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Noted: Zippo Lighters From the Vietnam War

May 19, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

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.]

noted_vietnamlighters_1.jpg

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.”

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47 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    Great post! I love Zippo lighters! They are so unique!

  • HellYeahISew

    HellYeahISew said 5 years ago

    Ironically, these Zippos -- which were so unique to each soldier -- are now mass-produced for tourists in Vietnam and Cambodia. What was once a way to connect soldiers to home are brought back home as souvenirs for people who missed out on the SE Asia trip. Mine says, "Let us into your hearts and minds or will burn your goddamn hut down."

  • vitamini

    vitamini said 5 years ago

    I remember someone bringing their zippo collection on an Antiques Roadshow episode once. There were lots like these - many with military references to places and people. Really interesting little pieces of history.

  • redhardwick

    redhardwick said 5 years ago

    Interesting story, thanks for sharing.

  • TwinkleStarCrafts

    TwinkleStarCrafts said 5 years ago

    Remember some of these Zippos. Great read. Thank you.

  • chaps676 Admin

    chaps676 said 5 years ago

    HellYeahISew: Great comment. When looking over my blog post, Michelle (a.k.a. mtraub, a fellow Etsy blog editor) also mentioned to me that Zippo lighters are now tourist souvenirs in Vietnam. I would love to find out more about this because I think it would a fascinating addition to this story.

  • SimpleJoysPaperie

    SimpleJoysPaperie said 5 years ago

    A very interesting, somber article.

  • mtraub

    mtraub said 5 years ago

    @HellYeahISaw: I was just going to comment about that. When I was in Vietnam, the fake Zippos were ubiquitous. I had no idea they were mimicking this authentic phenomenon. Such tragic hopelessness in these glib engravings.

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 5 years ago

    i've actually come across a couple of these while thrifting. they hold so much truth and tragedy. such a great piece of history.

  • kateblossom

    kateblossom said 5 years ago

    Wonderful write- up- thanks for sharing this part of our history!

  • StegosaurusMiller

    StegosaurusMiller said 5 years ago

    These are beautiful. Items are quickly becoming less and less precious as the years go on because of the mass-production of goods and accessibility to cheap goods. I love precious, personalized items that have a clear significance to the owner.

  • Matt4s

    Matt4s said 5 years ago

    So great, very nice collection...

  • GloryBDesign

    GloryBDesign said 5 years ago

    This is very interesting. I remember guys bringing these back. So ironic that now they're being made there.

  • DaHukaHouse

    DaHukaHouse said 5 years ago

    Powerful. Really moving.

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 5 years ago

    great article. vietnam still looms large on the american psyche. it was a difficult war and in a lot of ways the u.s. lost part of itself there for a while. counterfeiting and fakes are a huge industry in vietnam esp. in the south. this goes way back. also, vietnam isn't a jungle. it's highly topographically varied, about 80% of vietnam mountainous... and there are hella deltas in the north and south where there aren't mountains (red river and mekong). most imagery popularly associated with vietnam come from movies, which is actually the philippines and i think, but would have to check, malaysia and indonesia. there are pretty jungles there. there was no filming in vietnam after the war due to the severing of diplomatic ties and the economic embargo levied by the u.s. against the regime at the time. the jungles of vietnam is a popular culture myth based on movies. there are some, but very few.

  • tigersanddragons

    tigersanddragons said 5 years ago

    Love those lighters! Imagine carrying them day by day through difficult terrain. Steel is such a durable metal, which is why we work with it

  • serendipitiecards

    serendipitiecards said 5 years ago

    Does anyone know where you might be able to find those to buy? I collect Zippos and would love to add one to my collection! I searched for Zippos under vintage and no luck.

  • go2vintage

    go2vintage said 5 years ago

    Wow! Great story.. More of us need to reflect on this. I recently listed 3 items from the Viet Nam era and it made me start thinking about this ( I can't believe it's now "vintage"). I also did a small reflection on my blog.....My favorite item sold ( M1 military helmet liner - with a gesture of profanity drawn inside )..... When you see something like this, you can't help but try to understand....

  • twentyfourhourdinah

    twentyfourhourdinah said 5 years ago

    woah, intense. Really interesting, and really makes you think... (you're right go2vintage)

  • LANCERIKA

    LANCERIKA said 5 years ago

    Awesome article! historical pocket documents of an intense,poignant time in our world's painful conflicts.

