Matchbooks have been around since the late 19th century. Joshua Pusey (1842 – 1906) patented paper matches, whose tips were dipped in a solution of sulphur and phosphorus and then attached to a piece of cardboard. He called them “flexibles”. The Diamond Match Company promptly purchased Pusey’s patent for $4000, and in 1894, a company salesman, Henry Traute, received his first order for 10 million matchbooks with ads for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on their covers.
Tobacco maker Bull Durham quickly followed with an order for 30 million matchbooks. Despite the advertisements, matchbook companies expected people to purchase their products. The public wasn’t buying them because those first matchbooks were quite dangerous; the friction strip was located inside the cover, right next to the rest of the matches. Smartly, Traute had the friction strip moved to the outside of the matchbook and added the words “Close Cover Before Striking” to the cover.
Traute realized that if his matchbooks should be given away, and they could be used to sell other products. Soon matchbooks were offered to customers of tobacco products, and they were left in the ashtrays of eateries and hotels for the convenience of diners and guests.
Collectors of vintage matchbooks are called “Phillumenists”. They usually carefully open the staple to remove the matches from the inside of the cover, and the covers are displayed flat. The exception is for novelty matchbooks whose matches have also been printed.
For some reason, matchbook covers are particularly cool when it comes to matchbooks for places to eat and drink. The graphics and colors are rich and vivid. Sometimes the covers were printed with full-length designs, so that when the cover is flattened and turned sideways, it resembles a small billboard.
“Girlies” matchbooks were printed for all 242 Playboy clubs, and there are covers featuring different railroad lines and national parks. Thousands of matchbook designs were created during WW II, with may covers having patriotic themes. There are matchbooks that featured friction strips on caricatures of Adolph Hitler‘s butt, with the words: “Strike On Back Side” printed on the front.
Matchbox advertising proved perfect for advertising public-health initiatives, sporting events, and political campaigns.
In 1962, the U.S. government safety laws insisted that friction strips be moved from the outside-front of a matchbook to the outside back, which meant the end of the famous phrase “Close Cover Before Striking”. However, by the mid-1970s, the introduction of disposable lighters devastated the matchbook industry.
Their small size and large production numbers mean that matchboxes are an affordable way to collect vintage advertising art. This week, I purchased a few at a neighborhood junk shop for three for one dollar.
Because of the era, some vintage matchbook covers are racist, many are sexist, and some are surprisingly gay.