If you live in the northern United States, you've noticed that the nights are cooler now. Fall is here. That means it's time to put away your shorts and T-shirts and dig up some warmer clothes.
And when you do, take a moment to be grateful for all the little devices on your clothes that keep out the cold. It's taken thousands of years to come up with truly effective fasteners. Some of them have (are you ready for this pun? I don't think so) a fasten-ating history. See for yourself:
Buttons on clothes have been around for thousands of years, but only as decoration. Buttons matched with buttonholes apparently didn't occur to anyone until 13th-century Germany. (The Chinese had toggles and loops on their clothing, but not buttonholes.)
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans lived in mild climates and wore loose-fitting togas and robes. They used ties and pins to fasten them. People in colder climates - Vikings and Eskimos, for example - pulled garments over their heads and cinched them with laces, belts, or straps.
Buttons and buttonholes revolutionized clothing, and the concept spread fast. If only we knew whom to thank.
In 18th century America, gentlemen wore shoes with buckles, period. America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, helped to change that.
Laces had been on footwear at least since they first showed up on an Assyrian king's sandals in 650 BC. Laces and eyelets were also used on clothing before belt buckles (or buttons) were invented. Short boots that were tied with laces were worn by scholars in Oxford, England, starting about 1640. (You've heard of oxfords, haven't you?)
But laces were thought to be dandyish and a Parisian fad when Jefferson wore shoes with leather laces in the early 1800s. He had picked up the fashion from France's revolutionaries, who scorned "elitist" buckles for "democratic" laces.
As president, Jefferson was also style setter in chief. Now lace-up shoes were definitely "in."
Most Americans had never heard of "locking tape" until NASA began using it on America's space missions in the early 1960s. It kept objects from floating around the cabin while in orbit. Velcro's origins date back a couple of decades earlier, though.
In 1948, George de Mestral of Switzerland was frustrated. He loved to hike in the woods, but he hated pulling all the burrs off his clothes. They stuck tight. Then he began to wonder why. When he looked at the burrs under a microscope, he saw that the ends of the burrs had tiny hooks that caught on the fiber loops of his wool pants. He had an idea.
Together with a weaver at a textile plant in France, he applied the "burr principle" to develop Velcro - "vel" from "velvet" and "cro" from "crochet" (which means "hook" in French). At first, Velcro was expensive and used mostly by industry. But when the patent ran out in the 1980s, anyone could manufacture "tape closures" and they started showing up everywhere - on shoes, shorts, overcoats, wallets, toys, and more.
The snap fastener first appeared in Europe in the 1840s. It was neither reliable nor rustproof, but it was handy for theater costumes. Actors could quickly change clothes fastened with snaps. Soon snaps began to appear on gloves, particularly on long gloves for women, a popular fashion statement of the day. By the 1890s, hundreds of brands of snaps were being produced. "Hear it snap - no hooks, no eye, no buttons, no bother," read an ad in the January 1898 Ladies World magazine.
"Pearl snaps" are still a hallmark of the gussied-up cowboy shirts introduced by the stars in early Western movies. "Real" cowboy shirts were loose-fitting, collarless, and a drab gray or blue. The tailor-made Hollywood versions were in bright colors with fancy stitching, contrasting piping, half-moon pockets, and more.
Jack A. Weil brought the fashion to the ordinary cowboy. He saw a Chinese tailor in San Francisco putting glove snaps on a shirt, and that gave him an idea. Besides being novel and virtually unbreakable, the snaps were practical. The snaps would unsnap if a cowboy caught his shirt on a branch while riding. A buttoned shirt might tear instead. (Besides, what cowboy would sew on a button?) The snaps became the celebrated "pearl snaps" when they were crowned with circles of mother-of-pearl.
American Whitcomb Judson designed the "clasp locker" so his friend could fasten his shoes more easily. He patented the complicated device in 1893, but there were problems: It didn't work very well, and it tended to rust. No one wanted it.
Still, he formed a company with a partner to manufacture the device. They hired Gideon Sundback, a Swedish immigrant, who became head designer. He came up with a much improved "separable fastener" that was patented in 1917.
The president of the B.F. Goodrich Co., Bertram Wrok, coined the term "zipper." The rubber company decided to use the new fastener on their Mystic rubber boots. Wrok dubbed it the Zipper Boot, after the sound the fastener made.
The zipper didn't get much further than boots and tobacco pouches until the 1930s. That's when a sales campaign began to tout the use of zippers in children's clothing so they could dress themselves more easily. It wasn't until British Lord Louis Mountbatten persuaded some aristocratic friends to give up button flies in favor of zippers that the devices began to appear in men's clothing.
Walter Hunt came up with the safety pin in 1849 after bending and rebending an eight-inch piece of brass wire one day. The story goes that he was trying to invent something to pay back a $15 debt. Hunt was a talented inventor. Fifteen years before, he had been the first to come up with the idea for the sewing machine. (Elias Howe's version didn't come along for almost 20 years.) Hunt had also invented a fire-engine gong, a coal-burning stove, a machine to spin flax, and the forerunner of the Winchester repeating rifle.
The safety pin has a covered point that's under tension, so it stays closed and is less likely to poke the wearer. Safety pins can be invaluable when other clothing fasteners fail, but Hunt evidently didn't see their value at the time. He sold his patent for $400.