The first cigarette lighter was developed by a German chemist in 1816. "Dobereiner's Lamp" was a container of hydrogen lit by a platinum catalyst. Dangerously explosive, it was little more than a curiosity and social status symbol. The first practical lighters were the flint and naphtha lighters that appeared during World War I. Improved by Zippo in the 1930s, they quickly became an industry standard. At almost the same time, Ronson premiered the butane lighter, a form of lighter that uses butane gas instead of liquid naphtha. Zippo and Ronson were soon joined by other manufacturers, including Colibri, Dunhill and St. Dupont. Old lighters are highly collectable.
Note the external appearance of the old lighter. The very earliest flint and steel lighters, those from the 1910s and 1920s have no cover or chimney like today's Zippo models. The lever that operates the steel wheel is fully exposed at the top, as is the flame when lit. A steel wheel strikes against a flint to produce a spark. The spark ignites a wick that sits atop a naphtha filled chamber. These old lighters are also somewhat larger than Zippo standard of approximately 2 ½ inches high by 1 ¼ inches wide.
Identify an old Zippo lighter by its completely enclosed case. The top flips up to expose a small, perforated chimney. The chimney's purpose it to protect the wick from strong drafts while still providing air to the flame. Underneath the chimney is a chamber filled with a wad of cotton. The cotton is filled and saturated with naphtha. The wick connects directly to this fuel reservoir. The very earliest Zippo lighters are made according to patent issued in 1936--somewhat later models according to a patent issued in 1950. Current Zippo models remain very similar in design.
Look for advertising logos that appear on the old Zippo lighters. From the beginning, Zippo produced these lighters for eager customers. Lighters with the Kendal Refining Company logo date from the mid-1930s. A Sports Series featuring golfers, fisherman, hunters, greyhounds and other figures debuted in 1938. During World War II, the company devoted its entire production to the military. As a result of wartime metal shortages, these lighters were of low-quality steel rather than brass. They are black in a matt finish. General MacArthur had a Zippo lighter with the four stars of his rank displayed above his name. Personalised Zippo lighters were extremely popular.
Identify Ronson lighters by their push button design. The flame can be kept lit as long as the button is held down. The earliest models run on naphtha, while those from the late 1940s and on onward use butane. Many old Ronson lighters were works of art, with glass by Lalique, ceramic by Lenox and even enamel and rhinestones. A number of older Ronson lighters are one-piece creations that include a cigarette case and compact. Lighters vary in size, from thin delicate pieces that resemble tubes of lipstick to table lighters in solid metal, wooden or crystal bases. Colibri and St. Dupont also produced old lighters, many of expensive materials, such as gold and silver.
Look for lighters from the 1960s and earlier. Later models are generally of simpler design and less expensive materials than those produced during the period of the high-fashion lighters.
While Zippo lighters are usually designed to be carried--though not always--many lighters by other manufacturers were intended as beautiful tabletop ornaments. Current prices reflect the cost of materials as well as the rarity and aesthetic appeal of the original design.