Monday, October 1, 2012

Close Cover Before Striking

QUESTION: My grandfather left me his collection of match safes. All I know about them is that they held matches to keep them dry. Some of his are extremely ornate. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: Yes,  match safes did help keep matches dry, but they also served another purpose—they helped keep the bearer safe. Early matches were prone to igniting from rubbing against one another or spontaneously, so most people carried a match safe to house their matches. Between 1890 and 1920, most people carried strike-anywhere matches, so they could light stoves, lanterns and other devices. By then the pocket match book, invented by Joshua Pusey, had become popular.

John Walker, an English druggist in Stockton-on-Tees, England, made the first friction match in 1826. He  called his invention "friction light." The first containers Walker used to hold the matches he made and sold in his chemist’s shop were round canister-shaped tin boxes that cost two pence each and held 100 matches. Since there was no roughened surface on the boxes to ignite the matches, he inserted a piece of sandpaper for that purpose. Unfortunately, Walker never patented his invention.

Three years later, Samuel Jones sold a similar product with the catchier name  "Lucifers.” Soon after, Charles Sauna invented a phosphorus match in France and by 1836 phosphorus matches patented by Alonzo Dwight Phillips of Massachusetts became available in the United States. By 1840, friction matches were in common use.

There are numerous varieties of pocket match safes—figural, advertising, combination boxes, and trick or puzzle boxes. Manufacturers also produced wall match safes, designed to hold loose matches or a box of matches, as well as table top match safes, match box holders, and match grips, usually mounted on a standing ashtray, which were three-sided and gripped the match box. Early pocket match safes were merely functional and plain in their styling, but later on they became ornate accessories, much like jewelry.

While there’s an endless variety of figural pocket match safes out there, that is those featuring a person or animal or some sort of object, there are many more featuring advertising. Just as today's matchbooks usually contain ads on their front and back covers, pocket match safes often featured advertising, but in the form of a particular shape or perhaps a slogan, such as those given away as souvenirs of restaurants and hotels. Manufacturers of all sorts of items gave away match safes much the way companies today give away pens or business card holders. Mythological figures and salon art were popular subjects.

Some advertising match safes started out as product sample boxes. These contained samples of gramophone needles, pens, tea, cocoa, razor blade, and tobacco samples. After a person used up the  samples, they could use the box in which it came as a match safe. This also ensured a greater longevity for the ads.

In the United States, one of the most prolific manufacturers of match safes was the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island. Others included William B. Kerr, Unger Brothers, Battin, Blackington, Whiting, George Scheibler and Shreve & Co.

Match safes come in all sorts of shapes and patterns, from plain and decorated square, oblong and round cases, to a myriad of novelty shape made of silver, gold, brass, tin, gunmetal, nickel silver, ivory,  white metal, and even wood and porcelain. However, most were made of inexpensive materials. Those made of precious metals usually had a gold wash interior to prevent corrosion by the chemically active match heads.

Most later match safes came with a ribbed surface on the bottom for lighting the matches. Some match safes incorporated a cigar cutter or a small knife blade as well. While most people carried them in their pockets, gentlemen often suspended them from a fob chain.


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