A Brief History of Matches

  • Jul 17, 2019

A Brief History of Matchbooks


The first successful friction match was invented in 1826 by John Walker, an English chemist and druggist – by accident. He had been very interested in trying to find a means of obtaining fire easily. Several chemical mixtures were already known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but there was no method to preserve the fire by transmitting the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it caught fire by accidental friction against the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery, and started making friction matches. 


Early matches were a bit dangerous and could throw sparks a considerable distance or drop flaming balls onto the floor burning carpets and dresses, leading to their ban in France and Germany. Although wooden matchsticks were once the norm, the item became even more useful and convenient a few decades later when Philadelphia patent attorney Joshua Pusey devised compact cardboard matches. Pusey secured a patent for the compact match in 1982. He then sold it to the Diamond Match Company, where he stayed on board as the new enterprise’s in-house patent attorney. 


The matchbook’s potential as an advertising vehicle gained traction when Diamond Match salesman Henry C. Traute heard about a New York City opera’s company success in promotion a performance via illustrated matchcovers.  According to The New Yorker, December 29, 1945 P. 11....

"Talk story about the match industry in this country. In 1896, Diamond Match Co., turned its book-match department, which it considers a white elephant, over to a young go-getter named Henry C. Traute, who persuaded the company to put the striking surface outside the book, and to print "Close Cover Before Striking." Traute then went to Milwaukee & got an order from the Pabst Brewery to ten million match books advertising Blue Ribbon Beer. He followed this with a 30-million order from Duke, the tobacco man. His biggest order was  a billion books advertising Wrigley's Chewing Gum. He died last Sept. It was Traute who worked out the system whereby the match company sells match-book advertising to various concerns, then handle the distribution of the matches throughout the country, making sure, among other things, that whiskey advertising does not turn up in dry states."


After many iterations, matches evolved to the product we know today.  There are two main types of matches: safety matches, which can be struck only against a specially prepared surface, and strike-anywhere matches, for which any suitably frictional surface can be used. 


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