You don’t have to watch Mad Men to know that America was once a land of smokers; there’s a long trail of tobacciana, and the smoke still lingers in our memories no matter how folks try to clear the air. The fictitious mad ad man, Donald Draper, said you couldn’t get a smoker to switch their brand — and he may have been right. But you could still advertise lots of other things to smokers and one of the easiest ways to do that was with a matchbook. Even the few non-smokers came into contact with matchbooks, making matchbooks a wonderful means of advertising. They were used to advertise everything and anything, from national brands, local businesses, and even matchbook makers.
Now that smoking is banned (or to be banned) everywhere, you don’t find a lot of matchbooks, let alone advertising matchbooks, because no one wants to be associated with smoking. But back in the day, matchbook advertising was so popular you could get all the matchbooks you needed — and more — for free. Something I am reminded of every time I have to buy a lighter.
While plenty of matchbooks were produced, once they were given out they were usually used and the empty matchbooks were then tossed out, or sometimes put to thrifty crafty use. Then again, there were often promotions inside the matchbook covers which required the patron to collect a series of matchbooks and turn them in for a gift. One such offer can be read on the inside of this vintage matchbook from Trackside Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
This Cover Is But One Of A Series of the Famous Elvgren Girls
Bring in a set of ALL FIVE COVERS — the FIVE Different Girls, and receive a Set of 5 Beautiful GLASSES Absolutely FREE
(Sorry, collectors, you can’t find all the vintage pinup covers and claim those glasses now; the offer expired in January of 1943.)
So even though millions of the things were made, a small percentage of them has survived at all, making matchbooks truly ephemeral things.
Sometimes you will find jars of old matchbooks saved for future use, or a neatly organized binder that belonged to a matchbook collector. But whether you find one or a ton of them, the only thing more ephemeral than the matchbooks themselves are the companies and products they promote. This is something noted by Krista Charles, who has collected matchbooks since salvaging a small collection from her then 90-year old grandfather-in-law:
Sometimes the places advertised on the matchbooks are still in business even after decades have passed, some businesses have changed names and are under new ownership, and some buildings are empty or have been torn down and replaced by new buildings or parking lots or highway expansion programs and even empty fields.
Charles now combines technology with art to add to the story of matchbooks; she uses Google Maps to find where the location of the business would be and then makes a pencil sketch of whatever is now shown at the location on the inside cover of the matchbook. Here is a gallery of her works.
The clues to the age of a matchbook lay in the striker. The original design of the matchbook as we know it has the striker on the same side as the matches. People would actually select a match, detach it from the rest, place the match head on the striking surface, close the cover over it, and pull the match out — the friction then ignited the match head. In just a few short years, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the completely obvious hazard was noted and the “Close Cover Before Striking” tagline was quickly added. However, this would prove not to be enough consumer protection…
Not only did the close-cover instruction require user action, it demanded that the person knew how to read; which was not always the case. So decades later, in the early 1960s, the U.S. federal government required matchbook manufacturers to move the friction strip away from the matches, to the back side of the matchbook, and a deal for safety was struck.