7 May 2017

My grandfather’s Ronson Whirlwind lighter

An object that crossed continents.

By In Gear, Style 3 min read

My grandfather passed away when I was still very young – old enough to remember, but so young that I don’t remember clearly. Lung cancer, the result of smoking in the era when nobody knew quite how bad it was for you. That makes it ironic that of the two things I currently have his, one is a watch – that one should surprise no one – but the other is a lighter.


After my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we found these objects while cleaning out my grandparent’s house. The watch, relatively new and apart from emotional value not very special, was back in action once we replaced the battery and the strap. The lighter, on the other hand, hidden in a dark corner of the closet, did absolutely nothing anymore.


Curiosity got the better of me and I took it just to see if I could repair it. Googling the brand ‘Ronson’ turned out to be very effective – there are many weird collectors of lighters who have created entire websites about them. This lighter is a Ronson Whirlwind, an American model made between 1941 and 1956. The unique feature of the Whirlwind is a windshield that can be pulled up out of the lighter’s body, to help shield the flame when using the lighter outdoors.


Ronson’s claim to fame is an ingenious system which lets you use the lighter with one finger and one motion. Press the button and it lights, release the button and the lighter goes out. The patent, repair manual and various advertisements for this model are still available through Google.


I wanted to find out how old this lighter was. The earliest models of the Whirlwind, dating to the ’40s, had variations on the text Ronson “Whirlwind” on the windshield. The windshield was changed after a few years and after that they no longer had any text there. I found some images of Ronson models with identical-looking text, that their owners dated to 1942!


That would make this lighter more than 70 years old, dating to the time that my family still lived in Indonesia, even before my mother was born. That kind of changed things. If my grandfather still had this lighter with him in the Netherlands, that meant he carried it with him when they had to flee Indonesia when it became too dangerous for Chinese to live there, when he decided to bring his family to the Netherlands for their safety.

Suddenly, I understand the weird lighter collectors, the people who collect historical Zippos. Lighters are personal items, to smokers back then they were as important to have on them as a smartphone is to me. Lighters have seen some shit happen. This thing was there for a lot of my family’s history.


In the end I gave up on repairing the lighter myself, and instead found a professional repairman who was willing to repair a Whirlwind. It wasn’t that easy – the mechanism was rusted, the flint had bonded to the tube, the tank was leaky. But he got it working again for me.


So there you have it. I own my grandfather’s old Ronson now. A strange object to have. One of the two remaining things I have of my grandfather. It was his until the end of his life, it crossed continents, it was in the family from even before my mom was born. But at the same time, it’s a symbol of – you could even say the cause of – the disease that ultimately killed him.


Still, I’m really happy I have it.

(Original post in Dutch)

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