  • IntoTheTrees

    IntoTheTrees said 5 years ago

    These Zippos they must have meant a lot to the soldiers. Would be awesome to find the owners or family and return them. I saw a site once where someone had a collection of soldiers dog tags and they were being returned to family.

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 5 years ago

    What a great photo essay of that era. Will be sharing it for sure. Thanks.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    wow how haunting, its amazing how these little moments of history live on...

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    The words are very haunting. War is so wrong and this is another reminder of it...

  • TheOmegaWorkshop

    TheOmegaWorkshop said 5 years ago

    Wow! I wonder who owned the ones in the picture? It makes you think about the person and what they were like. The photos are like a little Zippo graveyard!

  • littlegiggles

    littlegiggles said 5 years ago

    wow, first post in a long time that is interesting. the "time in hell" - it speaks to the awfulness of war. i am eternally grateful to all those who have fraught or died protecting my family and myself.

  • thevelvetheart

    thevelvetheart said 5 years ago

    I've never seen these before. So cool!

  • theroyal

    theroyal said 5 years ago

    interesting

  • beachglassshop

    beachglassshop said 5 years ago

    we saved all of my Dad's zippo lighter's when he passed away...holding them takes me back..

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 5 years ago

    A very interesting article, and "article" (get it)! Very unusual, but very cool!

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose said 5 years ago

    Thank you for writing this. A time that should never be forgot and men and women who served our country with honor.

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink said 5 years ago

    I love Zippo.. the name :) I sell each one that I find without any delay, but they are getting harder to find, the older ones that is. Thanks for shring the article, good read. :)

  • LakesEdge

    LakesEdge said 5 years ago

    I love this article, I'm a huge fan of Zippos, and would feel bittersweet about holding an authentic from the Vietnam era. A Zippo is like a wallet to many; whenever there's a story behind them or they were gifted to you from someone very close, it's a treasured piece that you definitely want to hold onto. It's a shame that they make fakes of these ultra personal items - I didn't know they did that, but then again, even where there's pain, there's profit for some. Great posting, I love Etsy more everyday for articles like this.

  • GlassnMore

    GlassnMore said 5 years ago

    Big fan of Zippos - I've never seen engravings from Vietnam! Great blog!

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 5 years ago

    So awesome!

  • Zalavintage

    Zalavintage said 5 years ago

    Wow, I never thought of the lighters as a symbol of our ancient desire to be home. Going through our trunks I've found medals, photos and lighters from I guess WW2, Korea and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a place I knew while playing as a young child growing up in Arlington Virginia. A place that's changed tremendously in the past ten years. Brings home a poignant message from my past, thank you for helping me remember.

  • bananastrudel

    bananastrudel said 5 years ago

    I never knew -- thank you for an interesting article.

  • milesaway

    milesaway said 5 years ago

    I was so surprised to see this article. I am in Australia and know of my fathers zippo. I always thought it was an odd little collectable. it has part of psalm 23 with a slightly altered ending! When traveling in Vietnam 5 years ago I couldn't believe the street hawkers selling them. amazing that such a small item has such a far reaching history. Thanks for sharing.

  • kanekl

    kanekl said 5 years ago

    Ive never seen these before, very cool.

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas said 5 years ago

    My dad smoked a pipe and always had a zippo lighter. It is one of the memories I have of him.

  • SerantoniDesigns

    SerantoniDesigns said 5 years ago

    Incredible little slice of history... Mary Serantoni SERANTONI Designs

  • cv2shop

    cv2shop said 5 years ago

    Welcome to CV2SHOP.COM We look forward to providing the best service with lowest price. We currently have over 100,000 cards of all kinds of different countries. It is a great resource for you. Some price random CC: US from $1 - UK from $3 DE/IE/FR/IT/JP/EU from $6 CA/BR/and more ... from $5 Please read RULE be carrefully before do anything. If you have any request and question, please contact us via ticket or YM support.

  • annslights

    annslights said 5 years ago

    The messages on these lighters are the value and part of the history of the soldiers that served. Great article, perhaps the best ever found on Etsy. Very few comments compared to the other articles.

  • Tina669

    Tina669 said 5 years ago

    Sweet read!

  • MerCurios

    MerCurios said 5 years ago

    Very interesting an moving. I had no idea these were being mass-produced for tourists. Very sad indeed.

  • DevineCollectible

    DevineCollectible said 5 years ago

    Wowie, zowie who would have thought?!? peace & love, and a great big "thank you" to all the vets, job well done, peace & love, karen

  • Google said 1 year ago

    Google Sites of interest we have a link to.

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