The Douglass automatic pocket lighter is one of the most popular and collectible American made lighters of the 1920s-1930s. It was developed by Leon Douglass of California. Leon Douglass was a founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Known as an inventor and hobbyist, Leon set out in the mid 1920’s to develop a simple yet practical lighter. His goal was no gadgets or wheels. A likely reference to the Dunhill Unique. This new invention was a lighter that worked at the mere press of a trigger.
The Douglass was designed with a long narrow arm mounted above a flint wheel, which, when triggered, releases backward to shower sparks upon the wick. It was a powerful action which did not have any safety lock. Douglass was granted a patent on October 12th 1926.
Leon Douglass had a passion for quality and he commissioned the Wadsworth Company, famous for fine watch cases, to design his lighters. Selling the lighters was delegated to Hargraft & Sons who were based in the Wrigley building in Chicago. Hargraft used an informative leaflet 'The Matchless Age' to promote their new product.
At first there was one basic standard model, 2" tall. In 1930 Douglass introduced the "Silhouette" model (called extra thin) with the only difference being in the width of the body.
The basis for the success of the Douglass lighter was both the quality of workmanship and variety of finishes and treatments. The known varieties include solid 14k gold, of which many retailed at Tiffany.
The treatments included leather coverings (in alligator, ostrich, pig skin, snake, seal, and lizard) and fine engine turning and enameling. The models were both classic and modernistic art deco.
At the time retail prices started about $3.50 for the basic polished nickel cased lighters to $10 for the silver plated items with engine turning. Gold fill models sold for about $30 and sterling silver $25. Old Douglass magazine ads talk of lighters selling for $1000 so it is very possible they were also produced in platinum.
In the short course of their production, there were few modifications to the product. In 1930, a windscreen was introduced. Otherwise small improvements such as tighter cap and better springs were developed.
In 1929 a completely new model was introduced which incorporated a very simple lever combination wheel action. Another 1932 side press automatic model is shown in patent only. The Douglass is known in a half size model as shown with matching cigarette case, as well as table versions and a table counter display model. It is said that the initials "MP" on the lighter (below right) are for Mary Pickford.
For collectors today, the Douglass represents a quality lighter in the standard of Dunhill. The finishes and workmanship have stood the test of time. The Douglass is truly an important automatic lighter for every collection.
Photos by Larry Tolkin