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Collecting Match Book Covers

Updated on May 7, 2012

Somebody once said, “If you build it, they will come.” The same philosophy could also be applied to many other endeavors. Say, if someone makes a product, somebody will collect it. Examples are everywhere. Stamps, coins, buttons, bottle caps and even match books. People who collect match books are called phillumenists.

Of course, you don’t see as many new ones around these days. There are several reasons for that. First of all, most are in someone’s collection. Other reasons are use of matches have declined in the last few decades due to the availability of inexpensive,disposable lighters, people giving up the smoking habit and automatic gas stove lighters. But, of the matches that are sold, match books far outsell their wooden counterparts mainly because of their advertising capabilities. It’s hard to print an advertisement on a match stick.

Collecting matchbooks is fun, interesting and can be done on a shoestring budget. Most matchbooks can be acquired free, in restaurants, motels, banks, casinos, etc. They have a rich heritage and make a visually appealing display. Rare, collectible matchbooks can be found by browsing online auction sites. Or, you can visit or join one of the many clubs and organizations which have sprung up around the hobby.

Collecting Matchbooks, or Phillumeny, became a popular hobby in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Then interest waned significantly for a while until the late 1990s when Phillumenists turned to the internet to share and trade collections.

Many collectors specialize in particular themes, such as eras or certain products advertised on their covers. Some however, go all the way building large collections specializing in nothing in particular.

Beginning in the early 1900s colorful boxes and books sporting beautiful artwork were made and by the 1930s they were beginning to be widely collected. For obvious safety reasons, many collectors often remove the matches and display their collection of covers in albums.

Match books were produced in sizes containing a different number of matches. There were 10 and 20 count packets, with 20 being the most popular. Larger 30 and 40 count books are called billboards. The most popular were oddly shaped and those also having printing on the matches them self.

But before anyone could begin collecting them, there first had to be a match. There’s some controversy over when matches first came into use. Some claim it was in ancient China around 570 AD when someone discovered pine sticks coated with a mixture of chemicals could start a fire. The exact details and content of the mixture has been lost to history.

It was not until 1680 Englishman Robert Boyle discovered phosphorus and sulfur would burst into flame when rubbed together. He firmly believed the fire wasn’t caused by friction but by properties contained within the two chemicals. He was right. That was the principal which would lead to modern match production.

But the idea didn’t catch on until the early nineteenth century. Not that some enterprising businessmen didn’t try marketing it previously. At the time various devices had been developed, some using Boyle’s phosphorus/sulfur combination, while others employed gaseous hydrogen…all quite unwieldy and dangerous. As one can imagine, more than one gentleman lost a fine suit and/or life by carrying them in a pocket.

It was in 1826 English pharmacist John Walker invented the first friction matches. They were ignited by drawing the match head through a folded piece of paper containing ground glass. He began selling his "sulphuretted peroxide strikables,” in 1827. They were a huge failure as they were gigantic, yard-long sticks difficult to light.

Not long afterwards it was discovered reliable, easily lighted matches could be made by adding potassium chlorate. However, these still presented a hazard because of potassium chlorate’s explosive properties. A way to make a safe match would need to be found before they could be successfully marketed.

In 1831, a match was developed that used white phosphorus. These were strike-anywhere matches and much easier to ignite…unfortunately, too easy. White phosphorus was also highly toxic. Those working in match plants who inhaled the fumes often suffered from a degeneration of the jawbones known as phossy jaw. Despite this, white phosphorus continued to be used until the early 1900s, when governments forced manufacturers to switch to a nontoxic chemical.

In 1836 Hungarian chemist, Janos Irinyi, replaced potassium chlorate with lead dioxide. It was less explosive but still presented a fire hazard. He sold his invention to Istvan Romer, who established the first commercial match factories, which surprisingly became an immediate success.

The same year Alonzo D. Phillips of Springfield, Massachusetts, obtained a patent for manufacturing friction matches. He called them locofocos. But still the danger of accidents persisted. Finally, in 1855 Carl Lundstrom of Sweden introduced the first red phosphorus "safety" matches in 1855. There remained one other problem, size. Big boxes of matches were unsightly when carried on one’s person. A story is told of how this was overcome in 1889 by Joshua Pusey, a well known, cigar smoking, Pennsylvania lawyer.

It seems Pusey was attending a social gathering hosted by the Mayor of Philadelphia. He was attired in his best clothes and struck an imposing figure…except for the embarrassing big box of wooden matches protruding from his vest. He wondered why they had to be so bulky. He came up with a brilliant idea to make them out of paper instead of wood. They would be lighter and much smaller and in 1889 he patented the idea.

However, the public showed little interest in it for almost a decade. Then the Mendelsohn Opera Company got an inspiration. They advertised their 1897 New York opening on Pusey’s match book covers. A brewing company also bought 10 million matchbooks to advertise their product and sales sky rocketed. As they say, “The rest is History.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Need a light?


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Cross your fingers, I might write some more.

    • profile image

      dxnworks 5 years ago

      Its so nice to see a hub on this topic.. so rare pick

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      My mother had been collecting matches and I added to that collection picking up matches where ever I found them. I also collect antique keys. Its funny how people like collecting various items. I enjoyed reading your hub. My the way, I never smoked. I just like the matches.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, when I exhaust all subjects I can think of in one genre, I switch to something else. I'm very versatile. Yeh, the pipe thing just kinda came to me. Glad you liked it.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      I'm enjoying your new trend in hubs! The button article was a lot of fun too. Voted up, interesting & funny. (Love your last line.)