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Before Velcro’s Patent Expired, It Was a Niche Product Most People Hadn’t Heard Of

The hook-and-loop tape’s moment in the sun came after others were free to copy it

Velcro was originally available only in black, but even when it started coming in multiple colors, 1960s fashionistas wanted nothing to do with it. (iStock)
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Technically called “hook-and-loop fastener,” the product that pretty much everybody knows as Velcro was first patented in 1958. That patent expired on April 2, 1978, ushering in an age of hook-and-loop innovation.

Today, most of us know that the product was developed by an engineer who noticed burrs stuck to his dog. It took him a long time to translate the plant’s made-in-nature clinginess to a product for market, writes Mary Carmichael for Mental Floss: the skiing trip where he noticed the burrs on his dog took place in 1941.

There were hitches: Velcro’s CEO told Martha Hamilton at The Washington Post that the product wasn’t always as sticky as one would hope. “We had petticoats falling off of gals and brassieres popping open,” he said in 1983. And although De Mestral anticipated that his product would have widespread applications, including in the fashion industry, when Velcro finally made it to market it was a flop. Carmichael writes:    

It was extremely useful but also extremely ugly—a hard sell given that de Mestral mostly envisioned it being used on clothes. High-end designers wouldn’t touch the stuff. The only group that found it appealing was the burgeoning aerospace industry—astronauts didn’t want to fiddle with zippers and laces while trying to get in and out of their spacesuits, and they also needed a way to keep their various personal items and food from floating away in zero gravity.

By the time other industries started to turn to Velcro, Mestral’s patent was almost expired, she writes.

That put the company into high gear, Velcro USA Chairman William A. Krivsky told Hamilton. “If you have a protected position, you don’t run quite as hard as if someone is chasing you,” he said.

Spurred on by competitors beginning to make and sell Velcro, the company worked to get its product into as many niches as possible. By the 1980s, Velcro was showing up on shoes and replacing screws and glue in car interiors. But many people still weren't totally sure what it was.

In 1983, when the Post was reporting on more widespread uses of Velcro, it still explained what the product was: “the sticky stuff that holds blood-pressure cuffs tight, that anchors the cloth squares on the back of airliner seats and that has turned up in the last few years in a variety of new uses, including on sneakers.”

But by the next year, some of the company’s marketing efforts must have borne fruit: David Letterman, wearing a Velcro suit, launched himself at a Velcro wall on late-night television. He stuck.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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