Matchsafe, United States, ca. 1905, Gift of Stephen W. Brener and Carol B. Brener, 1978-146-1105

The Wright Stuff

One hundred and ten years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their first flyer—it became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to make a controlled, sustained, manned flight. By 1905, the brothers launched their third flyer, which solved many of the pitch problems in their previous two models. In October of that year, Wilbur made a series of circling flights ending in safe landings, the longest covering nearly 25 miles and lasting almost 40 minutes. The 1905 Wright flyer III became their first practical, dependable working airplane and helped usher in the age of piloted, powered flight.

An image such as this one of a Wright flyer would not have been uncommon on a matchsafe in the early twentieth century. Matchsafes themselves were a byproduct of a nineteenth-century advance, the invention of the friction match. Before 1830, methods for igniting fire, such as rubbing together a flint and steel to create a spark and light a wick or kindling, were often laborious and unreliable. This changed with the invention of the friction match, which produced fire instantly. Friction matches were basically slivers of wood or cardboard tipped with a chemical mixture that would catch fire when rubbed across a rough surface. Early matches were particularly combustible, but also susceptible to moisture. To protect them and carry them safely in one’s pocket, a closed container was needed to reduce friction. Matchsafes were the small protective and decorative boxes for this purpose.

An increased need for instantaneous fire came with the popularization of smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes which were increasingly part of the social scene during the second half of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century. Matchsafes, made of all kinds of of materials in all sorts of forms, were not only a means of personal expression for men and women, much like jewelry, but also served as advertisements for a variety of businesses. Their imagery could also commemorate significant people, places, and events. Here, the ‘reverse’ of the matchsafe has a stylized floral reserve with a clear celluloid window suitable for holding an advertisement, a small name card or personalized motif, while the ‘front’ features the raised image of a Wright flyer, seen from below, soaring high above a bucolic scene of forested hills, meadows and buildings—a celebration of a significant moment at a time when the matchsafe was still a popular practical and decorative form.

Today is National Aviation Day (Orville Wright’s birthday)

For more on many of the 5,000 matchsafes in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection: Shinn, Deborah Sampson. Matchsafes. London: Scala Publishers Ltd., 2001

For more on the Wright brothers: 

Museum Number: