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A ‘safe’ place for matches was a necessity

1904 World’s Fair souvenir wooden match holder with image of a donkey painted on it. Missouris History Museum

By Donna Miller

Matches as we know them today did not exist until the 19th century. The term, as it was used prior to that, referred to strips of wood, cord, or other material that had been dipped in melted sulfur and were ignited by holding them to another smoldering item, which in turn had been lit from a tinderbox.

In 1826, a chemist named John Walker invented friction matches, the kind we still use today. He called them “friction lights”. Although this marked the beginning of the end for the tinderbox, Walker was not commercially minded and neither patented nor advertised his matches. He sold only 250 boxes in two and half years, each contained 100 matches.

Samuel Jones, another chemist form London, was more interested in the big picture. In 1829, he launched what we would call today an effective marketing campaign for his matches, and made himself a fortune. His “Lucifers”, as they were known, became a household word. (The choking smoke which they produced reminded the early users of fire and brimstone.)

Improvements and variations of friction matches continued. And much change was needed. The odor from the Lucifers was extremely offensive. One alternative, which was sometimes called a “parlor match”, contained the highly flammable potassium chlorate, and carpet fires were common.

Eventually, the safety match was invented. It would ignite only when rubbed against a special surface. These, however, were also highly poisonous, and were especially deadly to those involved in their manufacture.

In 1911, a chemical engineer at the Diamond Match Co. invented a safe, non-poisonous combination of chemicals to use in safety matches. The patent for this combination and the process for making it were donated to the American people by the company.

With the invention of friction matches came the need for safe places to store them. Match holders in a variety of forms quickly filled that need. Today, a fascinating collection of match holders can be acquired. Some are designed to be hung on a wall or set on a table. Others, usually called matchsafes, are lidded and designed to be carried in a pocket or purse.

Match holders have been made of many different materials. Painted tin ones to hang on the wall were common, and often used as advertising premiums. At the opposite extreme, companies such as Tiffany made matchsafes of platinum and gold, set with precious gems. Glass, wood, bronze, cast iron, ceramics, papier-mâché, and celluloid were also used.

Designs were equally varied. Table holders shaped like cottages, top hats, figurines, boots and alligators; wall hanging model representing telephones, devils, brick fireplaces, and ornate cat iron work; and pocket safes with fish, religious themes, souvenir pictures, gambling devices and some very ribald designs may all be found.

The mechanicals are much sought after by collectors. They have moving parts which extract just one match for the user. They were usually found in hotels and cigar stores.

One thing that almost every match holder of any kind has is a place to strike the match. It will be a rough or ribbed area, and is usually very accessible. Sometimes, although accessible, it is not particularly noticeable if it has been incorporated into the design of the piece such as crisscross lines of a basket.

Several reference books are available on match holders. Collectible Match Holders for Tabletops and Walls, by Jean & Franklin Hunting (Schiffer Publishing, 1998,) and Pocket Matchsafes, Reflections of Life & Art, 1840-1920, W. Eugene Sanders, Jr. & Christine C. Sanders, (Schiffer Publishing, 1997,) are both price guides with extensive color photographs.

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