Phillumenism: Collecting Matchbooks

We take so many things for granted today. For example, take a look at matches and matchbooks. Did you know that modern matches were not invented until 1827?

Match history
John Walker, an English chemist, developed the first friction match, or match that would light against a rough surface, in 1827. The process that Walker developed produced spectacular results, although sometimes not in the way that Walker, and Samuel Jones, who ended up patenting the process, intended. For one thing, when the matches were lit, they smelled terrible. The matches were also apparently capable of throwing sparks quite a ways away, making them a challenge to use safely.

Charles Sauria, from France, solved the smell problem in 1831 by adding white phosphorus to the chemical mix of matches. Unfortunately, working with white phosphorous was very hazardous to the health. Workers developed bone disorders and brain damage. In spite of this, the manufacturing and use of white phosphorus matches continued well into the 20th century in some countries. China did not ban white phosphorous matches until 1925. The United States government never did ban these matches. However, in 1913, the United States did enact a law that placed a high tax on them.

The turning point in match safety came in 1844. Gustaf Erik Pasch, a Swede, invented the safety match, with a reformulated mix that included red phosphorous instead of white phosphorous. Lighting a match required a special striking surface.

Matches were further improved in the 1850s and then again in 1898, when French chemists Savene and Cahen developed a new match using a compound of phosphorus and sulfur.. Their matches were not poisonous and did not throw dangerous sparks. These matches were considered to be strike-anywhere matches because, like the first matches, they could be lit from any rough surface.

Matchbooks are an American invention, developed in 1889 by Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia lawyer and patent attorney. Thus, phillumenism was born.

The practice of putting advertising on matchbooks dates back to at least 1895, when the Mendlesen Opera Company issued an advertisement for one of their programs on matchbooks. Diamond Match, which had aquired the patent for matchbooks from Pusey, improved the matchbooks by placing the striker, or the area used to light the matches, on the outside of the matchbook for further safety. Diamond Match, through Henry C. Traute, then approached the Milwaukee and Pabst Brewery and Wrigley's Chewing Gum to place advertisements on matchbooks. Traute closed both accounts and eventually ended up becoming the vice president of Diamond Matches.

During the Depression, businesses cut back on their advertising spending, so Diamond Matches turned to the movie industry and the public. Diamond printed pictures of movie stars on the covers of matchbooks and sold them directly to consumers starting in 1932. This was quite successful. Diamond followed up with pictures of heroes from both professional and college sports.

The heyday of matchbook production took place in the 1940s and 1950s. The years after World War II brought prosperity to the United States. People smoked cigarettes, not knowing the health risks involved.

The production of matchbooks printed with advertising started declining with the introduction of disposable lighters and the increased realization of the hazards of smoking.

Phillumenism is the practice of collecting matchbooks, as well as matchboxes, and labels from matchbooks and matchboxes. With more than 600 categories of matchbooks out there, collectors enjoy the challenge of finding hard-to-get matchbooks. While collectors consider restaurant, hotel and bank matchbooks an easy find, they hope to find gems including girlie, beer, cigar and soda matchbooks to complete their collections.

In 1973 the US government required the striking area of matchbooks be changed from the front of a matchbook to the backside for safety reasons. If the striker is on the front of a matchbook, it was manufactured before 1973.

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