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Lighter festooned flag, Planet Zippo.

Zippo Lighter Visitors Center

Field review by the editors.

Bradford, Pennsylvania

Zippo Lighters, back in the early 1950s, realized that it had a product that was small, relatively inexpensive, and could be modified with endless embellishments and gewgaws, thus making it necessary to not only own one, but several dozen.

Lighter parking lot lights at Zippo HQ

The Zippo Lighter Visitors Center, which opened in 1997, caters to Zippo collectors by displaying many of their favorites. It also demands much of them, for while it is a well-funded and well-mounted shrine, it is in the normally attraction-parched northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The quickest way to get to it is from adjacent western New York state. The interstate dead-ends at the Zippo exit. There was apparently no reason to build further.

The Center offers tribute to visionary George G. Blaisdell, "the Zippo man," a rich guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time (as rich people often are). He was hanging out at a local country club in 1931 and became intrigued by an ugly Austrian lighter one of his rich friends was using. "It works," was the man's defense, and Blaisdell was hooked. Blaisdell bought the rights to the lighter, modified the design, christened it "Zippo" in honor of the zipper (one of his favorite inventions), and made a second fortune.

Wartime scene.
Wartime scene.

The museum sports several works of Zippo art, including Old Glow'ry, a wall-size American flag constructed with 3,300 red, white, and blue lighters. Like any postmodern corporation, Zippo proudly and preemptively embraces all Pop Art interpretations of its products -- even a junk sculpture lighter made from a bunch of little worn lighters inspires rather than mocks.

The history of 20th century America can be told through its consumer products, and the Zippo has a role unmatched by any, save, perhaps, Spam. The exhibit designer opted for amusing imagery when assembling the chronology of Zippo ads and promotions. But there are poignant moments captured as well. In one gallery, an eerie white sculpture depicts two World War II grunts sharing a light from a Zippo in a sandbagged foxhole.

Striker wheel displays.

Oh, yeah, that's right. Zippos, aside from their collectible status, are used to light cigarettes.

Other displays of note are the original artwork from the 1989 Reagan-Gorbachev summit commemorative Zippo (a coveted model); a video loop of recent Zippo product placements in Hollywood films; the 500 millionth Zippo lighter ever produced; and news stories of working Zippos found in the stomachs of a Northern Pike and a dead bear.

The big draw here is the observation window into "The World Famous Zippo Clinic," where sick Zippos are sent by distraught owners and examined by technicians. The company's pledge, "It works or we fix it free," is taken seriously in Bradford. Beneath the windows are small glass cases with Zippos that couldn't be fixed; many of them are unrecognizable as lighters. The labels beneath each tells its story: "power mower," "logging truck,""bulldozer," "garbage disposal," "sledgehammer,""railroad train," "taxiing airplane." The message is clear: nothing short of annihilation can stop a Zippo.

Smashed lighter.

There are more exhibits, strange installations and kinetic sculptures that hypnotize adults. Though the Zippo story ends, the Visitors Center isn't done with you. It also pays tribute to Case knife products, and we see a few visitors cast respectful glances and move on. They're really here for the Zippos.

Inexplicable gizmo using Zippo components mesmerizes visitors.
Inexplicable gizmo using Zippo components mesmerizes visitors.

The gift shop is packed with a Japanese tour group during our visit. How they got all the way the hell out here is a mystery. But they've clogged the gift counter and are eager to buy their own collectible Zippos, even though most can only point and nod.

A clerk asks "You want this one?"

(eager nod)

"But I thought you wanted this one."

(eager nod).

Zippo Lighter Visitors Center

932 Zippo Drive, Bradford, PA
I-86 exit 23, 10 miles south on Rte 219, drive past it on the highway (it is very easy to notice, day or night), take the next exit, and double back on South Ave.
M-Sa 9-5, Su hours seasonal. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

McDonald's Drive-Thru Oil WellMcDonald's Drive-Thru Oil Well, Bradford, PA - 1 mi.
Penn Brad Oil MuseumPenn Brad Oil Museum, Bradford, PA - 2 mi.
The Kinzua ViaductThe Kinzua Viaduct, Mount Jewett, PA - 13 mi.
In the region:
Metal Yard Sculptures Gallery, West Valley, NY - 35 mi.

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