A collection of old matchbooks
There was a time when I’d pick up a matchbook or two or three from the counter at every restaurant, night club or café I’d go to. I didn’t smoke but I “collected” them anyway, putting them away in a jar just in case I needed to strike a match.
That jar of covers disappeared years ago, although I do keep at least one pack with my stash of candles and flashlights for emergency blackouts in my neighborhood. I never thought of my hoard as a collection, but apparently a lot of people do more than just take a few home as souvenirs. Some grow them into collections.
That’s what I found recently on the auction table – a binder of matchbooks in plastic sleeves, page after page of them. They told of cities visited (Atlantic City, Carson City, NV), foods eaten (steak, Tastykake), restaurants frequented (Stouffer’s, Little Johnny’s Supper Club), cigarettes smoked (Salem, Newport) and bodies buried (John J. Burein, Undertaker).
Matchbooks are like a peephole into our individual lives, reminding us of where we’ve been and gossiping to others about what we did while we were there. I chose matchbooks according to my likes and dislikes. I never took a matchbook from a place I wanted to forget.
The matchbooks at auction had the look of history: the designs were dated, and the places they advertised likely were shuttered decades ago. No one makes DeSoto cars anymore (the last was made in 1961) or shop for food as my family once did at the Food Fair grocery chain.
This collector had meticulously kept his or her matchbooks tucked in special plastic sleeves, indicating that this was a serious hobby. And it is, with its own clubs – the oldest, Rathkamp Matchcover Society, going back to 1940. The birth of collecting was sparked by the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and advanced by the New York World’s Fair six years later, both of which featured matchbooks.
Here’s some interest tidbits I found on the collector sites:
Matchbook or matchcover collectors are called phillumenists.
A Philadelphia lawyer named Joshua Pusey was said to be the first to create a matchbook in 1889 (or 1892, depending on who you read). He sold the rights to Diamond Match Co.
The earliest commercial advertising on a matchbook was said to be in 1892 (or 1896, depending on who you read) by the Mendelson Opera Company. They were either hand-printed by cast members or commercially printed.
The first matchbooks were sold to the public, not given out for free.
Henry C. Traute catapulted the lowly matchbook. A Diamond Match official, he had the inside striker moved to the outside, and added the slogan “Close Cover Before Striking.”
Traute came up with the idea of selling advertising on the covers.
In the midst of the Depression, Diamond’s matchbook covers featured Hollywood celebrities; next came sports figures and patriotic advertising during World War II.
Finally, a free book of matches came with every pack of cigarettes. As cigarettes waned over the decades, so did the matchbook. They are said to have been most ubiquitous from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Some of the most desirable categories are national politics, sports, beer, girlies, cigars, soda and others based on their size.
The Charles Lindbergh matchbook from June 14, 1927 was said to be among the most popular.
One site listed Black people as a category, so I was intrigued and Googled to see what I could find. According to one price guide, matchcovers from the Cotton Club, Aunt Jemima, Kit Kat Club and some stereotypical images were desired. A set of 200 Black Americana covers, including the Kit Kat Club and Cotton Club, sold for $125 at auction in 2010.
One collector was seeking covers that included stereotypes of Jews, African Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans. “The more exaggerated the better!” it shouted.
If you’re interested in collecting, the Rathkamp and Hobbymaster (which sells supplies) sites offered some tips. This site will help you figure out if your matchbooks are worth anything (your best bet is covers from 1894-1929, although another site noted that covers are hard to date without a year on them).
I wasn’t around when the matchbook collection was sold, but I suspect that it didn’t go for much. You won’t get rich collecting matchbooks (most covers are worth no more than a few cents each), so most folks do it because they love it. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear from you about the hobby.
Got matchbook covers to sell? Please read my blog post about how to determine what you have and the market value.