A History of the Match
The book Records of the Unworldly and the Strange, by Tao Gu, China, circa AD 950, includes one of the earliest descriptions of a match:
If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulphur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame…This marvelous thing was formerly called a “light-bringing slave”, but afterwards when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to ‘fire inch-stick’.
Some Chinese scholars speculate that the invention was made in 577AD by women of the Northern Qi, (or Sui) who were unable to leave the confines of their city to search for tinder, because it was under siege by the Northern Zhou and Chen.
The Boyle Match & the Ethereal Match
The first friction match was born from the alchemical experiments of Hennig Brandt in Hamburg in 1669, who was attempting to transform an olio of base metals into gold, and instead accidentally produced the element phosphorous. He ignored his discovery, but British physicist Robert Boyle in 1680 coated coarse paper in phosphorous, and a splinter of wood in sulphur. When the wood was drawn through the folded paper, it burst into flames. Due to the scarcity of phosphorous, this invention was little more than an expensive novelty for the rich.
In 1817 a French chemist created what he called “the Ethereal Match,” a piece of paper coated with a compound of phosphorous that ignited when exposed to air. The paper was vacuum-sealed in a glass tube called the “match,” which was ignited when the tube was smashed.
In 1826, John Walker, an apothecary in Stockton-on-Tees, conducting an experiment in his laboratory, stirred a mixture antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch with a wooden stick, and subsequently scraped the stick on the stone floor of the lab to remove a glob of the solution that had dried on the end of it. When the stick burst into flames, Walker realized he had created something of interest, and made several of the sticks, which he demonstrated for the amusement of friends and colleagues. One of the observers at a demonstration in London was Samuel Jones.
Jones realized the invention’s commercial potential, set up a match business in London, and cleverly named his product “Lucifers.” The term persisted as slang in the 20th Century. Lucifers caught on, and following their introduction in London, tobacco smoking of all kinds greatly increased.
However the Lucifers were unpredictable, often giving off violent bursts of flame, and emitted an extremely noxious odor of sulfur. Boxes of lucifers carried a printed warning: “persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use Lucifers.”
In 1830 French chemist Charles Sauria reformulated the match to eliminate the foul odor and lengthen the burning time. He created phosphorous-based matches that began to be manufactured in large quantities. Match factories (often utilizing child labor) and home match factories (populated largely by women) began turning out matches at an unprecedented rate. Phosphorous, however, is highly poisonous. Scores of factory workers became ill with a scourge that became known as “phossy jaw,” a deforming necrosis in the bones of the face, particularly the lower jaw.
The phosphorous scraped from a single pack of matches contained enough poison to commit suicide or murder, both of which were reported occurrences of the era.
A non-poisonous match using red, rather than white phosphorous was invented in the mid-1800s, however it was more expensive to produce. Only gradually, after agitation and worker actions like the London Matchgirl’s Strike in 1888, did governments pass legislation against the use of white phosphorous, which forced match manufacturers to reform their dangerous product.
The Diamond Match Company produced the first non-poisonous match in the U.S., and as a humanitarian gesture, forfeited patent rights, allowing rival companies to cheaply switch to non-poisonous match production. The Company was recognized by President Taft and won a prestigious award for the elimination of a serious occupational disease.
From 1835 to the mid 1840’s, a radical faction of the Democratic Party came to be called the Locofocos, which at the time was a popular name for the match in the U.S. Anti-slavery and Anti-Monopoly, the Locofocos were originally named “the Equal Rights Party,” until a group of mainstream Democrats tried to disrupt one of their political meetings by turning off the gas lights. The group continued their meeting anyway, debating in semi-darkness mitigated only by the light of matches struck and held aloft, thus earning their new name. Led by editorial writer William Leggett, they were involved in the Flour Riot of 1837 and in general were for Free Trade, greater protection for Labor Unions, against paper money, financial speculation, and state banks.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the Locofocos:
“The new race is stiff, heady, and rebellious; they are fanatics in freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.”
Safety Matches and Matchbooks
The safety match was invented in 1844 in Sweden, by Gustaf Eric Pasch, improved on by Johan Edvard Lundström, and prevented unintentional combustion by separating the reactive ingredients between the match head and the striking surface.
Pennsylvania attorney Joshua Pusey invented the matchbook, containing 50 matches and a striking surface on the inside of the cover. The Diamond Match Company bought Pusey’s patent, and improved the safety of the design by placing the striking surface on the outside. In 1896 a brewing company ordered more than fifty thousand matchbooks to advertise a new product, and the ubiquitous practice of matchbook advertising was born. In the 1940’s the psychological warfare branch of the U.S. government distributed thousands of matchbooks containing anti-nazi slogans to occupied countries, and the French Resistance produced matchbooks containing instructions on how to derail Nazi trains printed on the inside cover.
The Match Today
Thirty thousand match heads will produce a 10-15 foot column of flame. A satchel of sixty thousand match heads has enough firepower to propel a 6 pound bowling ball 1500 feet.
Today, Americans strike more than five hundred billion matches every year…