It’s impossible to talk about matchbook art without wondering where it all began.
The invention of the matchbook, in its current form, happened in 1892 when the folded cardboard design was patented as “Flexible Match” by Joshua Pusey. Pusey was a dapper patent attorney who didn’t like to carry a bulky box of matches, and he sought to streamline the design so it would be fitting of a gentleman.
Some historians point to the first commercial use of a matchbook to the Mendelson Opera Co. in the late 1890’s. They purchased matchbooks from the Binghamton Match Company who had developed a matchbook based on Pusey’s design. The story goes that the opera cast hand wrote slogans on the matchbooks to promote Thomas Lowden, a trombonist and the youngest operatic comedian. Others believe the Opera copied the idea from the Binghamton Match Company who had printed matchbooks for Fendrich Tobacco around the same time. It seems to be an ongoing debate as to which came first.
Henry Traut, a young salesman for Diamond, seized the opportunity. He was inspired by the Opera’s ingenuity and began to sell the idea to companies as a new means to advertise to consumers. In 1902 he brought the idea to the Pabst Brewing Company and got an order of 10 million matchbooks advertising their Blue Ribbon Beer. They were the first company from the food and beverage industry to invest in branded matchbooks. Other orders soon followed from American Tobacco Company, and Wrigley’s Chewing Gum. Traut convinced the brands to give away the matches for free, creating a unique advertising methodology that has largely remained unchanged since. Matchbooks are still one of the few things you could get for free.
Traut convinced the brands to give away the matches for free, creating a unique advertising methodology.
It was only a matter of time before matchbooks were printed and distributed in astounding volume, and had a place next to advertising in newspapers, magazines, radio and motion pictures. These small, inexpensive, useful, shareable books advertised cigars, cigarettes, hotels, restaurants, organizations and even government initiatives.
As reported by the matchbook industry, a typical matchbook would be viewed by about 28 people. 20 by its owner as they used it, and up to 8 others who may see it second hand. They were effective and incredibly inexpensive by comparison to other forms of advertising, and they were uniquely collectible. By the mid 1970’s there were more than 35 billion matchbooks, and over the 120 years since the Opera, billions upon billions of matchbooks have been printed, used and collected.
Matches tell stories
Matchbooks are a visual history of our world, and for those who collect, they often contain the memories and stories of our lives and of times gone by. Which is why Matchbooks are the second most collectible item in the United States, after postage stamps. In the 1940’s it was estimated that there were more than one million Americans collecting matchbooks. Today there are an estimated several thousand dedicated collectors however, most people will have collected a few matchbooks.
My personal collection is about 600 unique matchbooks. This is a very small amount by comparison to those who have amassed hundreds of thousands of matchbooks. My collection began as a fraternity challenge in the 1980’s. It was a rather simple challenge, matchbooks were free and readily available in most restaurants and hotels.
Today, printed matchbooks are hard to find. It’s the rare restaurant that gives them away, as their association with smoking is hard to avoid.
Over the years, disposable lighters, anti-smoking campaigns, and the advent of e-cigarettes has taken away nearly all of the matchbook business. There are only a handful of matchbook manufacturers left, and printed matchbooks are hard to find. It’s the rare restaurant that gives them away, as their association with smoking is hard to avoid. I’m rather certain that if I wanted to start my collection today it would be difficult, if not impossible, to collect a sizable number.