Matches go back a long time. In early days they were referred to as “fire sticks.” Later, chemicals were put on the end of wood sticks. When struck on a rough surface, they produced a flame. They were very dangerous and if rubbed together, they would ignite.
In 1911, Diamond Match Co. came up with the first “safety match,” one that would ignite only if rubbed against a special striking patch. Books contained 10, 20 or 30 sticks of matches. The 20-match book was more widely used, as there were 20 cigarettes in a pack.
In 1973, by government order, the striker on the matchbook was moved from the front to the back. If using the front striker and the matchbook wasn’t closed, a piece of the match could fly off and ignite the entire book, causing a large and potentially dangerous flame. Moving the striker to the back eliminated that problem.
As early as 1900, people discovered that matchbook advertising was effective. Matches were given out free by hotels, restaurants, banks, national landmarks, gas stations and other businesses. They were even produced with personalized greetings for use at weddings, anniversaries and other social events.
The ease of lighting made cigarette use that much more convenient. Death row inmates and dying soldiers asked for and received their last cigarette. During World War II, tobacco companies distributed free cigarettes to servicemen as part of the war effort, effectively boosting cigarette usage — and the need for matches.
Today, with declining tobacco use, match manufacturers have seen sales shrink. Diamond Match Co. merged with Atlas Match Co. in 1987, but it was too little, too late, as the demand for matches continued to plummet and the company was sold (today it is a subsidiary of Jarden Corp.).
Smoking bans in public buildings also played a role, but the final blow to match manufacturers came in the early 1970s with the introduction of the cheap, disposable lighter.
Although it’s never been a mainstream hobby, front-strike matchbook covers remain a popular collectible category. I started collecting match covers in the 1950s during a visit to Las Vegas. I picked up free matchbooks everywhere we went. My wife bought a 12-inch goldfish bowl to put them in. In the years since, I’ve emptied that bowl many times.
But that is not the best way to display collectible matchbooks. Ideally, you would remove the staple, dispose of the matches and press the covers under heavy weight until they are flat. Plastic pages that fit in a three-ring binder hold eight covers each. They are readily available online.
My collection (housed in three 4-inch binders) focuses on small town Minnesota match covers. I also have two 3-inch binders full of topical covers in categories such as alcoholic beverages, candy and soda, restaurants, farm-related, food, gas manufacturers, hotels/motels, military, smoking and transportation.
Most matchbook collectors prefer unused covers. I collect anything, as older covers (those with the front strike patch) are hard to find unused. Antique malls are a good place to hunt for them; you’ll often find them in small, zip-style plastic bags. Prices start at 10 cents; bags containing perhaps two dozen covers might sell for $2 or $3. I have come across large boxes of matchbooks at flea markets with each cover priced at 25 cents.
Whatever you collect, there are still match covers out there to complement it. Matchbooks I don’t use in my collection end up in a big box in my attic. Someday I’m going to make some collector very happy when he or she attends my estate sale! FC
For more information: The Matchcover Vault, an online resource for matchcover collectors (including an extensive list of clubs in the U.S. and Canada)
John Cole is a postcard collector/dealer from Kenyon, Minn.