The History of Matches

If not for fire, humans wouldn't have made it this far. Fire was essential to survival, and to the development of technology that gave humanity the advantages necessary to build civilization. Equally important, though, is the fact that fire is necessary for lighting our tobacco, and everyone knows that tobacco is required for the advanced thought that has brought us much understanding of how the universe works. Most of the great scientists and inventors of the modern era have smoked pipes, and without them, we'd probably still think the Earth is the center of the universe, which is a comforting thought, but inaccurate. The only thing the Earth is the center of is self-importance, sitting in space and radiating arrogance across existence like a neutron star. Earth is an ego beacon, which may be why the only aliens who visit are the kind who conduct surreptitious experiments on us. Because they think we're jerks.

While survival and civilization are collateral effects of the use of fire, I think we all agree that fire's primary contribution to the betterment of the world has been its tobacco-ignition capabilities. But fire isn't the only thing that helped us along. There's also much evidence that we wouldn't be here without dogs. We've worked with dogs symbiotically for 30,000 years or more, and they've been integral to our survival and development, but you can't light your pipe with a dog. My dog has been with me on several occasions when my butane lighter has run out of fuel, and she perceptively finds other places to be when I've looked at her and wondered how one might light a pipe with a dog.

Fire was essential to survival, and to the development of technology that gave humanity the advantages necessary to build civilization.

Early humans had both dogs and fire, but while dogs are self-transporting, fire has needed more thought and experimentation. We were nomadic and needed to take our stuff with us, and fire was a problem. Otzi the Iceman is a 5,000-year-old corpse found well preserved in a glacier in Italy in 1991, and among his belongings was a mushroom known as a tinder polypore, which with Otzi's flint knife and pyrite striker would have been his fire-starting kit. It was essential technology for the Copper Age.

After a while we got pretty good at starting fires, and developed things like lamp oil to keep flames burning and useful. For pipe smokers, at least for a time, the best way to light up was with a spill, which is a thin strip of wood that may be ignited in a lamp or fireplace and used to transfer flame to the pipe. Tongs were also common accessories used to hold a burning coal to the tobacco.

Alchemist, Hennig Brand

You may easily imagine the convenience attained when matches were invented. However, matches as we know them today took a while to develop, and that development had a high cost in human lives. Like many conveniences of the modern age, they were more dangerous in their early years than after safety features and design improvements evolved. The small and unprepossessing match, an essential conveyer of light, has a dark past.

The term "match" at first referred to what we today call fuses, cords infused with particular chemical makeups according to how quickly the application required the cord to burn, used primarily for cannon and matchlock firearms.

Matches are recorded as early as 1366 in China and were referred to as "fire inch-sticks." They were short, flammable lengths of thin wood and not self-igniting, but treated with a bit of sulfur on one end that when touched to fire would immediately light.

In 1669, an alchemist named Hennig Brand of Hamburg, Germany, was working on changing base metals into gold, as alchemists do. He discovered phosphorus by collecting a vat of urine and letting it decompose into a paste. I don't know what goes on in the heads of alchemists; most people don't try turning urine into gold, though the irony is irresistible. Brand heated the urine paste and suffused water with the gasses emitted, which he then reduced to a substance that he had hoped would be gold. It wasn't gold, but it did glow in the dark. He had managed to isolate phosphorus.

Other alchemists started working with phosphorus and its flammable nature was quickly discovered, and through the 1680s experiments combining phosphorus with sulfur advanced the combination but did not result in useful fire-starting characteristics. In 1680, Sir Robert Boyle developed a more efficient technique for isolating phosphorus and impregnated paper with it, discovering that a splinter of wood coated with sulfur would ignite when drawn over the paper. Phosphorus, however, was too rare an element to use widely.

Jean Chancel invented the first self-igniting match in 1805, but it was a complex and expensive product, not something to be safely carried in a pocket. It consisted of a match whose head was made up of rubber, sulfur, sugar, and potassium chlorate and ignited by dipping it into a small, asbestos bottle of sulfuric acid. It was expensive to produce, quite dangerous, and did not gain popularity.

