Stranger than friction: when matches were dangerous

In the latest in its ongoing series about objects the world once considered indispensable but has somehow managed to live without, Collectors Weekly turns its attention to match holders, which were popular from around 1826, when the friction match was invented, until the 1920s, when matchbooks and lighters rendered them obsolete. For its story, CW turned to one of the definitive works on the subject, Match Holders: First-hand Accounts of Tinderboxes, Matches, Spills, Vesta Cases, Match Strikers, and Permanent Matches, which is filled with photographs taken by New Zealand collector Ian Spellerberg and diary entries written by his late match-holder mentor, John McLean.


Match Holders begins with a chapter on tinderboxes, which were a popular form of portable fire-making prior to the invention of the friction match by an English pharmacist named John Walker. Tinderboxes consisted of three basic ingredients—a piece of steel, often called "fire steel"; a stone flint; and tinder, usually some dried fungi or charred linen. "With practice and patience," McLean writes, "sparks could indeed be produced by striking the steel against the stone flint. If a spark landed in the dry tinder, care was needed to coax the spark into a smouldering piece of tinder then a flame." As McLean recounts, the clink, clink, clink of steel coming in contact with stone was once a common early morning sound, as must also have been the curses that bounced off the rafters when cold, numb hands caused a hard chunk of steel to miss its mark. Little wonder, McLean writes, "that some domestic fires were kept permanently alight."