The Case knife and the Zippo lighter live on as icons of camping and RVing
A rural and deceptively sleepy town, Bradford, Pennsylvania, offers visitors the chance to get an in-depth look at the history and manufacturing of two iconic products. Both the Case knife and the Zippo lighter are tools that have become as ubiquitous to camping and RVing over the decades as the campfire. Today these historic companies have merged into one entity and continue to produce their respective brands in Bradford, celebrated together at the Zippo/Case Museum. Located off U.S. Highway 219 on Zippo Drive, the Zippo/Case Museum is an impressive 15,000-square-foot modern facility whose entrance door is topped by a giant three-blade Case Canoe-style pocketknife, while the peak of the museum is adorned with a 40-foot-tall flickering Zippo lighter. Fresh off its 20th anniversary in 2017, the museum houses interactive exhibits and displays that detail the founding and manufacturing histories of both companies.
More than 100 years ago in a small, unassuming town in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, knife salesman John Russell Case opened the W.R. Case and Sons Cutlery Co.
When John Russell Case started his company, he was not a man unfamiliar with the craft of fine knife making; in fact he came from an entire family of skilled knife makers. In the late 1800s his father, William Russell (W.R.) Case and his three uncles made and sold knives on the wagon trails of rural western New York just over the Pennsylvania line. In the late 1800s W.R. Case and his brothers joined forces with local businessman John Champlin to form the Cattaraugus Cutlery Co.
Cattaraugus knives were soon known for their use of high-quality materials and fine craftsmanship. Their reputation got a national boost when the adventurous Admiral Richard E. Byrd chose Cattaraugus knives to take with him on his historic trip exploring the South Pole.
By 1900 the Case brothers had split from the Cattaraugus Cutlery Co. to make knives under the company name of Case Brothers Cutlery Co. This family business was originally based out of the sleepy town of Little Valley, New York. The next historic step for the company came in 1905, when John Russell Case relocated the family business just a few miles away to its current location in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Since that time, Case knives have become an iconic American staple carried by campers and collected by enthusiasts worldwide.
Case knives are best known for the two-step heating process used in their manufacture, and noted on each knife symbolically as XX. Each X in the trademark symbol signifies a distinct proprietary heat treatment of the blade, which imparts strength and durability to the knife.
The internal mechanisms and blades of the knives are made from steel, silver and brass. Each knife also bears a stamp on the tang of the master blade. The tang of any knife is the piece that connects the blade to the handle. A Case tang stamp allows collectors to determine the era in which each knife was crafted. Different groups of knife manufacturing years have differences in script, wording and shape. For example, a Case knife from the 1920s will likely have an artistic sweeping “C” that begins the name Case, while a 1970s Case knife has a tang stamp that says CASE in plain caps script followed by the trademark XX and U.S.A. While the design of Case tang stamps has varied widely, ask one of the registered 18,000 collector’s club members and they will tell you that the knives’ quality has remained reassuringly consistent. Fans of the knives also proclaim that they are as beautiful as they are durable. Some of the most popular exterior wood options are African ebony, curly maple and rosewood. Exteriors hailing from the sea include abalone and mother of pearl. The horn exteriors come from the naturally shed antlers of deer and the bone versions are sourced from Brazilian Zebu cattle. The overall shapes of the knives and their blades are creatively divided into families with unique monikers that include Baby Butterbean, Sod Buster, Cheetah, Muskrat, Hobo and Sway Back Jack. In 2014 Case celebrated 125 years of handcrafted manufacturing.
In the early 1930s, while Case knives were being carefully crafted just a handful of miles away, businessman and entrepreneur George Blaisdell was looking for his next big idea. While talking on the porch of the Bradford Country Club, Blaisdell took note of a friend’s seemingly wind-proof Austrian lighter. Blaisdell recognized the advantage of the lighter’s chimney-style design in keeping the flame lit, but was otherwise unimpressed with the lighter’s clunky appearance, weak construction and requirement for the use of both hands to operate it. While it didn’t necessarily strike his eye as particularly pretty, its functional elements inspired him to start imagining a whole new product.
The entrepreneur set to work creating a lighter of better design and stronger material. His altered design included a small rectangular case, a hinged flip-top that allowed for one-handed operation, and the flame protecting chimney that had first caught his eye. Beyond good design, Blaisdell would guarantee his lighter for life with in-house repairs and the trademarked slogan “It works or we fix it free.” The name Zippo was devised as a clever modification of the word zipper. In the depths of the Great Depression, the Zippo lighter company took flight.
Only a few years into production, the events of World War II would cement the company’s place in American history. During the war years, commercial production of lighters was halted and all efforts went into manufacturing lighters for American servicemen.
Millions of soldiers, sailors and Marines took their Zippo lighter onto the ships and battlefields of Europe and Asia knowing they could count on the product’s wind-proof nature to light their cigarettes and campfires. Zippo lighters became nearly inseparable from the image of the embattled American soldier. Zippos were used to warm rations, light explosives and signal other servicemen. One of the most famous and fascinating lighters in Zippo’s own historic collection is a model that was hand engraved by American soldier Walter Nadler on his way to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The serviceman lost his lighter in battle on the sandy beaches of France, only to have it mysteriously appear in the Bradford manufacturing facility 50 years later. The lighter is now displayed proudly as a tribute to the history of the lighter and the servicemen who carried them.
Following the war, Zippo returned to commercial manufacturing and became a popular advertising item for companies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The lighter was promoted across the country by a 1947 Chrysler Saratoga ingeniously designed to include the shape of two Zippo lighters with neon flames. The traveling car made appearances all over the country and then disappeared following some mechanical issues.
The 1970s and ’80s saw increasing world-wide sales and notoriety. Zippo lighters and their familiar “click” sound began appearing in greater numbers of Hollywood films. From Die Hard to the X Files, the Addams Family to Backdraft, the lighter has performed as an important part in hundreds of movie story lines. In 1996 a second 1947 Chrysler Saratoga adorned with two giant-sized Zippo lighters reprised the original car’s role, and can still be seen appearing at various public events around the country.
Today the lighter continues to be valued for its quality manufacturing, functional superiority and its lifetime repair promise. Owners tend to become emotionally attached to their personal lighter, and collectors worldwide have created an explosive demand for various special editions.
Lighters now bear not only traditional designs and company advertising, but everything from Elvis to Area 51 to butterflies to dragons. From intricate artwork, to an adorable panda face, to some seriously macabre skulls, there seems to be a style for just about everyone’s tastes or interests. No wonder that the collecting of Zippo lighters has become both a hobby and an avocation for folks all around the world. Lighters can now also be customized with personal photos and engraving.
Zippo has begun moving beyond the classic wind-proof lighter and is manufacturing other handy outdoor products including a line of hand warmers, several variations of fire starters, grilling tools and a multiuse tool that functions, among other things, as an axe, saw and mallet.
Carrying on the Tradition
Naturally, the museum houses a very tempting gift shop. Selecting a favorite is an almost impossible task. The museum also provides a chance to watch technicians at work in the famous Zippo Repair Clinic, where the tradition of repairing lighters (free of charge) continues today. Among the many displays is a wall-size American flag constructed from 3,400 red, white and blue Zippo lighters.
The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Both admission and parking are free.
Zippo/Case Museum | 888-442-1932