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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 5)

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.

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.

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.

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.


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