Matchsafes came into being when wooden friction matches were invented in the middle of the nineteenth century, and were widely used until the 1930s, when safety matches, matchbooks, and gas-powered lighters became more popular. Early friction matches were somewhat unreliable, highly combustible and could light spontaneously in a pocket. In order to protect them from moisture and carry them safely, a closed container was needed to reduce friction. Matchsafes, the protective and decorative boxes that housed matches for personal use, are a great example of design responding to technological innovations (matches), and the human needs that may arise as a result of these innovations. An astounding variety of matchsafe designs were produced, and thousands of designs are documented representing a range of shapes, materials, production processes, and decoration.
While elegant and costly, matchsafes made of precious materials followed the height of fashion and high-style design. Other examples in more humble materials often featured manufacturers’ advertisements for anything from plumbing supplies to livestock feed. Many matchsafes carried personal monograms, commemorated significant events or were souvenirs from foreign destinations. Still others depicted popular pursuits of the time, social gatherings, sports and games. Witty games of a cerebral nature are represented in this example, showing the rebus “A [match] for you at any time.”
Cynthia Trope is the Associate Curator of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.