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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 3)

As with any ephemera (frail collectibles such as those made of paper), condition is the key factor. Today, matchcovers are classified as either used or unused. Mint condition means "right out of the box," without edge dings, creases, nicks or blemishes of any kind. A scratch mark on an otherwise pristine full matchbook can reduce its value by 50 to 75 percent. Watch out for glue or adhesive marks on the insides of matchcovers, as well as faded corners made by photo corners or the page slits in professional matchcover albums.

As far as categories go, restaurants are a good starting point. They easily break down into cafés, lunches, seafood, ethnic and so forth. They can also be sub-classified by city and state, chain restaurants, single-site eateries attached to hotels, out-of-business restaurants, diners and more. Adjunct eating places such as bars, grills, taverns and pubs are also collectible. Along with restaurants, the categories of hotels, motels and banks are considered "easy." However, serious collectors can branch out into more than 600 other categories, from airlines to zoos.

Among today's hot categories are sports, girlies, nationalpolitics, beer, cigars, soda and the remarkable "size" categories from the golden age of matchcover collecting, which include Giant Features (matchbooks measuring 3 3/8 inches by 4 1/4 inches), Features (matchbooks with colorful images across flattened sticks), Contours (uniquely shaped matchcovers), Midgets (matchbooks measuring 1 1/16 inches by 1 1/2 inches) and Actions (matchbooks with an extended disk saddle, giving it a satchel-like appearance), just to name a few.

Sports matchbooks have dozens of sub-categories. Jack Dempsey may have made his name as a boxer, but he also owned a number of restaurants and hotels, and together his various pursuits earned him a place on 21 different matchbooks. A set of Washington Redskins matchcovers are worth between $300 and $500.

Today, tall matchbooks and matchcovers are scarce. Several matchbook companies made them throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including Lion Match Co., Federal Match Co., Star Match Co., Union Match Co., and Diamond Match. Treasured by serious collectors, they can be found in mature collections. Other rare matchcovers include the Mendelson Opera Company specimen held by the Franklin Mint, matchbooks honoring Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic (two sold by the American Matchcover Collecting Club fetched $3,800 and $1,600), a matchbook featuring Gen. Douglas MacArthur with the declaration "I Shall Return" (a single matchbook once brought $145), and a series of African matchcovers showing a nation's leader on the front and a flag or a seal on the back; these were made to commemorate the country's separation from its European sovereign and were only distributed at its embassies.

Because matchcovers have been used to advertise anything and everything this century, there's certainly no shortage of examples for those who lean toward the offbeat.

The nation's wars have provided a few such examples. One matchcover warned people not to sleep with tramps because of the danger of contracting venereal disease. Another showed Allied sympathisers how to sabotage rails to disrupt travel schedules of German trains during the Second World War.

After the recent wave of smoking bans and the invention of the throwaway lighter, introduced in 1969, fewer establishments are providing matchbooks for their customers, and today, new collectors often complain about not being able to find free matches at local restaurants.

The emphasis, therefore, should be on older collections, thousands of which are waiting to be unearthed from garages, attics, basements and storerooms. Older collectors sometimes find it difficult to pass their collection down to the next generation, many of whom are mesmerized by television and influenced primarily by popular fad collectibles. But the older matchbooks are still worth hunting for, and while their modern counterparts may one day accrue value, most are likely to lack the enduring popularity of, say, a Katharine Hepburn Group One Movie Test Set matchcover or, a Notre Dame vs. Southern California matchcover, one of the college rival series.

Bill Retskin, a real-estate agent in Asheville, North Carolina, and a 20-year matchcover-collecting veteran, founded The American Matchcover Collecting Club in 1986.

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