Artifact Corner: Victorian Matchbox

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a very early Victorian Match box. The box is made from cardboard, with a paper label on the top of the box. The paper label says “L. Miller’s Never failing damp proof Improved American Friction Matches, 7th Avenue, between 17th & 18th Streets, NY.” On the back of the box there is sand glued to the cardboard for striking the matches on. Matches are a relatively new invention, let’s learn a bit more about them.

Prior to the invention of the friction match, getting a fire started was hard work. There were a number of different ways to start a fire. One way was to use a glass lens to focus the suns rays on some dry tinder. The obvious problem with this method is that you need the sun to start a fire. The other and most prevalent way was to use flint and steel. By hitting a steel striker against a piece of flint, sparks will be created. You can catch those sparks on a piece of char cloth, which is 100% plant based cloth that has been cooked in an oxygen starved environment. The char cloth will hold the spark while you transfer it to your tinder pile, allowing you to start a fire. With practice, this method of starting fire can be fairly fast, but it requires a number of pieces that you’d have to carry on you at all times. Another method was to start a friction fires, by rubbing two pieces of wood together. This method is very labor intense, and requires a lot of patience. If the weather was bad none of these methods was very reliable, and starting a fire could be very difficult. A more reliable and portable method was being sought out across the world.

The friction match was invented in 1826 by John Walker, a chemist in England. He had been trying to solve the problem of portable fire for some time, developing different chemical concoctions for making a quick and easy fire starter. Walker stumbled upon the invention when he scraped a stick coated in some of these chemicals against the hearth of his fireplace. The match head was a mixture of sulfide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum. He used camphor to help improve the smell. He sold them at his store in boxes of fifty for one shilling. Each box with a piece of sandpaper for striking the match head on. Walker’s invention was a huge leap forward, but still dangerous. Bits of the match head would fall off while lit, and caught carpets, drapes and even dress hems on fire. For some reason, Walker did not patent his new invention, and in 1829 Scottish inventor Sir Issac Holden had duplicated and improved on Walker’s recipe. Holden also did not patent this invention, and a London based entrepreneur named Samuel Jones got a hold of the recipe, and patented them. He began selling them as “Lucifer” matches, and the name stuck, so much so that matches are still called Lucifers in Dutch to this day.

Match boxes from the early Victorian period are fairly rare, because they are made of paper, and were often thrown out after the matches were all used. Our match box no longer contains any of the original matches, and is in slightly rough shape. The corners are starting to come unglued. Hardly surprising given the rough life it must have had, and it’s age. We hope you enjoyed this look back at fire starting and match making. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,