Circling the globe with the mid-20th century's most brilliant matchbox art

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "We just posted an interview with matchbox-label collector Jane McDevitt, along with more than 30 examples of mid-20th-century matchbox labels from Russia, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and Germany.

The aesthetic of these tiny works of art is largely mid-century modern, depicting space travel, sports, landscapes, and advertisements."

A British chemist named John Walker invented the first friction match in 1827, using small splinters of wood tipped with sulphur and phosphorous. The first safety matches (which had to be struck against a specially prepared surface) were developed by Edvard Lundström in Sweden around 1853. Lundström joined forces with his brother Carl Frans Lundström and quickly developed a standardized package for matches—a cardboard box with an inner drawer—and coated the outer edges with a striking surface.

Sweden soon dominated the global match industry, but the advertising potential of matchboxes was realized in America: Supposedly, in 1892, the manager of the Mendelssohn Opera Company in New York had the actors hand-letter matchbook covers with details of their show's run. Diamond Match salesman Henry C. Traute got wind of the story and thought this guerrilla marketing tactic might appeal to major corporations, too. Traute had an advertisement for Pabst beer printed at matchbook dimensions, and took the sample to the company's headquarters in Milwaukee, landing an order for 10 million Pabst matchbooks.

This creative advertising method spread like wildfire—from beer companies and bars to high-end hotels and department stores. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Swedish company Svenska Tändsticks Aktiebolaget (STAB), which evolved from the Lundström's original business, no longer dominated the industry, and regional producers stepped in to create their own match labels. Most of McDevitt's labels were made in Eastern Europe and Japan, and judging from their designs and a few scattered dates, her collection spans from the 1920s up through the 1980s. For most of that period, match production was booming as smoking became a universal pastime, but in the late 1970s, 90 percent of the matchbox market suddenly disappeared with the introduction of cheap, disposable lighters.