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Perfect Match

Endangered by Smoking Bans and Disposable Lighters, MatchbooksOffer a Miniature History of American Advertising
Bill Retskin
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

Back in the days when advertising was mainly word-of-mouth, cast members from the Mendelson Opera Company conceived a unique, and diminutive, way to let people know about their next performance. Envisioning that one of the era's modern accessories for the inveterate smoker might provide a novel way to disseminate information, the opera company decided one day in 1895 to purchase about 100 blank matchbooks from the Diamond Match Co. Cast members would sit up at night, pasting photos and writing primitive ad slogans on the matchbooks. Phrases, accolades and elaborate suggestions must have filled the dressing room. It is conceivable that different cast members, all designing their own matchbooks, would have used the same vernacular and colloquialisms. When the matchbooks were finished, they were distributed complimentary.

The whimsical ad, from the only surviving example of this early commercial pursuit, read, "A cyclone of fun--powerful caste--pretty girls--handsome ward-robe--get seats early." On the front appeared a pasted-on photo of the star of this comic organization, Thomas Lowden, a trombonist immortalized with the edict "America's Youngest Operatic Comedian." In effect, the opera performers had created the earliest known commercial advertising on matchbooks. The sole remaining example of that night's festivities is today insured for $25,000 by its owner, The Franklin Mint.

Today, matchbooks with advertising are ubiquitous, valued by smokers and collectors alike. But if it weren't for an English druggist named John Walker, many a cigar would never have been lit. In 1827, Walker marketed a sulfur-tipped splint called a Congreves, creating the first matches known to man. While the matches turned out to be explosive in nature and unpredictably dangerous to handle, they helped pave the way for an easier light for future generations of smokers.

Seven decades later, in 1889, a Philadelphia lawyer and patent attorney named Joshua Pusey took the process a step further and created what is considered the first matchbook. Pusey probably cut the first matchbook from a cardboard-like material with a pair of office shears. On a small wood stove, he boiled up the original volatile formula for the match head and striking surface mixture. Pusey christened his invention "flexibles"; however, no record exists of the number of match sticks in that first book (the typical number was 20 or 50). After his novel invention was announced toward the end of 1892, Pusey spent the next 36 months defending it in various lawsuits. Victorious in his patent defense, he parlayed the patent rights to Diamond Match Co. for $4,000 in 1896. As is often the case with great inventions, others had been working on the matchbook idea at the same time. Being an inventor and not a fighter, Pusey quickly accepted Diamond's offer, which included a job offer; Pusey remained with Diamond until his death 20 years later. Even though another company made a limited number of matchbooks prior to 1896, Diamond's market share and domination of the American match industry catapulted Pusey's invention to world-wide recognition.

After it acquired the rights from Pusey, Diamond decided to build a matchbook factory in Barberton, Ohio, rather than use one of its existing busy wooden stick plants. In 1896, the company made more than 150,000 matchbooks a day. The early matchbooks, which carried no advertising, were a dangerous and flimsy novelty, and Diamond hoped to replace them with a quality matchbook on which it could sell advertising space (it would be another 40 years before matchbooks would be given out freely to the public).

The new Diamond matchbook department of 1896 was the black sheep of a thriving and affluent business. In the early days at the Barberton plant, Diamond turned the matchbook division over to a spirited and highly motivated young salesman named Henry C. Traute. Traute's marketing genius and interest in the industry soon propelled him to the top of his trade and, later, to a promotion to vice president at Diamond. Initially, he persuaded upper management to move the striker from the inside to the outside, thus altering the matchbook from a potentially explosive contrivance to a safer and more dependable tool for lighting. Traute lobbied to further protect the customer, insisting that the soon-ubiquitous phrase "Close cover before striking" be included on the front flap. The modern matchbook was taking shape under the tutorial of this far-sighted and ambitious salesman.

Traute needed clout for his new matchbook division. Targeting big business in the first decade of the twentieth century, he started with the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee. This order was for the trifling amount of 10 million matchbooks, each of which advertised Blue Ribbon Beer. Not resting on these laurels, he next visited James B. Duke, the tobacco baron, and persuaded him to buy 30 million. Not satisfied for a moment, Traute invaded the empire of the chewing gum king, William Wrigley, and secured an order for one billion matchbooks, each advertising Wrigley's Chewing Gum.

Necessitated by Traute's vigorous sales initiatives, better production equipment quickly emerged. Had production rates of the late nineteenth century not improved, the Pabst order would have taken just over two months to ship, Duke would have waited almost seven months and Wrigley's order wouldn't have been filled for more than 18 years.

Traute made another giant contribution to the match industry. He envisioned a system whereby companies that produced the matchbooks would sell advertising space to various firms and distribute the matchbooks themselves. The idea, to which matchbook collecting surely owes a debt, was significantly different from the dedicated advertising promotional matchbooks sold to Pabst, Duke and Wrigley. Traute made the matchbook company responsible for spreading the product around the country. Distribution had to be controlled, of course; for example, assurances were made that matchcovers with whiskey advertisements didn't surface in a dry county. The new system reduced advertisers' costs and provided more revenues for Diamond, as well as spurring a number of other ambitious matchbook companies to begin production during the first 20 years of the new century.

It didn't take long after the invention of the matchbook to find a popular use for it. Around the turn of the century, the United States was known for being a nation of cigar smokers. According to one turn-of-the-century poll, some 30 million Americans smoked more than 1.5 million cigar "brands." The plethora of brand names revolved around the popularity of the proud and personal identification a man had with his cigar. Almost any businessman, banker or entrepreneur could have his own cigar band placed on a cigar when ordered in the prescribed number. Although the tobacco contained in hundreds of these "different" cigar brands might have been rolled by the same cigar factory worker, anyone with the resources could boast that he smoked his own private leaf.

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