauty of the zipper. It is fast, efficient, and can be used over and over again to repeatedly open and close things.

Before the zipper was invented, what kinds of fasteners did people use? In biblical times, men and women wore tunics. Tunics were garments made from two pieces of material that were joined together by a seam at waist level. A tunic was held up against the wearer’s waist by a girdle made from leather or other coarse material. The girdle, which was akin to what we would know as abelt, served as a kind of fastener.

If a man had to work or run, he would pull up his tunic and tuck it into the girdle to give him greater freedom of movement for his legs. This was called girding up one’s loins. If you do a word search in the Bible, you will find the word gird appearing numerous times throughout Scripture. It often means “to fasten” something to a person, whether it be clothes or a weapon.

Another piece of clothing that was often worn, especially during cold weather, was a cloak. A cloak was a piece of cloth that had slits in it for arms. It was worn over the top of a tunic. Because of their designs, neither the tunic nor the cloak required any kind of special fastener to hold things together. Wearing them was simply a matter of sliding the garment on and adjusting the girdle.

About 2800 BC, people began to adorn clothes with ornaments and seals made from seashells that were carved into different shapes. These served no real functional purpose that we know of other than fashion. But that started to change in the 13th century.

The textile industry grew and matured in Europe. Clothing fashions began to change, and garments became increasingly snug. Buttons, and their associated buttonholes, were used to fasten clothes together.

Buttons had some great advantages: They were simple to use and easy to fix or replace. The first European buttons became status symbols. The larger and more intricate a man’s buttons were, the more power and prestige he was given. Gold and silver buttons were proudly displayed by nobility. Specialized button craftsmen were hired to manufacture increasingly ornate buttons that included carvings and paintings on them. Things started to get a bit out of hand, with some men having buttons nearly the size of dinner plates on their jackets!