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Perseverance, ingenuity, hard work, and a lot of luck can make
a company endure for many years. Bowers Tool and Die Company, of
Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a good example of a family owned company
that has survived the ups and downs of an often volatile and strenuous
seventy years of dedication to success.
Even with the calamitous and frightful events of depression, war,
and personal grief. Bowers remains
healthy and strong with an on going tale whose ending is
yet to be written.
For lighter collectors all around the world the name Bowers is well known.
The lighters they produced are common to extremely rare in availability
and extremely desirable with some varieties. Overall, the inclusion of
Bowers lighters in most general collections is understandably expected.
To have all of the models and styles of lighters they produced would
present a grouping of more than two dozen examples. This would include
variations in the materials used such as steel and brass, and finishes
of chrome or gun metal blue. Aluminum and anodized colored advertisers
in the competitive "Zippo" style pieces from the 1960's are but a small
chapter in the catalog of what collectors can find.
Bowers "Kalamazoo Slide Sleeve" Lighters. The three versions include a round tube,
flat tube, and rare flip action some are often marked "Sure Fire". First made in 1930.
Photos by Tom O'key.
Historically the Bowers name has roots stemming from English Emigrants who settled in
Greenfield Massachusetts. The family has beginnings that include stories of the civil
war, the origins of professional baseball, and a legacy of entrepreneurial inventiveness
that began with Ernest Charles Bowers, the founder of the Bowers Tool and Die Company.
Ernest was born on September 25th, 1879, son of Henry and Mary Ann (Hampshire) Bowers.
Ernest began his career in metal working after completing an apprenticeship as a machinist
with Warner Manufacturing Co. of Greenfield, Mass. For a number of years that followed
he found himself jumping from one job to another, most of which were related to
employment in metal working.
He ran a hotel, in Liberty Center, Ohio, for a couple of years where
in 1905 he married Mina R. Snyder.
They soon moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan where they raised six children.
In Kalamazoo, Ernest served as superintendent of the Cook Standard Tool
Co. for ten years after which he organized the Bowers-Dodgson Tool Co.
The company later sold to the Kalamazoo Spoke and Nipple Co. where Ernest
remained as manager until 1928. That same year he organized the Bowers Tool
and Die Company. This was the definitive beginning of what has the interest
of lighter collectors today.
Ernest was a clever man who had a great deal of experience in how to make
things work. In the infancy of his company he ran a general tool and die
making shop that employed 25 to 30 "first class" tool makers. Then, in 1929
the great depression swept across America and the battle to remain afloat
was overwhelming. He laid off most of his men and started to re-direct his
endeavors. Ernest smoked and he had a lighter that he used and liked. It was
an Austrian made lighter that had a tube type design which incorporated a
slide up windshield and little snuffer cap that pivoted away from the wick
to make room to ignite the flame.
The operation of the lighter was a bit
clumsy and he had invented an improvement in the design that made it easier
to manipulate. Smoking was popular and there seemed to be promise in
marketing his improved lighter, so, in 1930 he began producing the "Kalamazoo
Slide Sleeve Lighter". Sales were made locally for the most part through
jobbers in the Michigan area and though business wasn't fantastic it was
good enough to keep the bills paid and the doors open.
Bowers Early "Storm Masters"
Tube Style Lighter" C.1940
In 1931, Ernest's second oldest son, Frederick, who was born on May 17th, 1912, came to
work for the company after completing high school that spring. About a year later
Fred became seriously ill and had to leave the business but returned in the following
year where he stayed until January of 1934. At that time, the lighter business wasn't
doing well so Fred went to work for the General Tool and Die Company as a tool designer.
There he became acquainted with their advertising manager and the two of them made an
arrangement with Ernest to market the Bowers lighter nationally. Sales grew to the
point that by the end of 1935 Frederick went back to work with his dad full time.
The "Slide Sleeve" was a great seller. A second version appeared that was the same
in all respects mechanically except it was flattened to an oval shape instead of
being a round cylinder like the original. Its production dates are unknown, but, it
was probably introduced just before WWII.
Lighter sales increased rapidly and by 1938 they introduced a couple of new lighters
that were low priced and very simple in their construction. Made from brass, these lighters
had removable tops and a small flint wheel inside. Named the "Storm Master" they appeared in
flat and round ended tube designs. History of their success in unknown but there must have
been many produced as they can, at best, be listed as uncommon today. Another lighter that
was produced, which is rare today, is similar to the "Slide Sleeve" of the oval variety,
but, instead of the typical flint wheel as seen in the "Slide Sleeve", it had a sprung
thumb piece that created a snap action to the flint wheel when flipped with the thumb.
