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Chapter 51: A History of Matchboxes

Matches are composed of a sliding-drawer within a sleeve, and since their appearance by the very nature of their packaging, have facilitated the widest range of graphic design and artistry.

One of the earliest descriptions of a match may be found in the book Records of the Unworldly and the Strange, by Tao Gu, China, circa 950AD,  that states:
If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulphur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame…This marvelous thing was formerly called a “light-bringing slave”, but afterwards when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to ‘fire inch-stick’.

It has been suggested that the invention was made in 577AD by women of the Northern Qi, (or Sui) who were unable to leave the confines of their city to search for tinder, because it was under siege by the Northern Zhou and Chen.
 When the palace ran out of kindling, and almost no means for heat or cooking, she dipped small pieces of pine into sulfur. Once the sulure dried the sticks made fire when rubbed together or it by sparks.
. ThIs 1920's Chinese openwork brass holder  designed to take a standard box of small wood matches and ornamented with very finely detailed imperial dragons against cloud backgrounds with waves below and the encircling the blue pill representing the elixer of immortality.

The first friction match was born from the alchemical experiments of Hennig Brandt in Hamburg in 1669, who was attempting to transform an olio of base metals into gold, and instead accidentally produced the element phosphorous. He ignored his discovery, but British physicist Robert Boyle in 1680 coated coarse paper in phosphorous, and a splinter of wood in sulphur. When the wood was drawn through the folded paper, it burst into flames. Due to the scarcity of phosphorous, this invention was little more than an expensive novelty for the rich. In 1817 a French chemist created what he called “the Ethereal Match,” a piece of paper coated with a compound of phosphorous that ignited when exposed to air. The paper was vacuum-sealed in a glass tube called the “match,” which was ignited when the tube was smashed.

In 1827, John Walker, English chemist and apothecary, of Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, apparently by accident, created a fire by scrapping a potassium-chlorate coated stick, over a surface covered by antimony sulphide, on the hearth. Walker had been experimenting with explosives and the making of percussion caps for cartridges and was almost certainly aware of the experiments by Irish physicist, Robert Boyle (of the fame Boyle's Law), who in 1680 had covered a small piece of paper with phosphorous and coated a small piece of wood with sulfur, and had shown that rubbing the coated wood across the paper would create a fire. Walker's experiment led him to produce the first ‘matches’, which were initially made with a cardboard splint although pine veneer was later substituted. In these first friction matches, Walker used antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch. He did not patent his matches, which he called "Congreves". His first sale of the matches was on April 7, 1827, to a certain solicitor by the name Mr. Hixon.

Swedish Matchboxes Established the Broad Parameters of Design for the Rest of the World. 

It was in Sweden that Edvard Lundström (1815-1888) developed the Swedish chemist Gustaf Erik Pasch's idea of safety match and applied for its patent with a phosphor-free character. Johan's younger brother, Carl Frans Lundström (1823-1917) was the entrepreneur and industrialist who helped him to set up a safety match factory in Jönköping, Sweden in 1844-1845. The manufacturing process began in 1853 and was a major success at the World Expo in Paris 1855. Lundströms were awarded the silver medal for developing  a technology for manufacturing matches free of phosphorus poisoning. Although, safety matches were expensive to produce, by 1868 they became known throughout the world as Allumettes Suédoises in France, Schwedenhölzer in Germany and Swedish Matches in England. The dominance of Swedish matchbox labels defined the criteria for the design of matchbox labels and subsequently, most if not all matchbox labels in the world were modeled on those criteria.

Wonderful designs of German matchboxes. They defied the German criteria

A Matchbox from the 1950's Depicting the Principality of Monaco Produced by SEITA (Societe Nationale d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes), the Former French State-Owned Tobacco and Match Monopoly

 A Matchbox Made by SEITA in the 1950's Featuring the Traditional Costume of Women from the French City of Nice on Its  

Most of the early match packages were either very simple capsules with factory labels and were stamped with the word ‘Tändstickor’ (Matches) or they included other information such as the address of the manufacturer, and instructions on how to use the matches. These early designs were quite monotonic and their typography was dictated by the printing techniques. However, with the rapid technical advance of printing process, aesthetical considerations began to appear in the design of matchbox labels. Of course, these designs were heavily influenced by the Swedish norms. At the same time the lack of copyright law allowed a lot of plagiarism.

The graphic designs of these Soviet Russia's matchboxes not only were artistically stunning, but also redefined the Swedish criteria.

Ironically, perhaps, the soviet Russia's graphic designers were quite elegant and effective in their advertisement designs that appeared on their matchboxes 

The Russian graphic designers have been amazingly successful in creating these powerful images.

For a long time, matches were manufactured by hand. They were made of aspen and a single log of aspen could produce 370,000 matches. Planing the matches by hand was heavy, time consuming work. The matches were then dipped in sulphur, which meant that the flame could easily be transferred from the head of the match to the wood. Johan Edvard Lundström later came up with a way to eliminate the smell of burning sulphur. The matches were dipped in wax or paraffin. They were then dipped in the match head substance that consisted of stibnite, gum, starch and potassium chlorate, and were then left to dry. Finished matches were packed into capsules or tubes of brass or shavings. Once the manufacturing of safety matches had begun, the Lundström brothers came up with a practical form of packaging that is still being used today, the modern-day matchstick box with an inner box and an outer sleeve. The sides of the outer sleeve were coated with a striking surface containing red phosphorus. Even matchstick boxes were handmade.

Matchboxes of Swiss

Delightful Designs of Indian Matchboxes

There is a refreshing innocence in the Indian designs of these matchboxes that renders them with a rather unique identity.

An Old Green Glo Matchbox (With a Badly Warped Top) Made by the Diamond Match Co.

