From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The match was broadcast on the 18th June 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
If civilization started when we learned how to create fire then what a link to our beginnings the arrival of the humble match was. The ability to light fires, candles and gas lamps with such ease must have felt like magic.
Although it was chemistry not magic that made it all happen in the first years of the nineteenth century. There were tight bundles of cotton filaments coated in wax that would ignite when dipped in tubes lined with chemicals. And slivers of wood tipped with a glass bead filled with chemicals that would flame when the glass was broken. But these were unstable, and liable to explode for no apparent reason. The first true matches were known as lucifers because they showered sparks when lit and gave a pungent sulphurous odour that made them seem the devil’s work. They were marvels of science, balancing compounds that needed a catalyst to ignite with composites such as ground glass to maintain the flame. An English chemist called John Walker invented the so-called friction light which would ignite when struck on a piece of sandpaper and these became popular across Europe, sold in metal tins in an attempt to stop accidental combustion. They were highly valued, as seen in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, published in 1845, of the little matchgirl, dying as she lights each of the matches she was meant to sell. Ten years later, the safety match appeared, its tip coated in a compound that would only ignite when struck against a surface impregnated with another compound. It helped amplify a growing matchmaking industry which had one big problem, the main compound used was white phosphorous. As the poor souls, mainly women and girls, who worked in the match factories soon learned, inhaling phosphorous fumes led to a disintegration of the jawbone and brain damage, a condition known as phossy jaw. One of the largest manufacturers was Bryant & May, with its imposing red-brick factory built in the Venetian style in London’s East End and which was the flashpoint for the Matchgirl strikes of 1888, where workers campaigned for better pay and safer work conditions. It took some twenty years before that was achieved, with white phosphorous outlawed.
Matchbox design was important, too, with graphics that inspired brand loyalty, such as England’s Glory, the distinctive flat-box of Swan Vestas (which were geared towards the smoker) and the ubiquitous Redheads brand in Australia, made from the 1940s in Bryant & May’s stylish factory in Melbourne. There were also match or vesta cases, often daintily fashioned in silver and with a loop so that they could be attached to a chain and tucked in a waistcoat pocket. Lavish examples by famous jewellers such as Fabergé, Tiffany and Garrard were made for the wealthy, studded with gemstones, brightly enamelled or beautifully worked in precious metals, but cheap novelty cases were popular from the nineteenth century on, shaped in a myriad forms, like animals or shoes, usually made from tin, and used as promotional gifts or holiday mementos. The flimsy matchbook first appeared in the 1880s and were perfect for advertising hotels and restaurants, especially in the heyday of smoking in the 1950s, becoming a cliché of infidelity when discovered in pockets in films and popular fiction.
The match’s popularity waned with the invention of the cigarette lighter, which were almost as cheap when the first throwaway versions appeared in the 1960s. The match has remained, though, magical still in its ability to produce fire so easily, a marvel of chemical design and a link to a tradition, at times tragic, where candlelight once ruled and a sulphurous reek was a certain sign of civilisation.