You may have noticed that we're quite keen on matchboxes here at Keap. They’re a graphic designer’s dream with their unique petite format, versatility and evocations of mythical romantic nostalgia. They're also a small wonder when you consider it took man nearly a million years to create a portable form of fire. Finally, they serve as a remarkable historical artifact of the evolution of communications in the modern age. Read on to get a primer on this fascinating object’s curious history, and get a serious dose of graphic design inspiration. Maybe you'll discover that you are yourself a phillumenist, deep inside.
1. A quick history of matchboxes
A quick recap of what happened these last million years.
Remarkably, it took us a million years from discovering fire to finding an easy, portable way to generate it. Though there are indications that a match-like contraption might have been used in China in the 6th century, the first modern self-lighting match wasn’t invented until 1805, by Jean Chancel, a professor’s assistant in Paris.
That first match had some shortcomings: the tip of the match was made mostly of sulphur and would be lit by dipping it into an asbestos bottle filled with sulphuric acid. Think of it as a nightmarish version of Nutella’s dipping sticks. Not to understate the scientific advancement, these matches were both incredibly dangerous and far too expensive to have a chance at widespread adoption.
Over the next half-century, a series of incremental improvements were made to the technology of matches, which eventually led to the invention of the safety match around 1850. That first safety match largely resembles what we can commonly find today.
During those fifty years however, you’d better hope you never had to light a match. Various techniques to light matches were experimented with during these years which involved everything from smashing bottles to fuzees (basically flares). Even more problematic was the use during this time of white phosphorus as the igniting material: the amount of white phosphorus in a single matchbox was enough to kill a person, and often would—ingesting matches became a common suicide technique during this period.
Working for a matchbox producer was even grimmer. Factory workers making these matches came down regularly with what was known as phossy jaw, a bone degeneration disease that literally made people’s jaws fall off. This led to serious labor unrest and was a big deal at the time.
The invention of the safety match, somewhere between 1845 and 1855, marks the birth of the matchbox as we know it. The match needed to be struck against the box to ignite, which meant that the packaging became an indispensable part of the product.
And so the question was… what do you put on the matchbox?
2. The heyday of matchbox art
While the safety match was technically invented in England, Sweden was where the first matches boom happened, and where the first wave of compelling matchbox art occurred.
The first matchbox designs were heavily influenced by copyright law—or lack thereof—at the time. The original matchmaker, Jönköping, was generally considered to make superior matches. However, since trains weren’t really a thing yet, most manufacturers would stick to producing for their local area. They all copied the Jönköping’s graphic design style, and piggy-backed on their reputation for excellence.
As train tracks were quickly rolled out, now manufacturers were able to distribute nationally. This meant that you had competing matchboxes of different qualities that all had the same branding. This was great if you were the guy making the crappy matchboxes, but not so great if you were making the good stuff, since the public couldn’t really differentiate which was which.
Obviously, this was not to the liking of Jönköping, who lobbied for new trademark rules, successfully. Rather than think of a new concept from scratch, the copycat companies did the bare minimum change to fit within the rules, but stay as close as possible to Jönköping’s design.
The Swedish matchbox style evolved a signature style built around a central figure or title surrounded by ornamental borders and patterns. This characteristic style was a mainstay until the later part of the 19th century and served as the basis for the plethora of styles that would blossom worldwide.
As production quality became more uniform and matches became more of a commodity, the function of the matchbox design shifted. While previously attempting to convince buyers of the comparative quality of the manufacturer, matchboxes were now about branding—and this meant appealing to people’s emotions rather than their logic.
This meant printing something that was “cool” at the time, as opposed to a manufacturer’s name (with the exception of the most highly regarded manufacturers, who stuck with the prestige of their name). Thus matchboxes from this time are a fascinating window into what people considered to be fashionable or exciting. Match companies would pick a thing that was considered appealing and use it as their identity and brand (e.g. Tiger matches).
If you ever time travel to the late 1800s and want people to think you’re cool, here are a few topics you might want to cover, based on matchbox designs of the time:
Technology! It’s super cool to talk about the new tech stuff, e.g. trains, telegraphs, aeroplanes (very futuristic), ironclad ships, automobiles, etc.
