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    Auction Finds

    Fancy little match safes to keep you from catching on fire

    The first time I came across a match safe at auction, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was about the size of my palm, a little bigger than a pill box, and simple.

    Likely, an auctioneer who had seen many more of them identified it for me. Since then, I’ve seen single match safes here and there. But at an auction recently, nearly two dozen match safes and match holders in several forms and sizes – and advertising a disparate number of companies – were laid out on a long tray inside a glass cabinet where the good stuff is kept.

    The collection of match safes included one that was in the shape of an oversized pocket knife; another, a pair of pants with suspenders (which was really telling its age); another, a folded shirt with a baby’s head emerging from the collar, and another that looked like a belt buckle advertising the World’s Fair (the one from 1939 in New York, I presumed). Turning it over, I saw that it was actually a coin purse.

    Figural and elaborate match safes.

    Figural and elaborate match safes.

    They advertised clothiers, department stores, a glassware company, a plate making company and the U.S.M.A. at West Point.

    Match safes take us back to the late 19th century when these holders – also called vesta cases – were quite prevalent in the coat pockets of men of means and those without. They prevented friction matches (which had been invented in England in the early 19th century) from rubbing against each other and bursting into flames inside those pockets. Some of those earliest matches were called Lucifers because of it.

    Match safes were around until about the 1920s, supplanted first by matchbooks and later by cigarette lighters (Ronson near the turn of the 20th century and Zippo in the 1930s).

    Front and back of a fancy match safe.

    Front and back of a fancy match safe.

    No more than three inches in height, match safes carried in the pockets of the well-to-do were made of sterling silver, and were very elaborated carved and decorated by such major manufacturers as Tiffany, Gorham, Cartier and Faberge. Others were made of silver plate, nickel plate, cast iron, brass and other metals.

    They were made in a variety of shapes: some with lithographic prints, others embossed with people, animals, and even puzzles and hidden spaces. Some match holders made in stereotypical images of African Americans. Some were also made to do more than just hold matches; they could also be used as a coin holder, cigar cutter and more.

    Match safes had a cover to close them and a roughened surface on the bottom for striking.

    In those early days, mostly men carried match safes because it was considered crass for women to smoke (that changed in the early 20th century).

    Two store match safes, at top, and a watch case.

    Match safes from department and clothing stores, at top, and a watch seller.

    In the home, though, match safes were used by women to hold matches to light their stoves. Many of those were handed out free by companies as advertisement. Match safes were used to promote all kinds of products – as shown in the collection from the auction – and cultural events. The Gillette company in a 1908 magazine ad touting its new blades noted that the empty box could be used as an “elegant waterproof match-safe.”

    Match-safe collectors have their own association, the International Match Safe Association. The collecting of match-related items (matchbooks, matchboxes, labels, covers) is called phillumeny, and the collectors are called phillumenists.

    Here are some match safes in the collection of the Smithsonian. Since there are so many match safes around, there are bound to be reproductions posting as originals. One site offers warnings and suggestions.

    Here are match safes from the auction:

    An opened match safe shows the matches inside.

    This opened match safe shows the matches inside.


    An array of match safes.

    An array of match safes.


    Figural match safes: a pocket knife and a folded shirt with baby' head inside the collar.

    Close-up of two figural match safes: a pocket knife and a folded shirt with a baby’s head inside the collar.


    Three simple match holders.

    Three simple match holders, including an Anchor Hocking glassware wholesaler, at left, and West Point, at right.


    A look inside a match safe given out by the Gruber & Frixione, Christmas 1893. It shows the grooved bottom used for striking a match. Gruber & Frixione was a bar.

    A look inside a match safe from Gruber & Frixione, Christmas 1893. Gruber & Frixione was a bar.


    Not a match safe but a coin purse from a world's fair, possibly the 1939 New York World's Fair.

    Not a match safe but a coin purse from a world’s fair, possibly the 1939 New York World’s Fair.


    The collection of match safes showa their variety.

    The collection of match safes at auction was varied.



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