Sulfur Head Matches, 1828

In 1828, Samuel Jones in London patented his "Promethean matches," which were glass capsules of sulfuric acid coated with potassium chlorate and rolled in paper. To light these matches, the capsule was crushed with a pair of pliers, which would permit the chemicals to combine and ignite. As you may imagine, accidental ignition was a problem.

Matches specifically designed for lighting cigars first appeared as "fuzees" in 1832. The "wax vesta" was also introduced in 1832 and provided a wax stem embedded with threads of cotton with a tip of phosphorus.

Interestingly, at least one tobacconist tried manufacturing chemical matches for his own shop. In 1849, a tobacco store called The Lighthouse, located in London, produced matches, which were available in two types. The first was called the "Euperion," most widely used as kitchen matches, and the other was often referred to as the "Vesuvian," a large match for outdoor use, it's handle of hardwood quite large and meant to burn for a considerable time. Both matches utilized a bulb of sulfuric acid that had to be broken to start the chemical reaction, resulting in flame.

The friction match was superior to chemical matches that required bulbs and acid, though with many problems of their own. John Walker, a chemist in England, developed the first in 1826 and used antimony sulfide, but didn't patent his formula, and sold only a few dozen. They came with sandpaper to provide the friction, they smelled bad, and when striking them the resulting fireball might stay in the vicinity of the match head, or it might go for the drapes or couch; one needed a gambler's constitution to use early friction matches.

For pipe smokers, at least for a time, the best way to light up was with a spill, which is a thin strip of wood that may be ignited in a lamp or fireplace and used to transfer flame to the pipe.

Sir Isaac Holden improved on Walker's version in 1839 with what would become known as Lucifer matches, nicknamed so because of the unholy stench generated upon lighting them, their billowing sulfurous smoke, and the likelihood with their use of furnishings and abodes being engulfed in flames from careening fireballs. Holden didn't patent his improvement, but Lucifers became more popular until 1830, when Charles Sauria substituted antimony sulfide with white phosphorus. These matches were more stable but still had a tendency to light whenever they felt like it, with or without friction, and had to be stored in metal tins to avoid spontaneous combustion.

As you may imagine, matches became extraordinarily popular. By 1850, 250 million matches a day were purchased in Great Britain alone. They were a convenience long overdue, and through the 1890s the formula changed little. It wasn't until it became widely known that people were dying to make matches that changes were incorporated, but it took a long while.

There was enough white phosphorus in a single pack of matches to kill an adult, and the factory workers who manufactured the labor-saving devices suffered a great deal. A single worker could manufacture 10 million matches in a 14-hour shift. They worked hard, were paid little, and their population was comprised mainly of women. Forty percent of them were between the ages of 14 and 18.

Those exposed to phosphorus on a regular basis developed a malady called "phossy jaw," which was the common name given to phosphorus necrosis of the jaw. It was a bone-degenerative disease that started with unremitting toothaches and swollen gums. The first bones to be affected were in the lower jaw, and sections of bone would die and rot, emitting a foul odor and contributing to eventual organ failure. The only recourse was to remove the lower jaw. Spookily, bones affected could be distinguished because they glowed in the dark.

A Match Factory Worker with Phossy Jaw

The first case of phossy jaw was in 1839 and struck a young woman in Vienna working in a matchstick factory. By 1844, 22 cases had been revealed, all related to matchstick manufacture. Manufacturers were soon aware of the dangers to their workers. Red phosphorus was safer than the white phosphorus used in matches, but white phosphorus was cheaper, and labor was easy to replace, so no changes were instituted. It was the Industrial Revolution and the pursuit of profit was more important than human lives, just like today. After match manufacturers became aware of phossy jaw, when a worker complained of toothaches, that worker was given a choice of having their teeth removed or being fired.

Working conditions were appalling, the pay was very low, and workers were lucky to take home a reasonable percentage even of that because they were constantly fined for such things as an untidy workbench, or a burnt match at their station, or dirty feet, even though shoes were a luxury unaffordable for many, and they were additionally responsible for purchasing their own manufacturing materials.

