Cooper Hewitt holds a large number of matchsafes: small, metal boxes that emerged around 1830 to house recently invented friction matches. Vital for lighting lanterns, kitchen stoves and smoking accessories, people from all walks of life carried matchsafes, or vesta cases.  The air-tight containers kept matches dry and reduced the risk of spontaneous ignition, a serious threat when chemically-treated matches were carried loose in pockets or handbags. As enterprise and industry expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, matchsafes took on an additional role as advertisements for an increasing number of products and brands.

This matchsafe served just such a purpose. Made by Whitehead and Hoag Company of Newark, New Jersey, it was just one of the firm’s numerous promotional products that included celluloid badges, pin-back buttons, leather banners, and commemorative medals. Here, the matchsafe’s plated, round-edged rectangular form (perfect for slipping in and out of a gentleman’s vest pocket) boasts a printed celluloid advertisement for the B.L. Marble Chair Company of Bedford, Ohio. Framed by a braided border, the ad affirms Marble’s specialty in office chairs and pieces for clubs and hotels. Around this time the firm was expanding its product line to include furniture not just for domestic settings but for corporate interiors, too; Marble thus turned to the burgeoning field of advertising to assert its corporate quality and raise awareness of its entry into a new market. This would have been particularly important for makers of this new type of furniture for there was a marked change in office design during this period, as corporations sought to establish brand identities and foster consumer or client trust. This evolution manifested in corporate interiors that decreasingly resembled factory floors and increasingly translated a more comfortable, domestic environment to the office. That said, there persisted an emphasis on scientific management and social hierarchy in the workplace, even in white-collar environments; thus the chair featured on this matchsafe is representative of this transitional period in office design by marrying a traditional Bank of England-style chair with an innovative, open swivel base that facilitated productivity and allowed for easy cleaning and airflow, new concerns for the corporate interior.

This particular matchsafe design was manufactured in great quantity and bore promotions for a diverse number of brands, organizations, and events at the turn of the twentieth century, including the Cream of Olives, the United Brewery Workmen, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, and even an ostrich farm in Pasadena, California (all in Cooper Hewitt’s collection). The back of the matchsafe bears the playful conceit of a stamped letter, allowing the object’s owner to personalize the piece and giving it a new dimension of utility and intimacy. Kept close to the body but brought out and used in a variety of settings, matchsafes did double duty as both useful and advertorial objects, and today provide evidence of emerging trends in marketing and the flourishing diversity of American enterprise at the turn of the twentieth century.

Rachel Hunnicutt is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

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