History from Here: Lightning Fastener at 50 Niagara Street

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Lightning Fastener Company

A symbol of twentieth century industry and innovation, at it’s height, the Lightning Fastener Company employed over 500 people and manufactured more than 50 million zippers annually – all in this building located at 50 Niagara Street in St. Catharines.

The newly built Lightning Fastener plant at 50 Niagara Street in 1937. STCM S1937.12.6.1

The words, Lightning Fastener, certainly create vivid imagery. Speedy. Swift. Quick. An intuitive, easy-to-use mechanism to securely zip-up our clothing and accessories. Before the invention of what we now know as the zipper, we were plagued with troublesome buttons and finnicky hooks to secure our money bags, pouches, footwear, and more. Enter Swedish-American engineer Gideon Sundback, who, by 1917 and after a few prototypes, developed a system of two rows of interlocking teeth that were pulled together into a single piece by means of a slider. This seemingly simple innovation was ground-breaking, and the hookless fastener was immediately a commercial success.

Lightning Fastener promotional slide, 1953. STCM 2003.65.31

The term “zipper” was coined by the B.F. Goodrich Company, who adopted Sundback’s Hookless Fastener for a line of galosh boots in 1923. The story goes that upon hearing the sound so distinctive of the sliding fastener, an employee apparently exclaimed, “Zip ‘er up!” The name stuck, despite the company’s attempts to control their trademark.

Lightning Fastener Company President Gideon Sundback at the cornerstone laying ceremony in 1937. STCM 2003.98.18

While Sundback’s zipper was actually invented for the company he worked for in Pennsylvania, he brought his invention to Canada to open his own zipper manufacturing operation. In 1937, the Lightning Fastener Company Plant opened here, at 50 Niagara Street, in St. Catharines. It was the first purpose-built factory in Canada dedicated to the manufacture of this product. At this time, the popularity of the zipper in fashion was growing exponentially! And the factory continued to expand to keep up with demand. In 1937 there were 139 million zipper sales in America; by 1941 the number had risen to 500 million.

According to the St. Catharines Standard, here Donna Hraukowski performs her job as a top-stopper at the Lightning Fastener Company. STCM S1962.50.9.2

This golden age of manufacturing lasted into the 1970s, when cheaper products made elsewhere were introduced to the rapidly globalizing market. This was a familiar reality for so many Canadian manufacturers at this time. It became harder and harder to remain competitive. After being acquired by the larger American company Textron in 1968, the plant was able to hold on and continued to produce quality zippers until 1981, when the company was again acquired by an even larger American corporation and St. Catharines operations were shut down later that year.

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2 comments

  1. A simple bit of history that I found very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I can sneak that in as a bit of trivia during dinner conversations with friends.

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