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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

(continued from page 1)

The popularity of cigar smoking triggered an increased demand for matchbooks. Numerous early experiments determined the proper length for the paper match stick, allowing the cigar smoker just enough flame to properly light his cigar. The size of the matchbook itself was about 1/4 inch longer than today's standard 1 7/8-inch matchbook. (These older matchcovers are commonly called "tall" by today's collectors.)

Yet behind the plumes of cigar smoke, cigarettes were becoming popular during the first few decades of this century. Manufacturers found them easier and quicker to make, and by placing 10 in a package (later 20), they could sell less tobacco at a greater profit. The suffragette movement of the period acknowledged women smokers. And cigarettes gave a "clean" look to smoking, insofar as the paper surrounding the tobacco was white.

Through the late 1920s, the matchbook industry flourished. Tens of thousands of advertisers used matchbooks, which had become the most popular advertising format in America. A mom-and-pop store was a typical advertiser. Before the shop opened, Mom would organize the decorations and do the cooking, while Pop arranged for the rental agreement, building signs, business permits and related services. Local newspapers would probably carry a short story about the opening of the business, but a continued customer base called for repetitive advertising efforts. The matchbook was the perfect vehicle. Pop would order a case of 2,500 professionally printed matchbooks for just under $5, and within a few weeks would be distributing matchbooks throughout the neighborhood. The strategy worked again and again, in hamlets, towns and cities all over America. Not only did businesses get on the band-wagon, but service companies and product manufacturers joined the throngs.

Then came that dark October day in 1929, that heralded the beginning of the end for most large production matchbook orders. During the next few years, discretionary expenditures for matchbooks dwindled as advertising budgets fizzled, the first budget casualities of businesses that survived the crash. Diamond Match and other once prosperous matchbook companies were hurting. Another Henry Traute was needed, or at least another brilliant idea.

It came to Diamond Match in the form of an old idea relegated to back rooms during the heyday of production. Since manufacturing and service businesses were curtailing their orders, why not sell matches to the public? The question remained--what do you sell to a post-1929 Depression-ridden American public?

The answer was the silver screen. Early in 1932, Diamond produced the first set of movie star matchbooks for the American market. On "the smallest billboards in the world," 10 personalities adorned the "test set," as it was coined by collectors: Katherine Hepburn, Slim Summerville, Richard Arden, Ann Harding, Zazu Pitts, Gloria Stuart, Constance Bennett, Irene Dunne, Frances Dee and George Raft made the final cut. The promotion worked, and the rest is history. After success with the first test set, which sold for a penny at the local five and dime, Diamond released matchbooks with several hundred other national celebrities. Stars' photos, with brief biographies on the back of the matchbook, came from the movies, radio and popular nightlife.

Closely following its Hollywood successes, Diamond introduced matchbooks with America's second-most popular heroes, sports figures. Football, baseball and hockey players signed releases as their photos and biographies found their way to matchcovers. Called "Group One" matchcovers by collectors, the items featured college and professional sports teams. Football matchbooks included players from the Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Boston Redskins and New York Giants. Nationally recognized college football rivalries were also featured, including Army vs. Navy, Fordham vs. St. Mary's, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Holy Cross vs. Boston College and Notre Dame vs. Southern California. The sports sets were a runaway success story for Diamond Match, and the savior of the industry. These popular matchbooks continued until the late 1930s, when war broke out and matchbook companies focused their attention on the largest accounts yet, the U.S. military and the country's patriotic efforts.

With life breathed back into the match industry through the need for popular patriotic and military advertising, the U.S. Office of Price Administration insisted that a free book of matches accompany every pack of cigarettes. Since the price of a matchbook hadn't increased in 50 years, why should vendors complain? Even in 1945, a matchbook cost a tobacco vendor only about one-fifth of a cent.

At the end of the Second World War, more than 500 billion matches were manufactured annually in the United States. Around 200 billion came in matchbooks, 100 billion were wooden safety matches and the rest were the wooden "strike anywhere" matches, which could be used on any rough surface. The figures spoke for themselves. American matchmaking had become a bustling industry and a far cry from its humble beginnings 50 years earlier.

During the Second World War, cigarette manufacturers solidified their hold on the American smoking public. They offered millions of free cartons of cigarettes to U.S. servicemen in the European and Asian theaters, and at home. Cigarette makers indoctrinated their own sales forces for a post-war cigarette-smoking nation. The push was on to change the nation's smoking habits, and what better way to lure anyone into a habit--make it free, at first. Returning soldiers demanded the popular smoking form in the States. Fashion also dictated a smaller and quicker smoke, as the war years of the 1940s unfolded into the prosperous and active years of the 1950s.

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