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Updated on June 15, 2010

A match is a small thin stick of wood or cardboard. Its tip is coated with chemicals that produce a flame easily when it is rubbed sharply against a rough surface.

Matches tipped with an explosive substance that bursts into flame on being struck - were first used about 1834. These were known as 'Lucifer Matches'. Many improvements have been made in matches since then, the most important of which was the invention of the safety match, requiring a person to strike on the box only.

What are matches made of?

The head of a match is a mixture of things which will flare up together as soon as they get warm. This happens when the match is rubbed along the rough striking surface of the box.  One substance, usually potassium chlorate, contains a lot of oxygen to help the other substance, phosphorus sulphide. to burn quickly with lots of heat. There is usually some sulphur and charcoal in the match head too, to help the process along.  In safety matches, the kind which will not strike on anything but their own box, the phosphorus is not in the match head but on the striking surface.  


Matches are among the greatest of the minor boons to mankind, for while it was not difficult to make tinder glow by means of sparks from flint and steel or by wood friction, it was by no means easy to complete the stages from glowing tinder to active flame. The earliest matches were therefore a part of the fire-making process; they were slivers of wood tipped with sulphur which could be easily ignited from the tinder.

The Romans knew the ignitable properties of sulphur, but there is little evidence that these sulphur matches were common before the seventeenth century. The next development was to transform the match itself into the main instrument of ignition without flint and steel.

Matches which gave an instantaneous light were devised in the eighteenth century in the form of thin glass tubes, surrounding a wax taper and a small piece of phosphorus. To obtain a light one broke the tube, and the phosphorus ignited spontaneously on contact with the air. Matches of this kind were expensive; and were also dangerously liable to break and ignite in one's pocket.

In 1786 came the more manageable device of the phosphorus box - in fact a bottle, tightly stoppered and internally coated with phosphorus: sulphur matches were quickly introduced and withdrawn when a light was required. Care had to be taken to re-seal the bottle speedily and effectively each time.

More popular than either of these devices was the 'Instantaneous Light Box' introduced about 1810. This time the matches were made by dipping sticks into a mixture of chlorate of potash, gum and sugar. The user had to carry about a small phial of sulphuric acid. For a light the matches were plunged quickly into this and withdrawn. If, in the process, a drop of acid was spilt, it would burn through clothing to the skin.

The danger was removed in 1824 by the ingenious device of a Mr Berry of London. His match-box was a tin about five inches by four by two deep, containing (1) a bottle of sulphuric acid, (2) a little turntable to hold matches, (3) a gallows-like structure that could be erected simply by sticking it into a tubular holder, (4) a spirit lamp and (5) a compartment for spare matches. The bottle was sealed by a glass stopper with a conical end that dipped into the acid. To obtain a light, the gallows was erected, a pull on the string lifted up the stopper on the end of which a tiny drop of acid remained, and a match was brought into contact with the acid by turning the turntable. A further turn, and the burning match ignited the spirit lamp. The stopper was lowered again into the acid bottle and the gallows dismantled. No stray drop of acid could spoil the satisfaction of getting a light by a process which did away with the tiresome business of flint, steel and tinder.

However, within a year or two all these methods were made obsolete by friction matches. These begin with the 'friction lights' devised in 1826 by John Walker, an English pharmacist of Stockton-on-Tees. To the chlorate match he added sulphide of antimony, and he discovered that if the heads were sharply withdrawn between a fold of fine sandpaper, they ignited.

Match mass production.
Match mass production.

Walker sold these matches at the old high price of a shilling a hundred, plus twopence for the tin container: but he refused to patent his invention which he regarded as part of his professional service. The news spread, and by 1829 similar matches were being made in London and sold as 'Lucifers'. To these a little sulphur was added to aid combustion.

The use of phosphorus on matches was the idea of a Frenchman, Charles Sauria, in 1830; but, like Walker, he sought no patent. Such phosphorus matches were at first dangerously easy to ignite. Many a loaded cart bearing a packet of them among other goods was burnt out because the matches were in the sun, or because the cart jolted badly on the cobble stone road pavings. The workers making the matches contracted the shocking disease of the jaw and jaw-bone known as phossy-jaw, which could even attack those who used them if they handled the match heads and afterwards put their hands up to their mouths.

Red phosphorus, which is not poisonous, was discovered by Schrotter, of Vienna, in 1845, but it seemed impracticable for matches, since it exploded violently when mixed with the other ingredients. Ten years later Lundstrom, in Sweden, conceived the idea of putting the red phosphorus on the sandpaper outside the box and the other ingredients on the match-head. These matches were called 'safety matches', more from the avoidance of fire risk than out of consideration for the workers, but in fact they were safe in both respects.

In 1898 Sevene and Cahen, in France, discovered a harmless substitute for the noxious yellow form of phosphorus in the shape of sesquisulphide of phosphorus, which is equally suitable for 'strike anywhere' matches. The part of the match-stick near the head is usually wax impregnated to make it burn better.


  • Pears Cyclopaedia, Twenty-Ninth Edition, 1926.
  • Childcraft Dictionary, 1989 edition.
  • People, Places, Things & Ideas, Volume Three, The Waverly Book Company Limited, 1954. Page 242.
  • 365 Things To Know, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968. page 213


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    • profile image

      Michele 6 years ago

      I have found a matches tin, looks like a tin from year 1855! It is also full of the matches and the sandpaper on the bottom of it!!

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      will 6 years ago

      aj did you do this for your project because im thinking about doing one to do with the matches and sulfuric acid and i was wondering if you had any tips or if it was successful?

    • darkside profile image

      Glen 7 years ago from Australia

      David, I think you need to talk to your doctor.

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      david 7 years ago

      this is very cool as matches make me very horny not sure why but the smell sight and feel makes me very hard

    • darkside profile image

      Glen 9 years ago from Australia

      @aj, be sure to include the URL of the page as your source for your reference material! ;)

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      aj 9 years ago

      im doing a project and this is perfact for my project