From around the 1830s through the 1920s, almost everyone carried the newfangled “strike anywhere” matches to light lanterns, stoves and candles. Proceeded by old-fashioned wood splints — which were dipped into melted sulphur and primarily used to light candles after being ignited from burning tinder — these novel friction matches burst into flame when rubbed against a roughened surface.
Although those first friction matches were very convenient, they could ignite spontaneously when carried loosely in the pocket or purse. To prevent these hair-trigger fire sticks from rubbing together and combusting prematurely, the original inventor of the match, Englishman John Walker, designed special containers to hold the matches to prevent starting a fire in a gentleman’s pants.
Early match safes, sometimes called Vesta boxes (after the goddess Vesta, a Roman deity of the hearth), were round tin boxes that cost two pence each and held 100 matches. There was no roughened surface on the boxes to ignite the matches; a piece of sandpaper was inserted for that purpose. A distinguishing characteristic of later match safes is that they have a ribbed surface on the bottom for lighting the matches.
By the late 1800s, most men carried ornately decorated match safes in their coat pockets. By the turn of the century, it was becoming more permissible for women to smoke in public, so match safes with a feminine motif and shape were designed for this expanding new market.
Beyond rectangles and ovals, which conformed nicely to the shape of friction matches, match safes were made in the forms of animals, boots, even body parts. Other match safes were treated like canvases for tiny sporting, rural or city scenes. Many were made of sterling silver and embossed or engraved with images of people smoking or abstract patterns resembling smoke. Others were wrought of gold or enamel, and a few match safes were carved from antler or ivory.
Promotional match safes were produced by various companies. The Gillette Company designeda brass razor-blade case with a ribbed bottom that could be used as a match safe after the blades were used up. Some match safes incorporated a cigar cutter or a small knife blade, and some were small enough to be suspended from a fob chain from a gentleman’s vest pocket.
American match safes tended to be more elaborate than those from Europe or Asia, thanks greatly to the Gorham Manufacturing Company (the name used from 1865 to 1961) of Providence, Rhode Island. One of the most prolific manufacturers of match safes, Gorham made more than 1,180 different varieties, which are highly collectable today. Since the match safe cut across every segment of society, from the nobility down to the ordinary workingman, it is no surprise that these convenient cases ranged from the fabulous and elegant to the absurdly cheap and vulgar.
Typically, wealthy people had match safes made of silver or gold, while common folk had ones made of brass and tin. Today, as was true in their heyday, the most coveted match safes are those created by brilliant American designers like Tiffany, Gorham, Bristol and Whiting and by the European firms Cartier and Fabergé, who exported their products from overseas.
A single-owner collection of match safes recently sold at a Cowan’s auction, yielding some insights into collecting in this highly specialized segment of the antiques market. Sold in 200 lots, there was a notable emphasis on condition and material. Buyers were willing to pay several thousand dollars for individual examples, like the sterling silver example of a guard in a peaked sentry box that sold for $3,000. They balked, however, at bidding on pricey single lots, several exceeding $60,000 estimates. Enamel safes did very well, realizing prices of $1,800-plus. Examples in silver are the most common and affordable, covering an array of designs; many in that auction brought less than $200.
Match safes remain a relatively affordable small collectible, as many beautiful examples are still available under $100, but hallmark, material and condition will affect the price.
The heyday of the match safe was around 1920, when the lighter was created and one no longer needed to carry around a box of matches. Once the Zippo became ubiquitous, it pretty much killed the match safe.
Michelle Galler, based in Georgetown and in Washington, Virginia, specializes in American primitives and antique folk art. Her shop Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities is newly located in Hazel River Antiques, 12625 Lee Highway, in Washington, Virginia. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.