Safety Matches - a Story of Light and Dark Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Safety Matches - a Story of Light and Dark

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Someone holding a lit match.
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.
While you've a Lucifer to light your fag1,
Smile, boys, that's the style....

So sang British soldiers marching to war in both World Wars2. A Lucifer3 was a type of match, now no longer available, remembered only in the song and probably by matchbox collectors. Given that they contained poisonous phosphorus, preserved with sugar and that several children died each year from sucking them, it is just as well.

Matches are basically chemically treated sticks that burst into flames when struck. Today, around 500 billion matches are used every year, with around 200 billion from matchbooks. So, how did it all begin?

First Light

We don't exactly know when humans first started making fire by rubbing sticks together, followed by fire-making by using flint and steel. The Greeks told that Prometheus brought fire from the Gods. We do know rather more about the history of matches, though.

Sticks with sulphur at one or both ends were originally used to get fires going which had already started and the largest were used to light chandeliers. Sometimes, lengths of thick cotton or flax dipped in sulphur were also used.

In 1680, an Irishman named Robert Boyle discovered that if you rubbed phosphorus and sulphur together, they would instantly burst into flames. He had discovered the principle that was the precursor of the modern match.

Following this discovery, various other methods were tried. Some involved using gaseous hydrogen, but all were cumbersome and dangerous.

Strikeable Matches

The next discovery was by an Englishman. In 1827 a pharmacist called John Walker produced 'sulphuretted peroxide strikeables,' which were a yard long4, and then developments followed reasonably quickly. John Walker's invention was copied by Samuel Jones5 of the Strand, and it was Jones who first sold it as a Lucifer, in around 1829.

  • There was a rather dangerous match invented in 1828 called a Promethean. It had a small glass bulb with sulphuric acid, and the bulb was coated with potassium chlorate, sugar and gum, wrapped in a paper spill. You break the glass bulb with your teeth to 'strike' this match. Charles Darwin used it and was much taken by it.

  • In 1832, small phosphorus matches were manufactured in Germany; they were extremely hazardous. They could ignite with a series of explosions that scattered dangerous bits of fire over the carpet. They would also explode when trodden upon, which increased the danger of having them around.

  • In 1836, a patent was registered in the United States by Alonzo D Phillips for the manufacturing of friction matches called 'Loco focos.' A Loco-foco (supposed to mean 'self-lighting') was originally a self-igniting cigar patented in New York in 1834 (and probably the original exploding cigar). It then became applied to the Lucifer match. It was later applied to a political party, the Democrats, after an incident at a party meeting in 1835 at which opponents of the radical element within the party turned out the gas lights, but the radicals promptly produced candles which they lit with loco-focos.

  • In 1855, a Swede, Johan Edvard Lundström produced the first red phosphorus 'safety' matches, following the discovery of amorphous (red) phosphorus in 1845 by Anton von Schroetter. The safety match had been invented by fellow Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch, a professor in chemistry. The safety aspect was that the match did not contain all the elements for combustion. This was achieved by a chemical reaction between the match head and the striking surface6. Red phosphorus was first manufactured in quantity by the firm Albright in Birmingham, England, from 1851.

  • Book matches were invented by Joshua Pusey, an American, in 1889, after he wondered why they had to be so bulky. Interestingly they didn't take off until the Mendelssohn Opera Company used them to advertise their opening night and suddenly everyone wanted them. Matchbooks are still used to advertise such things as restaurants and they are available from some outlets with your personal details on them.

  • For more information on how matches are made see BBC Science Shack and Matches.

Strike! - the Human Cost of Early Match Production

While most people will have heard the touching story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, it is perhaps less well known that factory workers producing matches suffered health hazards. Workers (mostly women) suffered phossy jaw, a type of bone cancer, caused by the phosphorus they worked with. The sides of their faces turned green and then black and discharged a foul-smelling pus, before they died. Young girls carrying boxes of matches on their heads were bald by age 15.

In England, 1400 match-girls working for the firm Bryant & May went on strike about pay and health conditions in 1888 following the involvement of social reformer Annie Besant. The British Government had refused to legislate against the use of yellow phosphorus as it would be 'in restraint of trade', despite it being banned in Sweden and the USA.

The publicity that ensued caused a furore and influential people including the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army and George Bernard Shaw lent their support. The match-girls formed a Union and the company agreed to improve conditions and to do away with a punitive fine system7. (Workers were fined for such things as talking, going to the lavatory without permission and coming in late.)

The Salvation Army opened its own match factory in 1891 using red phosphorus and paying better wages. Bryant & May phased out the use of yellow phosphorus by 1901.

Match Facts

  • A match was originally a length of wick or cord which burned at a steady rate and was used to fire cannons. It also meant a spill used as secondary tinder in the days of the tinderbox.

  • Sweden is now the biggest producer of matches in the world.

  • The world's only Match Museum is in Jönköping, Sweden.

  • Early matches (before 1830) were made by hand and a good worker could produce 4-5000 match sticks per hour.

  • One match company director, Ivar Kreuger, of the Svenska Tändsticks Aktiebolaget, STAB (Swedish Match Company) tried to establish a monopoly by buying up companies and closing them down and using intimidatory tactics on competitors. He granted loans to 17 countries and established 250 factories in 17 non-European countries. He granted a loan of $125m to Germany in 1930, which wasn't paid back until 1983, in return for a monopoly. The tax raised to pay this back was called the 'Zündwarensteuer,' or tax on lighting materials. He came to a sticky end in the Depression and nobody knows whether he was murdered or whether he committed suicide.

  • During World War II, a match box produced by the Diamond Match Company gave instructions to French Resistance fighters on how to derail a train!

  • Match boxes and match books are now collectable with the rarest fetching many times their original value.

  • There is a debate as to whether match box collectors should be known as 'philopytists' or 'phillumenists'. Other suggestions have been 'Matchonians', 'Labellists' and 'Philophosists'. Does anyone care?

  • Croydon Caving Club state that matches can be effectively waterproofed by dipping the tips in molten wax and then shaking off the excess and using an emery board as a striker.

  • Pipe Smoker of the Year for 1999, inventor of the clockwork radio, Trevor Baylis OBE reckoned that he had used a box of Swan Vesta matches8 (average contents 85) each day for 49 years - a staggering 1,520,225 matches.

  • According to one edition of the game Trivial Pursuit, the safety phrase 'Close cover before striking' is the most printed phrase in the English language. The phrase is on matchbooks and matchboxes.

1A fag is a slang word for a cigarette.2'Pack up your troubles', 1915, is by George Asaf (1880-1951).3Lucifer was the Angel of Light before he fell.4A yard is three feet, or 91.44 cm.5 John Walker refused to patent his invention, despite being urged to by business associates. He could have been a millionaire, but he is reputed to have said 'If they want to have them, they can have 'em'.6Although if you find a match without its striking surface you can light it if you have a smooth surface (eg glass) if you put your finger over the head. There is enough heat produced to make a light. You need to be careful not to burn your finger, though!7This was the first successful strike by unorganised workers and this helped inspire the formation of other unions throughout the country.8Swan Vestas (named after Vesta, goddess of the hearth) are advertised as Britain's favourite match.

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