Celebrities! Royalty is always cool (if you live in a monarchy). Captain Webb—who swam across the Channel—was considered very badass. War heroes, sporting champions, and even Gods in places like India, were also trendy.
Exotic stuff! in Victorian times, Europeans were very keen on anything relating to exploration and faraway travel, e.g. plants or animals from faraway places, landmarks from across the world, and some designs featuring people, that could quickly veer into the offensive. But you can't argue with a llama.
Animals! We covered that a little bit through the exotic piece, but birds, cats, tigers, bears, you name it: animals were cool before Buzzfeed showed up.
And... anything to do with the the number ‘three’: in hindsight, this is the most surprising one—but people seemed to think that anything that came in threes was just the best.
Around 1900, another segment of matchbox design started to come to life. Businesses realized that a message on a matchbox would be seen 20 times (or however many matches were in the box) by its owner over a period of time, and therefore provided an effective way of advertising. Cigarette companies were the first to use matchboxes as advertisements, but soon enough they were followed by other consumer products—from soaps to airlines—, and eventually restaurants. Governments also used them as a platform for propaganda, particularly during World War I and World War II.
While Sweden set the standards for matchbox design, a few places around the world carved out unique graphic design niches that make for memorable and delightful collectibles today. There's simply too much out there to do justice to the diversity of matchbox designs but here is a tiny sample of some of our favorite styles.
3. The death of the matchbox
In the 1932, the first ‘Zippo’ lighter was invented, and over the next 20 years, lighters got cheaper and cheaper (and worked better and better), thus becoming an existential threat to matches. Faced with market pressures and the need to cut costs, the industry consolidated massively, and went from hundreds of distinct brands to just a handful of manufacturers, who could survive based on a reputation for very high quality. Major markets mostly saw only one major manufacturer survive—Swans in the UK is a particularly famous example, with their iconic label that kept its distinctive look throughout the decades, albeit with some adaptation to changing graphic design standards.
When the harmful health effects of smoking were revealed in the 1970s, this led to a second wave of hardship for the matchbox industry, as fewer and fewer people smoked; by now the main users of matchboxes.
Especially in the US, where cigarette smoking is particularly stigmatized, an emotional association of matchboxes with smoking caused them to further fall out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s.
4. The way of the vinyl
Today, inspired by a nostalgia for the days of the analog, matchboxes have made a comeback, in particular with younger people—perhaps driven by hazy memories as infants of matchboxes lying around the house. Phillumeny—the hobby of collecting matchboxes—is on the rise, with a focus both on vintage matchboxes and on more modern designs, generally branding-driven. Hopefully you understand better why we love to devote so much time to designing our own matchboxes for our subscribers.
Either way, now that you are an expert on phillumeny, go work on that collection!
Further reading and sources:
If this inspired to learn about the history of matchbox design, we highly recommend this very detailed (40 pages) and thoroughly researched review by Ben Jones: ‘Matchbox Cover Design - The evolution of and the influences on the graphical design of Matchboxes’
Other sources for this article:
‘Striking on the Modern Matchbook’ - NYTimes
‘A Brief History of Restaurant Matches’ - Eater
‘A History of the Match’ - Museum of Everyday Life
Guity Novin’s ‘A History of Matchboxes’
Joseph Needham, ‘Science and Civilization in China’ (pp. 70-71) about potentially the first matches invented
If you want great sources of matchbox porn, here are a few links and accounts we recommend following:
Jane McDevitt’s epic collection of colorful East European matchboxes from the 1950-60s and its fellow Instagram account @matchbloc
Articles, auctions and full-on matchbox collector nerdiness from Collector’s Weekly
The Matchbook Project - a beautiful and endearing collection of matchboxes from the 1930s and 1940s, published on Tumblr by their collector’s great granddaughter
A Life in Matches - similar concept, chronicling through matchboxes a mid-20th century jetsetter’s peripatetic life across Asia and Europe
MatchCover.org - if you want a bit of 1990s Angelfire and kitschy GIFs in your life but also want the best archive of matchbox collections out there, this is for you.