Friction matches found favor with the public soon after they were invented by English chemist John Walker in 1826.
To many, it was as though fire had been rediscovered, as these tiny little sticks made it possible to summon up a flame at will. Yet, with the convenience came considerable danger, for when carried loose in the pocket they had the nasty habit of exploding!
To remedy the problem, Walker placed 100 of his matches in a round canister-shaped tin box, included a piece of sandpaper for striking and sold the first crude “match safes” to the customers at his shop for 2 pence each.
For the common man the match safe (or Vesta case as it was called in England) would remain a simple brass or tin box for several decades. However, to the more affluent, the safe immediately took the form of an ornate, almost jewelry-like case. Beautiful hand-painted enamel-over-brass safes, elegantly engraved safes of gold and sterling and even safes with moveable parts found their way into the pockets of statesmen and royalty.
By the latter part of the 19th century, match safes were being manufactured in both Europe and the US in almost every conceivable material. Inexpensive pressed tin and brass, nickel silver, ivory, tortoiseshell and Bakelite safes flooded the market place making the match safes available to the common man. Precious metal and enameled safes were still popular among the affluent, but by the onset of the 20th century the match safe had most definitely gone mainstream.
Originally intended for the male buyer, the “strike anywhere match” and its container soon became a hit with the ladies. Smoking was fashionable, and female smokers greatly affected the aesthetics of the lighting device. To keep in step with the ever-changing world of women’s fashion, Edwardian, Art Deco and Art Nouveau safes were produced from 1870 to 1930. These safes and are highly sought by today’s collectors.
The practicality of the 20th century saw the decline of match safe as paper matchbooks and boxed safety matches came into existence. Plain metal holders for matchbooks and sleeves for boxes of matches were developed, but short lived. Liquid fluid lighters came into vogue at the beginning or World War I, and by the late 1930’s there was little to no market for the once “must have” match safe.
Many of the earlier safes were tossed in to metal drives for the war effort of the 1940’s or melted down for their gold or silver content. Those that did survive were tossed into the bottom of a drawer, where they would lay unnoticed for the next 50 years.
With literally thousands of different patterns and types to choose from it was inevitable, that given time, the match safe would find favor with collectors. Some look for safes made from only one type of material, while others collect the advertising safes given as promotional aids or created to commemorate a special event. Collecting by manufacturer is another popular approach, as is collecting safes with a specific theme in their design such as Deco figures or nature themes.
Many safes will carry a makers mark. Gorham is the most common with more than 1,100 different designs. Also watch for; Whiting, Unger brothers, William B. Kerr and Shreve & Company.
Until next time,
Linda Hamer Kennett is a professional liquidation consultant specializing in down-sizing for senior and the liquidation of estates and may be reached at 317-429-7887 or firstname.lastname@example.org.