So often when we think of Zippo lighters, visions of Don Draper dance in our heads. The mid-century modern era, replete with highball glasses and boomerang tables, wouldn’t be the same without them. That’s why it’s jarring to consider the Zippo in another context: one in which it serves as a morbid reminder of the ephemeral nature of life on earth.
A lighter was one of the few possessions and connections to life back home that a soldier could carry into battle. In the uncharted jungles of Vietnam where soldiers had little understanding of the culture, language or terrain, a lighter engraved with a personal phrase or motto served as a mental touchstone to a distant but familiar life. “Many were like tattoos not worn on the body, but carried in a pocket,” writes Jon Patrick of The Selvedge Yard. “It was a way for the soldiers to express who they were, and how they felt.” [Ed. note: Some of the lighters featured in the original article on The Selvage Yard contain profane language. Please click through at your own discretion.]
Photo by mEyegallery on Flickr
The deeply personal and dark phrases engraved on Vietnam-era Zippos are even more haunting today, entwining an emotional point in history with a now iconic design. For Jon Patrick, this connection between war and a fire-producing object is profound: “There is something mythical, primal and powerful about fire that has always captured a man’s soul — whether it’s a lighter, a campfire, or waging a war.”