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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 2)

The matchbook industry and the common paper match under-went several major changes at that time. First, it took less flame to light a cigarette than a cigar. With cigars losing popularity, a decidedly smaller match stick was needed. In addition, the cigarette- vending machine was becoming popular, found in every bar, restaurant, hotel, bank and business in an ever-expanding America. Along with the cigarette-vending machine came the vended matchbook to accompany each pack. These developments can trace their roots to the early 1930s, when the Ohio Match Co. became the first matchbook maker to experiment with the shorter match. During the decade that followed, the company applied for several patents on the vending equipment needed to dispense the shorter matchbook. Individual matchbook dispensing machines were already passé. With its portentous popularity, Ohio Match corralled the vending machine market for a short period. Eventually, other designs emerged and other matchbook companies entered the market. The "tall" matchbook, however, was quickly fading from popularity. Even with the recent resurgence and popularity of cigar smoking, the tall matchbook never saw a comeback. The Second World War and the popularity of cigarettes ended the era of the tall matchbook forever.

Penny boxes, popular in Europe, and kitchen matches, used for lighting fireplaces and stoves, were still available for the inveterate cigar smoker. Ornate match safes, fashionable at the turn of the century, added an extra dimension to lighting your favorite smoke, but the containers had to be periodically refilled.

During the golden age of matchbooks--from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s--dozens of match companies and their salesmen thrived. Selling a million matchbooks often took novice salesmen less than a few months. Large companies employed dozens of artists and maintained state-of-the-art design studios. World-famous artists such as George Petty, Alberto Vargas and Ed Moran drew pictures of women that ended up on matchbooks. Even Marilyn Monroe lent her shapely form as an early pinup model for matchbook designs. As recently as 1976, when Phil Carollo bought Lion Match Co. (now known as Lion Corp. of America), there were 23 prosperous American match companies.

But the boom didn't last. Today, there are only four American match companies: Lion Corp., Superior Match Co., Atlantis Match Co. and D.D. Bean & Sons Co. "Banks and big businesses were our largest customers," says Carollo. "They would buy cases of custom-imprinted matchbooks and distribute them freely to local businesses."

As smoking restrictions were imposed on restaurants, hotels and bars, those establishments also cut back their matchbook purchases. Today, many states require separate ventilation systems and partitions in restaurants wishing to provide areas for smokers. And while years ago, many hotel chains required franchises to place matches and ashtrays in every guest room, today many hotels have nonsmoking floors and no longer offer matchbooks to guests.

The smoking bans will hurt important industries that helped America grow. Matchcovers were the most popular advertising format for over 40 years. Advertisers used matchcovers to promote every aspect of America, including airlines, banks, beer, cigars and cigarettes, fairs, fraternal organizations, gas stations, hospitals, hotels, military, movies, political campaigns, radio stars, railroads, restaurants, soft drinks, sports, transportation, wars, and of course, match companies themselves. "People will always need matches," says Carollo. "But will they strike ones made in America or have to rely on Canada, Europe or Russia?"

As a collectible, matchcovers didn't receive much recognition until the 1930s. Due to European influences, match boxes and match labels were popular during the first quarter of the century in the United States and Canada. Matchcover collectors began organizing sometime between the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933 and the New York World's Fair of 1939. Clubs such as The Blue Moon Match Box Club and United Matchonians (both are now defunct) had roots prior to 1940, but none would rival the Rathkamp Matchcover Society, founded in 1940 and still thriving. Since that time, more than 45 regional clubs have come and gone. Fewer than 15 remain today.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were more than one million matchcover collectors in the United States and Canada, though only a small percentage ever belonged to matchcover collecting clubs. A 1957 Mirror Magazine article by Bill Gilmartin hailed matchcover collecting as "the fastest growing hobby (in America) . . . matchbook collectors are outnumbered in the ranks of the nation's hobbyists only by stamp collectors." Their European counterparts remained loyal to match boxes and box labels, which are still prized today. U.S. figures show that match box collecting has recovered some of its former luster in the United States during the past 10 years, although it has never regained its earlier popularity.

Despite the commercial decline of matchbook sales, matchcover collecting still ranks as the most popular collecting hobby in America after stamps. Casual collectors, thought to number in the hundreds of thousands, pop matchbooks into brandy snifters and fish bowls. Serious collectors, estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000, join clubs and trade by mail. Die-hards attend conventions, run for club offices and publish articles, bulletins and books about matchcovers.

Matchbooks document trips and vacations, make great keepsakes from cherished evenings and weekend outings, and are still your best bet at a campfire. The early matchbook plaudit of "20 little salesmen" still reconciles service and product industries. "You can't beat matchbooks for good, inexpensive advertising," says John Williams, publicity manager of The American Matchcover Collecting Club. Even in the smallest American towns, restaurants, hotels, businesses and banks still use this medium to advertise. The aficionado can easily cull a handful or a caddie (a box of 50 matchbooks) just for the asking. Although once coat-tailed to cigarette smoking, matchcover collecting has recently surged in popularity and successfully divorced itself from that habit. For many, matchcover collecting musters every collector's urge to organize, classify, categorize, display and record.

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