A Vintage Box of Constitution Brand Safety Matches Made in the U.S.A. by America's Own Match Company

The Friendly Match, Made in Dublin, Ireland  by Paterson & Co Ltd.

Czechoslovakian matchbox label

Czechoslovakian matchbox label

Czechoslovakian matchbox label

Czechoslovakian matchbox label

Czechoslovakian matchbox label

Australian Redheads

Both the traditional and modern  Japanese designs on matchboxes exhibit an exquisite sense of balance and grace.

Alexander Lagerman (1836-1904) began working at the Jönköping safety match factory in 1870. He is regarded to be one of the pioneers of mechanisation. Alexander Lagerman built a machine that produced matchboxes. He then produced machines that manufactured the inner and outer boxes. At the start of the 1880s, he built a box-filling machine that filled 20,000 matchboxes a day. The machines were kept a secret from the competition and weren't patented for another 20 years, but were still a major innovation. In 1892, Lagerman's complete machine came along, revolutionising safety match manufacturing. The machine dipped matchsticks in sulphur, paraffin and the match head substance; it split them, dried them and then packed them into matchboxes. Everything was automated. When the Jönköping safety match factory was built, it produced approx. 4,000 boxes a year. By 1896, more than seven million boxes were being manufactur ed a year!

Matchboxes of the US

Chinese designers still need to find their own voices Matchboxes

A matchbox from Norway echoing a Japanese voice. 

Belgium Matchbox label  

Belgium Matchbox label  
Dutch Matchbox Label
Italian Matchbox Label

Italian Matchbox Label
Italian Matchbox Label

Italian Matchbox Label
Italian Matchbox Label

A Belgian Matchbox.

A powerful  matchbox design by a Belgian graphic designer that shows that for a true artist the size of the platform would not impose any restriction.

A Dutch matchbox design, using only typography.

The typography of early matchbox labels was also dictated by what was fashionable, and hence available, at the time. Typefaces that were in popular use such as Bodoni, Didot and others of a similar ‘modern’ serifed style,were the ones first applied to matchbox label design. They were initially set in a similar style to that of the Classical period when the typefaces were created. However, soon after, with the onset of the era of Historicism, Classical typography became incorporated into the revived antiquated forms of vegetation and architecture that symbolized the Gothic and Roccoco periods.

No one knows what exactly prompted Joshua Pusey, a lawyer and the inventor of the modern toboggan, to patent a folded piece of cardboard carrying matches and a striker in 1892. Though legend suggests it had more to do with vanity than with safety.  Pusey called his brainchild “flexibles” quite possibly because, unlike their predecessors, which smokers carried in silhouette-marring match safes, they slid into a dandy’s pocket with nary a bump. His contraption soon caught the attention of a company called Diamond. In 1896 it purchased the patent for $4,000, thereby charting its course toward world matchbook domination. 
In 1896 a brewing company ordered more than fifty thousand matchbooks to advertise a new product, and the ubiquitous practice of matchbook advertising was born. In the 1940’s the psychological warfare branch of the U.S. government distributed thousands of matchbooks containing anti-nazi slogans to occupied countries, and the French Resistance produced matchbooks containing instructions on how to derail Nazi trains printed on the inside cover.

Matchbox was superseded in the west in the late 1970s by the printed and folded card boxes known as skillets, but has only recently become obsolete in the former Soviet bloc countries.

Glory Persia, Solo Safety Matches, made in Czechoslovakia

Red & Black Matchboxes of Iran (1940-50s)

The safety match, and it’s production technology, are two of the inventions that made Sweden an industrial nation with export. When Solstickan (the sun stick) was created in 1936, safety matches had been produced in Sweden for almost 100 years. The label drawing was made by the artist Einar Nerman, and it has been said to be the most reproduced work of art in the world. On this picture it’s in the original form with no toning on the sun.

Swedish Safety Matches
Swedish Safety Matches

Swedish Safety Matches

Death of matchboxes

 With the appearance of the first "Zippo" lighter in 1932, the growth of the matchbox industry was disrupted. Over the next 20 years, lighters became cheaper and functionally improved a lot, so their existential threat to matches became far too serious to be ignored. Faced with market pressures and the need to cut costs, the industry consolidated massively and the number of factories grew from hundreds of separate brands to a few manufacturers, who were able to survive thanks to their very high reputation in terms of quality. Major markets have mostly seen only one major manufacturer survive - Swans in the UK is a particularly good example, with its iconic label that has retained its distinctive look over the decades, albeit with a some adaptation to changing graphic design standards.

When the harmful health effects of smoking were first revealed in the 1970s, it sounded the death knell of the once thriving industry, as the number of smokers fell dramatically. Reflecting the fact that smokers were the main users of matchboxes.

In North America in particular, where smoking is particularly frowned upon, a psychological interconnection between matchboxes and smoking caused them to fall even further out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s.


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  1. Great collection of images! So fun! The cultural differences are wonderful and their ages too. Love that you have a ton.

  2. Beautiful narrative!
    Helped a lot with research!
    Thank you love :)

  3. Good helpful text and great images. Czechoslovakia and Finland are others that have produced many matchbox label designs.

  4. Splendid article. Much enjoyed the narrative and seeing matchbox labels. Thanks

  5. I have been contemplating creating a YouTube video on this subject, an idea that has been on my mind for quite some time. While searching for matchbox pictures, I stumbled upon your article and the accompanying images. Unfortunately, my search for creative commons images did not yield many from your collection. If it's not an inconvenience, could you kindly share some images of the matchboxes with me? I would be sure to give proper acknowledgment to you and your blog in the video.

  6. Back in the 18th century, people wouldn't have even dreamed of a fire box like this. Now, matchboxes are more than just practical – their clever sliding-drawer design, tucked in a smooth sleeve, has become a canvas for awesome designs and art.