A windshield similar to the "Slide Sleeve" was also incorporated though it had no holes
for air flow to the flame. No name is known for this lighter.
On December 4th, 1937 Fred married Mary Jane Saunders. The business was running
well at the time and by early 1938 the factory was producing about 4000 lighters a day.
It was around that time that one of the first of several heavy blows hit Bowers Tool
and Die Company. A New York importer brought some five million "knock off" lighters
into the U.S. the U.S. They were very similar to the "Kalamazoo Slide Sleeve" but
totally inferior in construction and very low in price. Selling for as little as
nine cents each, the market for Bowers lighters dropped off to nothing until the
stock ran out. By 1939 production was again back to force at about 4000 units a
day. From the curse of such competition continuing, revival seemed unlikely,
then, as fate would deal a new hand, WWII started. This was the cork that
stopped the foreign on-slaught of lighter imports, not only from Europe,
but, Japan as well. This put the presses back in full swing and before long
the main buyer of lighters became Uncle Sam himself. The war took most of the
brass away from anything not necessary to the needs of the military. Production
again came to a near halt when they re-tooled and the factory began running steel
materials in making their lighters.
The Army-Navy flameless lighter used tinder cord as fuel which burned like a
cigarette when lit. The three versions whown are brass black and chrome plate.
"No wind could blow them out" Made in 1942. The "Army-Navy lighter" was
introduced in 1942 for sale to the Quartermaster and between steel versions
of the "Slide Sleeve" and the flameless "Army-Navy", Bowers supplied 55% of
the lighters purchased by the government during the war years.
The tool and die division and the lighter manufacturing operation were expanded
to meet the production demands of the war starting in 1942, and business was being
run as a full partnership between Ernest and Frederick.
Then in 1946 they incorporated, sharing the stock evenly between them. They began to
produce lighter flints from a powdered metal process developed by Fred and a plant
was opened in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, to produce the flints. By now the Atomic
Energy Commission had been formed and new restrictions on "high tech" metals were put
in place. Between economic and governmental problems the plant was closed in 1948 at
a great expense to the company.
By 1949, the labor unions were at full strength and the pressure to continue in business
became more than could be tolerated. Ernest was 70 years old at the time and that
spring he decided to retire. The tool and die shop was shut down that summer and Fred
continued running the lighter manufacturing division which was producing at full capacity.
The Bowers Tool and Die Company changed its name to the Bowers Lighter Company and, by the
spring of 1951, with 150 employees, they were manufacturing 6 million lighters a year and
still unable to keep up with the demand. Several models of lighters were being manufactured
during this period. The exact production dates are not known for sure, but, it was probably
shortly before that the "Pelican" table lighter was produced. This lighter was made from
the old "cone top" beer cans which were topped with a simple flint wheel and wick with a
The Army-Navy flameless lighter used tinder cord as fuel which
burned like a cigarette when lit. The three versions
whown are brass black and chrome plate. "No wind could blow
them out" Made in 1942.
It was marketed under the name "Lamp Lighter" as well. These lighters came fully
filled and ready to use, with the claim that you would never use up the
supply of fluid they provided. The "No. 10" pocket model which looked a
lot like a Zippo was also introduced, its distinction being the inclusion
of filler screws on the bottom. They were made of chrome plated brass. A
truly unique lighter that is unrivaled in the lighter world is the Bowers
"Striker Pipe". This was a light weight, aluminum smoking pipe that incorporated
a striker wand in the end near the bowl and a flint striker affixed to the body
of the pipe. This is one of the really rare lighters made by Bowers and is highly
The "Peli-Can Lighter" Other versions exist
including the "Lamp-Lighter". Made about 1949.
American involvement in the Korean War was underway by now and again the restrictions
on manufacturing materials were putting a crunch on the Bowers production lines.
Ernest's share of Bowers stock was retired in January of 1952 and Fred became the
sole owner of the company. He faced a deluge of problems that were remarkably overcome.