Workers staged strikes in Great Britain three times, and none of those strikes was successful. When a weekly newspaper published an article in 1888 about the dangerous conditions and poor wages, the manufacturer Bryant & May tried to coerce its workforce to sign a document refuting the facts, but workers refused. That attempt was counterproductive and so angered employees that 10,000 matchstick makers, mostly young women between 14-20, again marched in protest.

With the public more informed and involved this time, they won several important concessions at last. They would no longer be fined for insignificant reasons, would no longer be responsible for the expense of their own materials, grievances were permitted submission directly to management instead of to foremen, who had an interest in keeping complaints to a minimum, and meals were accommodated away from the factory floor where phosphorus could poison workers' food.

We don't use matches a lot these days compared to the past, except for camping and pipe smoking. And there's something nostalgic about matches, and pipe smokers are sensitive to nostalgia.

Bryant & May, because of continuing negative portrayal in the news, changed manufacturing from white phosphorus to red phosphorus in 1901, more than 60 years after its dangers were first discovered, and in 1908 the use of white phosphorus in match making was prohibited by an act passed by the House of Commons. European matchmakers followed. The U.S. likewise outlawed white phosphorus matches in 1910. Matches from that point were relatively safe to manufacture.

We don't use matches a lot these days compared to the past, except for camping and pipe smoking. Many pipe enthusiasts prefer matches because they burn with less heat than butane lighters, offering a softer light and less potential damage to pipes. And there's something nostalgic about matches, and pipe smokers are sensitive to nostalgia. But on those occasions when we use these handy devices, we might take a moment to think about the people who helped us achieve the convenience and the sacrifices made. From planes and cars to toys and furnishings, consumer products have gone through evolutionary changes in safety and convenience, and matches are similar, despite representing one of the oldest and most important of all human technologies.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Materials Pipe Culture


    • Old Timer... on April 24, 2020
    • Great article...who knew the history of matches would be so interesting? I've always preferred matches for the pipe, although it's a little touch and go outdoors with even a gentle wind. Nicely done...

    • Kris Bona on April 25, 2020
    • For Prometheus, the price to pay for disobeying the Gods, was eternal suffering. For the industrial worker, who toiled at the mercy of his master, the price was, their one and only possession, life. What a cruel and merciless way to treat life? Thank the Gods for tobacco. Great article. Let there be light.

    • Smokey on April 26, 2020
    • Interesting piece on matches. I'm almost out of my favorite Ohio Blue Tips, hoarded some a while back. Always liked the colors. Something not mentioned in the piece was the biodegradable nature of wooden matches, much better than many other means of lighting a pipe. More on the current state of the match industry would be appreciated. Still, a very interesting and thought provoking piece.

    • Raff on April 26, 2020
    • As usual excellent. I read it to learn about matches and was gifted to learn of the true reasons for alien behavior. I continue to chuckle as I write this. Well done!

    • Mtvernon on April 26, 2020
    • Mr. Stanion, you have a rare and cherished talent for expression. All the articles here are worth reading, but I admit I get a little excited when I see you in the byline. Always informative, always genial, always well done.

    • Robert Smotherman on April 26, 2020
    • If you hate humans so much why do you think so highly of yourself? Calling humans "jerks" like you did tells that you think you are superior to humans yet you are the same, that means you are only a hypocrite at best.

    • Robert Smotherman on April 26, 2020
    • Not that I know you think that people are "jerks" I'll but my tobacco and pipes from another company.

    • PipeSmokingDeputy423 on April 26, 2020
    • Very well written essay on matches. I learned a lot of things I did not know about matches. I usually use some type of butane lighter, since I mostly smoke outside, but I prefer matches when the wind is calm.

    • Al on April 26, 2020
    • Oh-oh, someone has a case of the Sundays and doesn't get sarcasm.

      Fascinating article. I'm a confirmed match-man. Once I learned to light a pipe with a match, tongue burn disappeared. For me, there's no going back to the lighter.

