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A non-definitive history of matches

Every now and again I like to share some of the little gems of knowledge and trivia I pick up in my reading and researching.

Sometimes the tiniest mention of an item, incident or location, especially when it’s historical in nature, requires more research that you’d think. Luckily, I enjoy the odd bit of fact-checking. But once the item has been mentioned, I have knowledge that I probably won’t need again (and by the time I do then I’ll have forgotten it anyway).

I call these articles "Non-Definitive Histories" because the knowledge they contain is not exhaustively researched, but could be highly useful if you were a collector of random facts or a Trivia Queen.

In book one of Crossing the Line, Keeper of the Way, Clement Benedict smokes a pipe. I do not come from a pipe-smoking background so I started my research quite the virgin on the subject. The history of pipes is actually pretty interesting. I’m not writing about pipes today though, but something fairly relative: matches.

In book two of Crossing the Line, so far unnamed, Henry Winkler comes across a matchbox. This is 1882, so I need to put in a bit of description of said matchbox so readers don’t immediately imagine a box of redheads. At the time this story is set, redhead matches were still nouveau in the world of fire lighting. Clement may have used “safety matches” in book one, but in book two I wanted something more old world, something precious. So in finding just the right matchbox, I also discovered a bit about matches.

Previous to redheads were whiteheads (yes, really). Whitehead matches were slivers of wood dipped in phosphorous and various other chemicals. These were the first friction matches. In 1669, according to the Musuem of Everyday Life, one Hennig Brandt was attempting to transform a mix of base metals into gold and discovered phosphorous instead (if only he’d patented his discovery, but I suspect he was more interested in the gold thing).

A few years later, Robert Boyle, coated some paper in phosphorous and a sliver of wood in sulphur, and discovered fire! Well, not quite, but he did discover how easily fire could be made with the right chemicals. Phosphorous was still rare though so the discovery really didn’t go anywhere.

Infographic showing the chemistry of matches

Skip through several decades to the early 1800s and we come to the Ethereal Match made from smashing a glass tube (the match) to ignite a piece of paper coated in a phosphorous compound. One more decade, thanks to a Mr John Walker, and we had lucifers. I’m not sure what Mr Walker was trying to do, but in the process of cleaning up, scraped a stirring stick coated in a compound that included sulphide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch, on the floor and, hey presto! Fire discovered yet again. Mr Walker was somewhat more commercially minded than his predecessors and promptly started manufacturing his lucifers on a grand scale.

The phosphorous in the lucifers though made them a touch sensitive and rather stinky.

Our next grand experimenter (okay, scientist), set about searching for a formula somewhat less pungent and turned his attentions back to the viability of phosphorous. Match factories began churning out phosphorous dipped matchsticks. Unfortunately for the factory workers, phosphorous is highly poisonous and many became ill with an unbecoming (in name and nature) condition called, phossy jaw.

One box of these phosphorous matches was enough to kill someone and apparently there were several cases of people scraping the chemical from the matches and using it for unsavoury means.

Archduchess Matilda

The red match, a “safe” version of the white, was developed in the mid-1800s –only a handful of years after the deadly phosphorous matches, which goes to show just how dangerous they were. The problem was they were more expensive to produce so match companies were a little hesitant to upset their bottom line. Striking in London (the famous Matchgirl’s Strike of 1888) prodded the government of the day to pass legislation forcing the factories to reform their product.

London Matchgirls on strike - 1888

The first of the non-poisonous matches was developed and produced by an American company who forfeited their patent rights to allow other companies around the world to copy their product and save those bottom-lines. A truly humanitarian deed.

Safety matches were invented in Sweden, improved on and then popped into a matchbook that was sold with 50 matches inside and a striking surface. By the end of the century, advertising had found its way to the matchbooks and well, now you find them all over the place spruiking the goods and services of thousands (if not millions) of different companies.

Fascinating stuff, I agree, none of which really makes it into my manuscript (though it’s early days yet) because what I’m interested in is silver matchboxes. Silver matchboxes were probably used to store the more volatile early versions of matches; they kept them safe from dangerous bumping (ie friction) and away from light, air, and moisture. I think that my protagonist might favour lucifer’s to light his cigars and as I write this article, I realise that a lucifer or two could be quite handy in producing a flashpoint (pun intended) in the storyline.

picture of a Vesta match holder

But did you know, that the earliest forms of matches may have actually been invented by women caught in a military siege in the ancient Chinese kingdom of the Northern Qi (around 577AD). The woman needed wood for kitchen-fires, but could not go out to collect it so they splintered some of their shrinking wood-pile, dipped the ends in sulphur, let it dry and used the matches (also known as “light-bringing slaves”) to start their fires.

It’s thought that matches may have been brought to Europe from China around 1500 (Marco Polo and his band of adventurers/traders).

You can read more details of the history of matches by clicking on the various links throughout this article (most of the images are also linked to the source where I found them). This could be Trivia gold!

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