The government put an excise tax of fifteen percent on lighters made domestically
and at the same time cut duty on imports by fifty percent. Metal allocations were
cut by eighty percent and competition was growing stronger from abroad. Plans had
been made to produce an automatic lighter by the fall of 1952 as the Ronson patents
were expiring. All was a wash in view of the economic climate and the lighter was
never produced. Earlier, in the spring of 1952, they were approached by an
advertising firm who ordered 500 thousand lighters for their initial order. Fortunately
this company had adequate metal allocations to produce the lighters and the order
was filled. Competition from Japan and Austria was getting really fierce. With hopes
that the war would be ver soon, a large investment was made in new equipment and machines
that would enable the Bowers plant to make 4000 complete pieces per hour with one operator.
This would improve their competitive edge to deal with the other lighter producers.
No sooner did their hopes come true and with the lifting of materials restrictions in 1954
the price of brass went through the roof. Unable to justify the cost of making brass
lighters they turned to a new consumer material. The new edge was found in using aluminum.
By now it was fall of 1954. Ernest passed away in September at age 75. Experimentation and
development of the manufacturing methods to produce the new line of aluminum lighters
continued and production began in early 1955. Lighter production gradually picked up
to the point that by spring of 1957 six thousand lighters were coming off the line
daily. In the summer of 1957 a huge quantity of low quality "copy" lighters came in
Frederick knew he could not possibly compete with this as the retail on the
Japanese lighters was only 49 cents. In February of 1958 he went to Japan and
met with the lighter- manufacturers there. They managed to make agreements to
not step on each others toes, so to speak, and imports of the copies stopped.
Other varieties of advertising lighters continued to flood the American market,
spurred by the needs for cheap give-a-way lighters by the tobacco companies.
Zippo and Ronson copies came in by the millions. The Japanese made advertising
lighters were coming into the U.S. at a rate of five million lighters per month in 1959.
The aluminum lighters produced domestically during 1962 were improved with the
addition of acid etched, photo silk screened finishes enabling them to make
great advertising lighters that were brightly anodized in the new anodizing
process they were then employing.
For the next thirteen years the Bowers aluminum lighters would remain unchanged.
The name went from "Storm Master" to "Sure Fire", a name seen on many of the
WWII "Slide Sleeve" models. Many of the "Sure Fire" lighters were exported to
Japan which signifies the great success Frederick had in dealing with the Japanese.
The "Sure Fire" Aluminum with advertising on it.
The Bowers "No. 15" table lighter was in production in the early 1960's and Frederick
had also incorporated the same mechanism into several other varieties of base materials.
The No. 15 was a zinc die cast model that had a Zippo style top. Most appear to have been
made with a chrome finish.
Continuing to remain on good terms with the Japanese, Frederick had a couple of
lighters produced in Japan under his name. The "AF1OO" was a table model that
worked much the same as the "Colibri Monopol" action and was packaged in a wooden
box decorated with a similar lacquer pattern that was found on the lighter. A pocket
model was also produced, but none are known to exist.
On September 16, 1966 Frederick passed away. Behind him was an era of dreams
made into realities and adventure that he obviously loved despite the hurdles
and pitfalls. And a lot of lighters that will preserve the memory of a life
Bowers "Striker Pipe" This rare lighter was made about 1947
Bowers liked pipes. He also made a self cleaning corn cob
pipe in 1964.
The value of many of these lights vary based on the quality and model.
The SureFire lighter line sells to collectors from between $3 to $25 dollars.
The Slide-Sleeve lighters value between $15 and $50. The brass goes slightly higher.
Most can easily be bought and sold on auction sites like Ebay easily.
NOTE For further information about Lighters, Please contact "On the Lighter Side"
International Lighter Collectors at:
P.O. Box 1733
Kalamazoo public library local history: Kalamazo Gazette; 2-9-95, 9-17-66,9-6-64,5-10-46.;
Citizens Historical Association, Indianapolis, Mar.22,1941,No.2 D20 E39 F76 JHA/BAR, Ernest C. Bowers.;
History of The Bowers Tool & Die Company alias Bowers Lighter Company, Frederick. H.Bowers, July, 1962;
Kalamazoo The Place Behind the Product, by Larrie B. Massie & Peter J. Schmitt, p.l96;
Interveiws with Jon Bowers, by Tom O'Key June 1990; Judith Sanders 1994;
Tom O'Key 1995 Information learned from lighters in the collections of Judith Sanders and Tom 0'Key
Our Location? -->> 6565 S Sprinkle Road Portage MI 49002
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