    • Jody Shealy on April 26, 2020
    • Great article on another slow day. Thanks:)

    • Tom Doss III on April 26, 2020
    • Mr. Smotherman should read more closely. The author stated that the “aliens thought we , the human race were jerks”. Smokingpipes probably won’t miss

    • Spencer Bialobrzeski on April 26, 2020
    • Thanks for another excellent article, Chuck.

    • Frits Beijes on April 26, 2020
    • Except for the great historical content of your article, I now know why, in the Netherlands, we still call our matches "lucifers". Thank you!

    • Joe Thornton on April 26, 2020
    • Excellent article! I really enjoy your writing and look forward to many more pieces.

    • A. M. on April 26, 2020
    • Very interesting article. I enjoyed the bits of humor, too.

    • Earth Defender on April 26, 2020
    • I have learned that a certain overly sensitive fellow is an under cover alien attempting to undermine the razor sharp perception of people like the author of this article. Beware! They are preparing to invade Earth and the only thing they want is Earth’s stocks of briar!

    • garry james mccluskey on April 26, 2020
    • That article was very informative. It was so interesting. Thanks for putting it here.

    • Josh on April 26, 2020
    • Yet another thoughtful, humorous, and well written article Chuck. I always look forward to getting and reading these emails. Keep them coming.

    • Mark on April 26, 2020
    • Add me to the list of those who enjoyed this article’s information, history, and dash of humor thrown in for good measure. I have always liked matches for many purposes, not the least of which is lighting a pipe, but now I will appreciate them even more, although I now know their development caused more a great deal more suffering than I was aware of.

    • Howard R. Houck on April 26, 2020
    • Comprehensive, well-researched, accurate, informative, entertaining: a good essay. As a footnote, I commend the remarkable film "Quest for Fire" [Canadian-French, 1981]. That takes the evolutionary story back 80,000 years.

    • travis on April 26, 2020
    • put on your mask and social distance from the keyboard if reading is un-fundamental...leave us jerks out of this

    • Jerry Burns on April 27, 2020
    • Pure enjoyment. 😇

    • Victor G on April 27, 2020
    • Nice article - looking forward to the next one

    • Wayne F on April 27, 2020
    • Very interesting article. Thank you

    • Tom in Joshua Tree on April 27, 2020
    • I collect early matches and have studied this subject for forty years.
      The information is not fully correct. For instance, "The Light House" was Samuel Jones's factory and place of business where he first named "Lucifers". Flamers and Vesuvians did not have bulb of acid ignition method. Only Jones's Prometheans had this feature. Congreves are more appropriate successors to the Walker formulation and then the beginning of the American match industry that began around 1835 with the Phillips patent in 1836.
      Resources for the article would be appreciated... Thx..

    • nathan meek on April 27, 2020
    • Very much enjoyed the match article. Informative on the history of matches -had no idea that so many people suffered in its early years of inception. Its really tragic. The article gives me a new appreciation for the match, and I do believe the match is the way to go when lighting a pipe. I have found that the lighters leave a residual taste altering the tobacco and diminishing the optimal smoking pleasure. Large kitchen matches work great for lighting the pipe.

    • John Biven on May 6, 2020
    • Good article. The first bit is very humerus, and the history is interesting. Keep up the good work.

    • Tom S. on July 8, 2020
    • I stopped using matches when I stopped smoking indoors.Oh, and Mr. Smotherman; grow up.

    • azure certificationmicrosoft azure certificationazure trainingazure learningmicrosoft azure training on August 6, 2020
    • Thanks for this wonderful and amazing in-depth technical knowledge. I have learnt a lot from thisMicrosoft Azure CertificationsAzure TrainingMicrosoft Azure Trainingazure certification microsoft azure certification azure trainingazure learningmicrosoft azure training microsoft certification trainingazure certification trainingms azure certification azure course

    • Mick on April 14, 2023
    • Perhaps you will extend this discussion on matchbooks to elaborate on the commercialism of the matchbook covers by industry and politicians. Thank you.

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