On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for January is a collection of matchbooks. Totaling several hundred, the matchbooks come from all over the United States. From advertising restaurants and bars, to career opportunities and soda pops, these matchbooks now serve as historical documentation of by-gone places, products, and services.
Many people remember the days when it was common for businesses to give away matchbooks. With clever illustrations or zippy graphics, matchbooks were popular to collect. They were tiny little advertisements that were passed around, and got the word out about a business in a cheap, easy way.
The collection on view was donation to the museum by Dr. Jay W. Stein, a WIU professor, who was born in 1920 and died in 2007. Stein accumulated the matchbooks from the time he came to WIU in 1967, to his retirement in 1987. Everywhere he went in those 20 years, he pocketed a matchbook, and his friends and family picked up matchbooks in their travels for him. Stein kept his growing collection in his office, and when he retired and cleaned out his workplace, he decided to give his extensive collection to the museum for posterity.
Today matchbook advertisements are not as popular, and this collection at the museum can show visitors a slice of American history. It is a look back to a time when smoking was popular and matches were given away everywhere.
Many local examples of area businesses are advertised on matchbooks in the collection: Haeger Pottery 100th Anniversary, Hotel Nauvoo, Gray’s Lafayette Shell gas station, Shady Lane Restaurant on Rt. 136 West, Macomb Savings and Loan Association, and the Dissman Motel in Havana to name a few. There are also many examples of restaurants and businesses from other states, and general advertising too, like “Learn at home How to Make BIG MONEY IN ELECTRICITY”, Good Things to Eat, O’Hare Drug Stores at O’Hare Field, and lots of hotels and restaurants.
Illustrating the enormous diversity of venues that at one time used matchbook advertising, the collection is organized into 38 different categories, including political candidates, drugstores, laundries, insurance offices, cigars, florists and cab companies.
Invented in 1827, the first matches were highly explosive and dangerous. Carl Lundstrom of Sweden introduced the first red phosphorus "safety" matches in 1855. These types of matches were large and had to be carried in a wooden box. Joshua Pusey was a Pennsylvania attorney and avid cigar smoker and did not like carrying around a bulky box for his matches. So he decided to experiment and make matches in a paper book that was easier to carry. By 1889, he finished his experiments and had created a strike able matchbook. No more bulky wooden box for him! He patented his invention in 1892.
Unlike matchbooks as we know them today, Pusey put the striking surface on the inside of the paper fold. This allowed all 50 matches in the matchbook to be lit at once. He called his lighter, smaller paper matches in a matchbook, "flexibles.” Pusey sold his invention to the Diamond Match Company for $4000 in 1896.
It was the Diamond Match Company that later put the striking surface on the outside of the matchbook and came up with the safety warning, “close cover before striking.”
The first instance of matchbook advertising occurred in 1897, when the Mendelson Opera Company distributed matchbooks on which the cast had handwritten catchy slogans and pasted photos on the outside of the matchbook to advertise their New York opening. The popularity of this promotion caused the demand for paper matchbooks to soare.
The Diamond Match Company’s first large order for 10 million booklets for the Pabst Brewing Company really started the advertised matchbook industry. The popularity of matchbooks grew with the spread of socially acceptable smoking in public by both men and women during the 1920s and 30s. With more people smoking in public, the need for more matchbooks in public places followed.
It was in the early decades of the 20th century that matchbooks with advertisements suddenly seemed to be everywhere. They were placed on tables in restaurants, hotels had them in their lobbies and dining cars supplied them on the railway. Matchbooks often reflected the artistic and advertising styles of the day.
Manufacturing of matchbooks peaked during the 1940s and 50s. During World War II, a pack of cigarettes and an accompanying matchbook were included with every soldier’s K-rations package. The wartime Office for Price Administration even had home front regulations detailing that for every pack of cigarettes sold, a free matchbook had to be supplied.
In the 1960s, matchbook production began to steadily decline due to the invention of cheap plastic disposable lighters, increased anti-smoking campaigns and public awareness to the health dangers of smoking.
Once upon a time, it was commonplace to pick up matches when leaving a restaurant, going shopping or making a stop at the gas station. Almost ubiquitous, now it is not so customary to see matchbooks displayed at businesses. They have become almost relics from a bygone age.
Today matchbooks now have a “retro” cachet, and the collecting of matchboxes, matchbooks, match labels and other match-related items is popular all over the world. The hobby is called phillumeny and collectors are called phillumenists. The word means “lover of light” and is derived from the Latin -phil- [loving] + lumen- [light].
The matchbook collection will be on display at the museum from January 3 through January 31.
From an essay by Heather Munro